How Far Is J Street Willing to Go?

Its annual conference has become a space for left-wing criticism of Israel, but the organization remains cautious.

Arianna Skibell
November 6, 2019
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami addresses the organization's annual national conference in Washington, October 28th, 2019. Photo: jstreetdotorg via Flickr

OF THE TEN Democratic White House hopefuls who spoke at or sent videos to J Street’s national conference, which wrapped up last week, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg were the only ones to publicly support conditioning US foreign military aid to Israel as a tactic to oppose, or at least mitigate, the occupation. The discrepancy between these candidates’ position and the others’—expressed in less decisive statements from Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Julián Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke (who has since ended his campaign), Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang—mirrors the ambivalence within J Street and its base about the organization’s own stance on conditioning aid. 

J Street, founded in 2007 as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” liberal Jewish organization, has dramatically shifted what the mainstream Jewish community considers acceptable discourse surrounding Israel/Palestine, helping to normalize the use of the words “Palestinian” and “occupation.” It created a space for liberal politicians and Jews to criticize the Israeli government without, for the most part, being labeled antisemitic. The group advocates for a two-state solution and denounces the occupation, settlement expansion, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to annex the West Bank. Roughly 4,000 people attended this year’s conference, which was the largest ever—an indication of J Street’s growing influence. The conference featured more than 60 different organizations spanning the political left, from the Israel Policy Forum to B’Tselem.

But in shifting the debate, J Street has also helped open up a significant space to its left. Progressive politicians and activists, whose voices have been elevated to the national stage, are pushing for radical changes to US-Israel relations. Many now question the viability of a two-state solution when the legal and militaristic machinery that enforces a one-state reality with a privileged class within the West Bank is becoming increasingly entrenched. Critics on the left worry that if J Street does not exert significant political will, it risks unintentionally reinforcing the status quo. 

“I’ve talked to a lot of progressive lawmakers who take their cues from what J Street does,” said Emily Mayer, a founding member of the anti-occupation Jewish activist group IfNotNow, who spoke on various panels at the conference. “I think [J Street has] a lot of room to move to the left and move people with them, and I don’t think they always take advantage of that space.” 

J Street advocates for a Palestininan state alongside an Israeli one, but some analysts say the window of opportunity for a two-state solution has closed. And there is a growing recognition that simply voicing support for two states without further explanation is no longer sufficient.

This criticism of J Street’s strategy was present at the conference itself. On the opening night, former Obama administration officials Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes, who host the podcast Pod Save The World, interviewed Mikhael Manekin, director of Alliance for Israel’s Future Fellowship. Manekin said Democrats who claim to support a two-state solution need to explain what that means to them. “Saying we want two states means so many different things to so many different candidates,” he told attendees. 

Rhodes agreed, arguing that saying you’re for a two-state solution “means nothing, it’s just something people say to sound reasonable.” 

Within the Democratic and progressive political establishment, Mayer told me, the conversation regarding Israel is “moving far and it’s moving fast . . . J Street has a responsibility to keep up.”

She noted that the Center for American Progress, the most influential Democratic Party-aligned think tank, has already explicitly endorsed placing conditions on the $3.8 billion Israel receives annually in military aid from the US as part of its recently issued recommendations for a “progressive policy alternative.” 

“One step [J Street] could take right now to keep up is to support the McCollum bill,” Mayer said, referring to H.R. 2407, the “Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occuptation Act,” which Rep. Betty McCollum, a Democrat, introduced earlier this year. The bill would amend the Foreign Assistance Act, also known as the Leahy Law, to curtail funding for military detention of children in any country, including Israel. The legislation would also authorize $19 million annually for NGOs to monitor human rights abuses and provide physical and emotional care for the 800 to 1,000 Palestinian children arrested, detained, interrogated, and prosecuted each year. 

“The distance between [J Street’s] legislative priorities and that bill is frankly too wide,” Mayer said. 

“US-Israel relations and the politics that surround them have been entrenched for a long time in absolute support for Israel, and Congresswoman Rep. McCollum wants Israel to be secure, but also wants human rights respected,” Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff, told me. Harper said members of the J Street board are having an internal debate about whether or not to support the bill. “And frankly we applaud that. This is an issue people are wrestling with,” he said. “There are forces and factions on both sides of this issue.”

