Natasha Mozgovaya at Haaretz
Five days ahead of the leftist pro-Israeli lobby J Street’s first National Conference in Washington, D.C., the controversies continue to mount. The Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren refuses to attend the conference, despite the open letter issued by the organization’s Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami; but over the weekend the lobby took one more step to appease critics.
The poetry session, featuring three artists – Kevin Coval, Tracy Soren and Josh Healey, scheduled as part of the “Culture as a Tool for Change” track, was canceled. Apparently, the event was nixed following a reminder by a conservative blogger that Healey, a Jewish activist and poet, compared Guantanamo prison to Auschwitz.
J-Street’s Ben-Ami issued the following explanation: “As a matter of principle, J Street respects the dissenting voice that poetry can represent in society and politics. We acknowledge that expression and language are used differently in the arts and artistic expression when compared to their use in political argumentation. Nevertheless, as J Street is critical of the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and metaphors by politicians and pundits on the right, it would be inappropriate for us to feature poets at our Conference whose poetry has used such imagery in the past and might also be offensive to some conference participants.”
Paul Mirengoff at Powerline:
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, will not attend next week’s J Street conference. Instead, a lower-level member of the embassy staff will be sent to watch and report on the event.
This makes sense. One of the purposes of an embassy is to monitor the activities of a nation’s adversaries in the host country.
And there will be much for the lucky embassy staffer to report about. As Lenny Ben-David notes, Stephen Walt, co-author of the venomous The Israel Lobby, recently described the J Street gambit as “a key moment in the debate; it will be important whether Obama gets enough cover from J Street and the Israel Policy Forum so Obama can say, ‘AIPAC is not representative of the American Jewish community.'”
The staffer will be unable, however, to report on the poetry session J Street had scheduled. That session was to include Josh Healey, who has questioned whether “the chosen people” have been “chosen to recreate our own history merely reversing the roles, with the script now reading that we’re the ones writing numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza.”
But J Street cancelled the poetry session when word got out. A disappointed Healey reported that J Street “explained [to him] that they are playing the game — Washington politics, and seeking legitimacy. And they are not willing to fight this battle.”
But we don’t have to take Healey’s word for the fact that J Street pulled the plug on him for cosmetic reasons, not out of any disagreement with his view that Israel is evil. A key J Street member, Henry Siegman, has compared Israel to apartheid South Africa.
Finally, the Israeli embassy staffer will want to follow the money. Approximately 10 percent of J Street’s money is said to come from Muslim and Arab donors. Some of the donors are connected to organizations doing Palestinian and Iranian issue advocacy.
But then J Street itself is doing Iranian issue advocacy. Ben-David points out that it opposes sanctions against Iran.
Let’s hope that the staffer brings a thick note pad.
From what I know, Oren is definitely not attending the J Street conference, and I believe that his decision has more to do with Washington Jewish politics than it does with his boss’s predispositions. AIPAC is the big player in pro-Israel advocacy in Washington; J Street very self-consciously established itself as the left-wing alternative to AIPAC. It’s a zero-sum game, and it’s understandable bureaucratically why AIPAC would object to Michael Oren’s appearance at J Street, even if he went to the conference to yell at them (a possibility that is precluded by Shimon Peres’s blessing of J Street’s mission. Man, is this inside Jewish baseball, or what?)
In any case, in the best of all possible worlds, Michael Oren would go to J Street and say whatever’s on his mind. He has, indeed, spoken to left-wing groups already, but J Street is in a different, problematic class. If, in the coming years, J Street becomes the go-to address for pro-Israel advocacy (or two-state-solution-advocacy) or if AIPAC vanishes, then I’m sure the Israeli ambassador will attend. Until then, I can imagine AIPAC putting up a hard fight each year.
UPDATE: Josh Block, the AIPAC spokesman, just called to tell me that his organization had nothing to do with Oren’s decision. He said AIPAC “doesn’t give the Israelis advice” on who they should speak to or not speak to.
