A new documentary sheds light on an organization that wants to help Israel, whether it wants it or not.
A new film dealing about J Street exposes the movement’s hostility to the very idea of a Jewish national State · J Street’s activities include support for Iran, condemnation of IDF operations and doubting the very right of the Jews to a state · All generously supported by anti-Israel groups, including pro-Arab lobbies established in Washington, DC · A litany of Israel-hatred hides behind the façade of peace
The J Street Challenge is a new documentary about the controversial organization established in 2008. The organization, known for even inviting Israeli politicians to its conferences, causes much consternation in Israel. For instance, before J Street’s Annual conference in 2013, MK Tzahi Hanegbi was harshly criticized by the ‘Im Tirtzu’ organization for his agreement to sit on one of J Street’s panels.
The movie sheds light on the organization, documenting its conduct and goals, the identity of its donors, as well as a variety of quotes from its founders and members. The movie includes interviews with academics and journalists, including Harvard Professors Alan Dershowitz and Ruth Weiss, Boston University Professor Richard Landes, Caroline Glick from the Jerusalem Post, Dr. Daniel Gordis, Noah Pollack and others. In the spirit of pluralism and open discussion, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami refused to be interviewed.
To me, the film’s primary importance stems from the fact that an entire stream of Jews is willing to give up Zionism if the latter does not measure up to their universalist principles, which are dearer to them than anything else – including Israel itself.
Donors and Activity
One of the main forces behind the founding of J Street is the Hungarian born Jewish-American billionaire George Soros. Who is Soros?
Let’s mention but one of his more infamous statements. At a Jewish forum in New York on 5 February, 2003, he said as follows:
“There is a resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe. The policies of the Bush administration and the Sharon administration contribute to that”
This is, then, the very image of a radical leftist, with the familiar whiff of Jewish self-hatred about him.
It should therefore come as no shock that J Street did its best to hide Soros’ contributions, until a Washington Times investigation clearly documented them. For Soros, establishing J Street was important to fight anti-Semitism: by his lights, if a humanist and pacifist voice is heard, Jews will be hated less.
Unfortunately, Soros is far from being an extreme case among an otherwise moderate group of supporters. The list includes Lebanese-American businessman Richard Abdoo, Genevieve Lynch of the National Iranian American Council, Consolacion Ediscul, a Phillipine businesswoman from Hong Kong who gave no less than $800,000, Mehmet Celebi, who funded of the anti-Semitic Turkish Film “Valley of the Wolves,” among others. If the identity of these donors to an organization that describes itself as “pro-Israel” seems suspect, J Street’s own positions and actions leave no room for doubt.
At the end of 2008, when the Israeli government decided to respond to the continuous firing of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory, J Street immediately announced that the IDF must stop. The organization opposes a military strike against Iran or even tightening the sanctions against it. On June 2009, Jeremy Ben-Ami published along with Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, an article in the Huffington Post in which they objected to sanctions against Iran. On February 2010, J Street organized a delegation to Israel along with ‘Churches for Middle East Peace’, some of whose members are active in BDS campaigns. On July 2010, the organization supported the establishment of the controversial ‘Ground Zero’ mosque.
On November 2011, a member of the J Street executive (she has since left), Kathleen Paretis, met with the Hamas leadership in Gaza. Paretis later joined the BDS movement in 2013 – a sign of the kind people J Street attracts. In November 2012, J Street pressured congressmen not to vote for a law imposing sanctions on the Palestinian authority, if it decided to use its status as a “state” in the UN to indict Israel at the International Criminal Court in the Hague. In January 2013, J Street held a special evening in honor of IDF soldiers who refused orders and in March 2013, J Street acted in Congress to prevent the condemnation of the PA for incitement against Israel. J Street even appointed Chuck Hagel for the position of Secretary of Defense, even though he was known for having negative views about Israel and its share of the blame in the conflict.