McCollum sent a letter to J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami on June 4th seeking his endorsement of the bill. In a response sent almost two months later, Ben-Ami described his board’s internal deliberations. He wrote that J Street strongly opposes unique standards being applied to Israel, but also believes Israel must adhere to legal requirements placed on all recipients of taxpayer-funded military assistance. 

“While our Board of Directors has not yet made a decision on whether to support H.R. 2407, it is seized [sic] of the matter and has instructed our staff to engage in further research and consultations with relevant experts and stakeholders on this legislation and the critical issue it addresses,” Ben-Ami wrote. J Street Communications Director Logan Bayroff confirmed that this continues to be the organization’s position on the bill. 

At the conference, Ben-Ami told attendees that foreign aid to Israel is not intended to be a “blank check.” 

“Congress and the next administration, at a minimum, should take the necessary steps to gain visibility into how our assistance is being used . . . and to ensure that all existing laws regarding those uses are being followed,” he said. He did not elaborate on what he thinks those steps should be.

Bayroff told me that it’s fair to say that J Street has not coalesced around one specific bill or policy prescription to withdraw various mechanisms of US support for the occupation. “It’s also fair to say that we know that there’s over 12 months between now and when the next hopefully-not-Donald-Trump-president would take office,” he added. “There’s time between now and January 2021, and we want to see a strong conversation growing and evolving that puts forward a range of different policy propositions.” Bayroff said J Street is trying to encourage that conversation and wants to hear from various candidates and lawmakers. 

Some attendees and speakers feel a greater sense of urgency for action. Issa Amro, a Palestinian activist based in Hebron and a founding member of the group Youth Against Settlements, said he sees the conference as an opportunity to push advocates for a two-state solution in the direction of concrete policies that would make the occupation more of a political liability for Israel. “It’s not costly for Israel,” he said. “And when it becomes costly . . . I think a one-state or two-state solution will just be a matter of time.” 

But for the time being, J Street’s legislative priorities are elsewhere. Bayroff said the main advocacy priority for the day after the conference, when attendees had the opportunity to speak with congressional offices, was to push H.R. 326, which would put the House on record as supporting a two-state solution. Additionally, it would condemn any US plan that seeks to legitimize settlement expansion or West Bank annexation. Responding to criticism that the word “occupation” was removed from the language of the resolution, Bayroff said J Street would prefer to see Democratic lawmakers use that term, and added that J Street is currently petitioning the Democratic party to update its platform to reflect a commitment to end the occupation.

Many organizational representatives said that, even while there’s room to debate the efficacy of J Street’s particular priorities, they were grateful to the organization for creating a space on the left for discussion, connection, and education on an issue that has a tendency to raise people’s blood pressure. One panelist, Rawan Odeh, the managing director of New Story Leadership, told me that while J Street doesn’t always go as far as she and other Palestinians might prefer, it creates a forum for conversations that might not otherwise take place. “To even be able to criticize Israel and talk about the occupation, that’s new,” she said. Mayer echoed this point, noting that J Street “normalized” anti-occupation discourse and created a space for people to hear from all manner of activists.

Others are less sanguine about J Street’s ability to host truly open conversations. Several participants mentioned an anonymous open letter posted on Medium by a group of US-based Palestinians, which was circulating at the conference. The letter criticized the conference for excluding their viewpoints. “Despite our good faith engagement over many years,” the letter reads, “J Street dismisses our voices and our demands.” The authors take particular issue with J Street’s two-state approach, which they contend is driven by the fear that Palestinians outnumber Jews in the region. “In any other context,” they write, “fear of the growth of a particular population is considered racist.”

J Street, however, remains committed to both a two-state solution and US military aid. In a statement posted to the organization’s website on Monday, Ben-Ami affirmed that, despite the “energetic and long-needed discussion about the role that US assistance to Israel should play” that took place at the conference, J Street is not “call[ing] to reduce the level of US security assistance, or to ‘condition aid.’” He did reiterate that Washington has a right to assess how its aid is being used and said that the US “should not foot the bill for annexation” of the West Bank. 

Many progressives would be happy to see J Street go further. Recent polling by Data for Progress shows that 67% of Democratic voters would support reducing military aid to Israel based on human rights violations. While this is far from the position of most Democratic elected officials or donors, in the context of the ongoing presidential primary, the data suggests that candidates have room to be bold on this issue. The question is whether J Street will push them to be.

Arianna Skibell is a journalist based in Durham, NC. She currently writes about climate change for Politico.