And more Goldberg:
This debate is very much about J Street, an organization about which I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I come out of a left-Zionism tradition — Hashomer Hatzair, for those of you keeping score at home — and I believe in a two-state solution, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, more-or-less the whole program. So I’m comfortable in many ways with J Street’s basic worldview. On the other hand, I don’t think the group has put forward a well-articulated vision of what a progressive Jewish democratic Israel should look like. This might be because, in addition to having progressive Zionists as members, it also has anti-Zionists (these are the types who are happy with Stephen Walt’s tragic endorsement of the group) and it’s obviously very hard to put forward a positive vision of a Jewish Israel when some of your important supporters — Bernard Avishai comes to mind — don’t even believe in the idea of a Jewish state.
But it is inaccurate and Jewishly wrong for J Street’s right-leaning political adversaries to argue that the group as a whole represents some sort of manifestation of Jewish self-hatred. I have very serious doubts about the willingness of Arabs to make peace with the Jewish state, but I also know that certain Israeli policies make the cause of compromise even more difficult. It’s not self-hatred to acknowledge the obvious: That the settlement movement, and its supporters, overemphasize the sanctity of land in Jewish theology, and neglect other aspects of Judaism. Land, love, social justice, an intolerance of idolatry, the law as a whole, abhorrence of cruelty — all these things together make up Judaism. (This is why a balanced Jewish life is so hard to master.) It is unfair to call a Jew a self-hater simply because he’d rather see Hebron under Arab rule than an Israel that, in keeping Hebron under Jewish rule, betrays other Jewish values.
Jennifer Rubin in Commentary:
J Street, like the Communist Chinese trying to clear the streets before the Olympics pulls into town, has been trying to remove the most embarrassing participants from its conference. One of those who got the boot is the poet Josh Healy, the author of Queer Intifada who compared Guantanamo to Auschwitz.
So let’s be clear: J Street needs to become respectable so as to gain a foothold in Washington. Ah, could be a problem for a group positioning itself as pro-Israel but whose positions invariably line up so neatly with the Palestinian propaganda machine. What to do, what to do? Well, maybe dump the wackiest of the speakers – since they’ll give away the conference as an Israel-bashing fest. (How long will panelist Kevin Coval, who declared Israel a “whore” and expressed his own desire to “kick Joe Lieberman in the face,” last?)
The name of the game here is, as J Street candidly explained, to construct an artifice of legitimacy, to clean out the riffraff and make it appear as though J Street really is a pro-Israel group that just wants what’s best for the Jewish state. Now it’s true it’s definition of what’s good for the Jewish state in no way matches up with the views of even reliably liberal American Jews or Israelis themselves. But really, would you doubt the sincerity and question the legitimacy of the group that invited Healy and Coval, not to mention Muslim Public Affairs Council executive director and 9-11 truther Salam Al-Marayati?
J Street’s contributions from the heads of the Arab American Institute and Iranian lobby NIAC have been documented in these pages. They serve on J Street’s Finance Committee which has a minimum requirement of $10,000. As research continues in the files of various federal agencies, we found that the interlocking relations continue into the second tiers as well.
Take for example, the case of Rebecca Abou-Chedid. She appears in the federal elections records as contributing to J Street’s PAC. Her occupation is listed as “consultant” for “USUS LLC.” But until recently, she was also the national political director at the Arab American Institute where she “was responsible for formulating AAI’s positions on foreign policy … and represented the Arab American community with Congress as well as the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and State.” Today, Abou-Chedid is the director of outreach at the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force.
J Street co-founder and Advisory Council member Daniel Levy serves as co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, an institute that benefits from George Soros’ largess and membership on its board.
Heads of other pro-Arab organizations, such as AMIDEAST, and Arab foreign agents are contributors to the PAC. But Mr. Ben-Ami claims that no organizations or foreign governments contribute. They don’t need do; their representatives do.
Bottom line: J Street is neither pro-Israel nor pro-peace and it has no business calling itself a ‘Jewish organization.’