The list of speakers invited to J Street’s annual conference is also revealing. The 2011 conference included BDS activists Rebecca Vilkomerson and Mustafa Bargouthi (the latter participated in the 2009 Gaza flotilla), and radical left-wing attorney Michael Sfard. The 2011 conference also gave special place to Sarah Beninga, a BDS activist and one of the heads of ‘Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity.’
The movie doesn’t just document the list of speakers at the conference, it also interviewed people in the audience – with very interesting results. “Do you think Hamas is a terrorist organization?”, one of the participants was asked. “Not more than the IDF itself,” she answered. Medea Benjamin, another participant, spoke to the camera on the importance of the UN decision “against the settlements.” It turned out she’s also a BDS activist.
As Daniel Gordis told a J Street delegation in May 2011: “You all know that the BDS movement opposes the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. So why did you invite them to your annual conference? There needs to be a limit to who you let inside your tent. You need to show us that Israel is more important to you than dialogue with Israel’s enemies.”
Founders and Intentions
In fact, J Street was founded to impose, via the Obama administration, the solution that the Israeli left has failed to sell the general public since collapse of the Oslo Accords. The founder and head of J Street is Jeremy Ben-Ami, as already mentioned. His grandparents were among the founders of Tel Aviv and his father was active in the Etzel. But Ben-Ami himself was raised and educated in the US; he lived in Israel for three years, worked for the New Israel Fund and then went back to the states. Ben-Ami’s partner in founding the organization is Daniel Levy, a British Jew who also lived in Israel during the heady “peace years” of the 1990s, and was even active in the Oslo negotiations and in promoting the Geneva initiative.
As Ben-Ami said in the movie: “We want this conflict to end!” and as Daniel Gordis asked: “Like we, the Israelis, who live here and send our children to the army, enjoy the conflict?” For Ben-Ami and Levy the answer is “yes,” or to be more precise: the Israelis may not enjoy the conflict per se, but they lack the courage and intelligence to make the necessary choices to bring peace to the Middle East. Therefore the State of Israel needs braver and more intelligent Jews to “help them.”
Ben-Ami and Levy were in Israel during the failed attempts to make peace with the PLO, went back abroad, and decided to convince the decision makers in Washington to impose on Israel the arrangement they didn’t get at Camp David and Taba. Two statements by Ben-Ami reveal his goals. First, they need to influence American decision makers: “Our interest is to free our leaders” (from “obedience” to AIPAC which prevents the peace they’re trying to impose). Second, they need to influence Israeli decision makers: “We’re trying to change the direction of a state whose government is leading it off a cliff.”
The Anti-Zionist Dilemma
What should happen then, if the conflict turns out to be absolutely insoluble? Let’s say even J Street, which defended every single “no” given by Palestinian leaders since 2000, comes to the conclusion that establishing a Palestinian State will not end the conflict, and the true dilemma will be between an existential conflict and giving up the only Jewish State in the world? What will J Street choose?
One of the intervewees, a young and enthusiastic J Street activist, has a simple answer to this difficult question: “I just have to believe that peace is possible.” But Daniel Levy takes this bull by the horns: “If we’re wrong, and if a collective Jewish presence in the Middle East can only survive because of the sword, if we can’t get recognition, and if they hate us not because of what we do but because of who we are, then if so, then apparently Israel isn’t a good idea.”
In other words, if it does turn out even to J Street that the very existence of a Jewish national state requires an unending struggle, than the whole thing isn’t worth it. If Zionism can’t match up with the values that Ben-Ami and Levy define as “Jewish”, then there must be a problem with Zionism itself. This is why Ben-Ami often quotes Peter Beinart: “We can’t teach our children to give up Jewish values for Zionism.”
Both Jeremy Ben-Ami and Daniel Levy left Israel after they failed to impose an “eternal peace” on the Middle East. They figure that if you’re going to experiment with human lives, better to do it in the safe comfort Washington or London, and not near the cafes and buses that might at any moment demonstrate the difference between utopia and reality.
Dr. Emmanuel Navon is head of the Political Science and Communications Department at the Haredi College in Jerusalem, lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University and IDC, and a Senior Fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum
English translation by Avi Woolf.