J Street Goes on Offense, Carefully

For the first time, the liberal Jewish lobby is placing advocacy for restricting military aid to Israel front and center.

Mari Cohen
May 5, 2021
Bernie Sanders addresses the J Street conference in 2019, where he endorsed conditioning US military aid to Israel. Photo: Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA via AP Images

AT THE J STREET ANNUAL CONFERENCE on April 20th, Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the virtual stage and called for the United States to take “immediate steps” to push for peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. “If we’re serious about arresting settlement expansion and helping move the parties toward a two-state solution, then it would be irresponsible not to consider all of the tools we have at our disposal,” she said. “One of those is restricting military aid from being used in the occupied territories.” 

While there was no audience to applaud, the conference’s virtual chat lit up with approval. “We love aid restrictions!” wrote one attendee. “She’s got a plan for American pressure to end the occupation!” said another. In a session that evening, Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Alan Lowenthal, and Ro Khanna, as well as conference headliner Sen. Bernie Sanders, all echoed Warren’s appeal, calling for the US to ensure that its aid to Israel would not be used for occupation-entrenching projects like home demolitions and settlement expansion. 

This isn’t the first time that J Street, the liberal Jewish lobby that has advocated a two-state solution since its founding in 2007, has confronted US military aid’s role in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In 2019, J Street’s conference played host to a debate over whether the US should condition its aid on Israel ceasing certain human rights violations. The Democratic primary presidential candidates in attendance were asked whether they would consider conditioning aid; Sanders expressed his support for the tactic. But days later, J Street issued a statement clarifying that the group itself opposed either conditioning or reducing the $38 billion in aid that the US has pledged to send Israel between 2016 and 2026. J Street did indicate that it would be open to a more moderate strategy of restricting how that aid could be used: sending the full amount but ensuring that the money did not fund human rights abuses in the occupied territories. At the time, however, the group did not treat the issue as a priority. When Rep. Betty McCollum introduced bills in 2017 and 2019 to prohibit the use of US aid to fund the military detention of Palestinian children, J Street did not endorse them. 

But this year, for the first time, J Street is placing advocacy for restricting aid front and center. It has endorsed McCollum’s latest bill, which would ban US aid from supporting the military detention of Palestinian children or funding any actions that further entrench Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank. It also plans to lobby for the addition of aid-restricting language to foreign appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2022, according to the talking points it prepared for members meeting with lawmakers. J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami wants the group to “go on offense” on the issue, according to notes from a J Street staff meeting on April 20th obtained by Jewish Currents. “I feel like we’re making progress on our core arguments,” Ben-Ami told J Street’s senior staffers. “Our goal has been to mainstream this conversation and draw a distinction between condition and restriction. What if we go on offense, and challenge [people], ‘Why would you oppose this? Do you actually want your tax dollars paying for demolitions?’” 

In part, this new phase in J Street’s advocacy reflects a changing political environment. Israel’s rightward shift, and the alliance between Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have pushed more Americans—including American Jews—to take stances critical of Israel. When the Israel lobby AIPAC supported Trump and Netanyahu, liberals began to associate the group and its stances with the Republican Party, creating an opening for J Street to become an authoritative voice on Israel among Democrats. Meanwhile, the popularity of progressive legislators who are vocal about Palestinian rights—including Bernie Sanders and Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar—has expanded the space for anti-occupation policy in Congress. The idea of restricting aid has also become increasingly acceptable to the political mainstream: J Street’s 2020 election night poll of American Jews found that 57% supported restricting aid so it could not be used to further annexation. “I think J Street supporting this initiative does show a type of sea change, not just in terms of what that group is willing to publicly advocate for on the hill, but also about where the Democratic caucus is,” said a former J Street policy staffer who worked for the organization during both the Obama and Trump administrations and requested anonymity for the sake of preserving professional relationships. 