MJ Rosenberg at Huffington Post:
You will notice that nowhere in Lenny Ben-David’s post is there any accusation that Rebecca has taken any sort of objectionable stand or made any sort of objectionable point. And that’s because it is impossible to do so. I would wager that every journalist in Washington who writes on Middle East peace issues has had some interaction with Rebecca, as has every Hill staffer and innumerable current and former administration officials. Every single one of us will attest that Rebecca is incapable of ill will toward the Jewish people or toward Israel. Her entire professional life is devoted to peace, reconciliation, and two states. I have repeatedly marveled at how good natured she can be. Many has been the time I have felt that I’ve been too dour or pessimistic about peace in her presence, because Rebecca lives it. Anyone who has spent any time with her, any time at all, knows how true this is. And any person or organization that would disrespect her is not sincerely interested in peace.
All Ben-David does, like the cowardly racist he is, is point out that Rebecca has worked for the Arab-American Institute and now works for New America. Oh, and there’s that matter of her Lebanese name, of course. What he is trying to do is simple: scare Jews into tribal and atavistic fear against an organization that says, proudly, peace for Israel, the Palestinians and the region is in everyone’s interest. There is nothing more than that in his piece — nothing at all. It’s not the organization with support from Rebecca that has to answer for something. The organization that doesn’t have her support has to explain itself.
We Jews in this country frequently demand that our Arab-American fellow citizens denounce the radical and racist fringe in their midst. Yet they show more fortitude in doing so than we do when we’re faced with a Lenny Ben-David, someone who once worked for the premiere Israel-U.S. lobby group and even for the Israeli embassy. Every Jew who knows Rebecca — knows the goodness in her heart and her soul and the relentlessness with which she works to make peace a reality — must denounce Lenny Ben-David. I’ll go first, and very eagerly:
Lenny Ben-David, you and I will meet someday, face to face. I hope it comes very soon. I promise you it will be an unforgettable experience.
There are many Arabs in Israel and America. Why is merely being an Arab some kind of mark against someone contributing to a lobby seeking a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian stalemate? And why is it in any way relevant what the ethnic origins of any contributor is? The racist tribalism behind this kind of argument is surely part of the problem, not the solution.
Michael Goldfarb at TWS:
Another congressman has pulled his name from J Street’s host committee — Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-CA). Bilbray’s office called THE WEEKLY STANDARD last night to say they were dropping their support for the event, bringing the total number of congressmen to bail to a dozen even. I’ve spoken with staffers for most of these members, and all of them had pretty much the same story. They signed up their bosses when they were told the group was “pro-Israel” and that nothing — not even an appearance — would be expected of the member himself. As these members found out who the speakers at this conference were, as they found out the positions this group supports (against sanctions on Iran and for engagement with Hamas), they took their names off the list.
Last night I went to the annual conference of the National Jewish Democratic Council — the Democratic equivalent of the Republican Jewish Coalition. I had the chance while I was there to speak with a number of congressmen and leaders of the Jewish left. Some defended J Street. Rep. John Yarmuth (D-KY) said that while he was “not going to defend every speaker,” he did “think it presents a different position.” Of course, he admitted that position was not his own. “I actually support sanctions on Iran,” Yarmuth said.
Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME) was also happy to be on J Street’s list. “They’ve been a supporter of mine,” she said, and that’s good enough for the congresswoman from Maine. When told that one of the keynote speakers at the event had blamed Israel for the 9/11 attacks, Pingree said “I definitely would look into that–that sounds a little bit harsh to me.” You think?
And then there was Senator Bob Casey. He’s on the J Street list, and yet he has no idea what J Street is. When I asked him whether his serving on the host committee should be construed as an endorsement of either the organization or its positions, he looked like a deer in the headlights. He was not ducking the question, he had just never heard of J Street before. “It’s possible that our staff has done something about it that I’m not aware of,” Casey said. But when pressed on the actual issues, Casey knew exactly what he was talking about. Casey noted that he is a “cosponsor of one of the leading bills [Lieberman-Bayh-Kyl] moving forward with sanctions,” and he said that U.S. divestment in Iran is “critically important.” If it’s so critically important, why did Casey’s staff add his name to the host committee for an organization that opposes sanctions?
UPDATE: Jeffrey Goldberg‘s interview with Ben-Ami