Still, many legislators remain hesitant to place additional oversight on aid to Israel, and the Israel-advocacy establishment continues to frame any restrictions on the use of those funds as attacks on Israel’s security. Though McCollum’s bill is unlikely to become law, it has already catalyzed a rebuke from AIPAC, which promoted a letter last month—signed by 330 US representatives from both parties—arguing that funding to Israel should not be cut or conditioned. (Technically, McCollum’s bill calls for neither action, but the letter was widely interpreted as a response to her legislation.) The confrontation over the bill is serving as a test of how far from the political center J Street is willing to go on the issue of US aid to Israel—and of whether the ongoing shift in public opinion about the occupation can meaningfully influence the making of congressional policy.

THE HISTORY of J Street’s engagement with military aid reflects the group’s effort to shape liberal consensus while fending off pressure from both the right and the left. J Street was founded in 2007 to support Democratic candidates in taking more liberal, though still Zionist, positions in favor of a two-state solution. From the start, what it has called its “pro-Israel and pro-Palestine” politics were controversial: American Jewish leaders condemned J Street for criticizing Israel’s 2009 attack on Gaza, and in 2014 they voted to bar it from membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

After these controversies, J Street appeared to recalibrate in ways that opened the lobby up to criticism from its left. When J Street spoke in favor of Israel’s right to defend itself after another deadly invasion of Gaza in 2014, many J Street members felt betrayed. Several leaders of the organization’s arm on college campuses, J Street U, began organizing Jewish protests against the war, an effort that would eventually lead to the formation of the anti-occupation group IfNotNow. In the years since, J Street has continually faced internal pressure to take bolder stances from the more progressive members of its staff. In 2019, a group of current and former J Street U board members wrote a letter to Ben-Ami and the J Street board, suggesting the organization begin advocating for the US to condition aid based on Israel’s actions. According to a December 2019 Intercept report, J Street considered endorsing the policy but ultimately held off over fears of ruining relationships with partners in Israel—such as the Knesset members that J Street brings to meetings with US lawmakers to demonstrate Israeli support for anti-occupation measures. J Street’s hesitance has often prompted criticism from Palestinian solidarity activists. “For a long time J Street was playing a role on Capitol Hill where they were blunting momentum for accountability efforts,” said Yousef Munayyer, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington DC and former executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. “That was quite harmful.”

In June 2020, as Netanyahu prepared to officially annex portions of the West Bank, more than 1,000 current and former J Street U members wrote an open letter asking the group to endorse any legislation that would reduce aid to Israel if the plan went through. But J Street limited its action on aid to supporting an amendment introduced by Sen. Chris Van Hollen to prevent US funds from paying for annexation. (Netanyahu ultimately backed away from official annexation.)   

Now, J Street emphasizes that its newly vocal support for restricting aid is a continuation of its long-standing policies. Logan Bayroff, the group’s communications director, said J Street decided to support McCollum’s most recent bill not because of any change in the group’s position but because the bill’s language, unlike that of previous versions, aligns with J Street’s views on how to restrict aid. (Bayroff did not specify what about the earlier bills was inconsistent with J Street’s position.) Sources close to J Street say that the lobby worked directly with McCollum’s office to make sure the final text of the bill included language J Street could support. 

However, some observers believe that J Street is underplaying the extent to which supporting the McCollum bill signals a change in strategy. “I do think it is a shift,” said Catie Stewart, a political communications professional who worked for J Street from 2015 to 2018. “Maybe it’s the fact that Biden is now president, maybe they feel like they have a little more space, maybe it’s that there’s more of a left group in Congress. I do think this is a response to some leftward shift either in the politics or within the base.”  

Despite the changing shape of public opinion, many lawmakers remain reluctant to go on the record in support of restricting aid to Israel to certain uses, let alone conditioning it. Thus far, the McCollum bill has only amassed 18 sponsors (including all six members of the progressive group known as “the squad”) and is unlikely to pass the House, which would require it to garner the support of almost every Democrat. Meanwhile, Israel-advocacy groups have vociferously attacked the bill; AIPAC claimed in a tweet that the bill would “condition aid to Israel, undermine U.S. interests and make peace less likely.” One member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, California Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, told J Street donors at the conference that restricting aid is still a “third rail” for many legislators; Rep. Jamaal Bowman, who represents heavily Jewish Riverdale in the Bronx, has indeed received pushback in his district for cosponsoring the bill.  

So far, J Street’s actions on aid restriction indicate that the group is still operating with significant caution. J Street will not be making a major push for the McCollum bill: It promised its allies in Congress that they won’t be asked to sponsor it, according to the staff meeting notes. At the same time, the organization encouraged members who met with congresspeople during a recent “advocacy week” to ask their representatives to support the addition of provisions to restrict aid—including language that “requires greater transparency around how equipment bought with US aid to Israel is used” and “makes clear that US aid to Israel should not be used to facilitate de facto annexation”—to future foreign aid appropriations legislation. 

J Street continues to publicly emphasize the distinction between restricting and conditioning aid, presenting restriction as a commonsense, comparatively moderate position. But that hasn’t prevented establishment Israel-advocacy groups from attacking J Street’s chosen policy as an assault on the US–Israel relationship, or from claiming there is no difference between restricting and conditioning. Jewish leaders have described the recent AIPAC-backed letter as an indirect rebuke to lawmakers who support restricting aid as well as those who would condition it. “It is pure sophistry to claim that there was no contradiction between the House letter and the McCollum bill; the letter was a direct answer to what McCollum was proposing,” wrote former Union for Reform Judaism President Eric Yoffie in Haaretz. Tellingly, none of the bill’s current cosponsors signed the letter. 

But J Street maintains that the letter is not a critique of the policy it supports. The signatories did include two lawmakers who advocated for restricting aid at the J Street conference: California Reps. Khanna and Lowenthal, both of whom told Jewish Currents that they saw signing the letter as consistent with their previous statements, given that they support placing restrictions on how aid is used but not cutting or conditioning it. J Street has so far avoided pushing those legislators to make a more definitive break with the Israel-advocacy establishment on the issue of aid, arguing that their decision to sign the letter does not preclude them from eventually supporting measures like the McCollum bill or aid restrictions in appropriations language. “Some outside groups want to put words in the mouths of lawmakers and claim signing the letter constitutes opposition to end-use restrictions or greater transparency as laid out in the McCollum bill, but the letter addressed neither of those things,” Dylan Williams, J Street’s chief lobbyist, said in a statement to Jewish Currents

Even as J Street works to defend the idea of aid restrictions from right-wing attacks, critics on the left argue that the policy doesn’t go far enough. “We want to not just keep Israel from abusing Palestinian rights with our money, but actually to stop them from doing it, period, and that’s where conditioning aid is a stronger tool,” said Morriah Kaplan, director of training and political education at the Jewish anti-occupation group IfNotNow, which supports conditioning aid. Yet even if J Street does not support conditioning aid, its current actions may help move the ball in that direction anyway: The difference between restricting and conditioning aid is in “the weeds of policy that is relevant to a very small number of people who work on this issue,” Munayyer noted. “I’m not saying the distinction doesn’t matter, but this is really about getting elected officials to take a position toward accountability.” 

Some progressive advocates argue that J Street has more room to maneuver. Both Kaplan and Munayyer noted that even if a large majority of members of Congress signed the letter opposing conditioning aid, AIPAC could once have expected more than 330 signatories—a sign that its hold on the body may be loosening. “Almost 100 hesitated to sign on for whatever reason, even though the letter was framed in a way that was intended to provide as much cover as possible for Democrats,” Munayyer said. “There is more space than I think a lot of people realize to do this kind of advocacy.” 

And as the right lumps the policies of restricting and conditioning into a single category, some critics say J Street may sacrifice more than it gains by resisting moving further left. “They’re going to hit a ceiling with what they can really do with the same repeated talking points,” said Stewart. “They’re going to hit a wall around who’s going to be motivated by that to join their movement and be part of the base.”

A previous version of this article misstated the date of an April 20th J Street staff meeting as April 21st.

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.