J Street’s Balancing Act Comes Under Pressure

The liberal Zionist organization is proving too critical of Israel for the mainstream Democratic establishment it courts—and not critical enough for its own constituency.

Alex Kane
February 1, 2023

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaking at the 2022 J Street National Conference in Washington, DC, December 4th, 2022.

Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/AP Images

“Our administration is working to advance the shared interests and values at the heart of the US–Israel relationship,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the audience at the J Street conference in Washington, DC, on December 4th. As he ticked off the ways the Biden administration had strengthened the bond between the two countries—an extra $1 billion in military aid for the anti-rocket Iron Dome system, regular joint military exercises, and criticism of the United Nations for scrutinizing Israel—the crowd offered only tepid applause. (According to one J Street employee, who requested anonymity to protect their job, some audience members even quietly booed.) This was not the speech they wanted to hear.

For J Street supporters, the impending ascension of the most right-wing government in Israeli history—which includes extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir, the new Minister of National Security who has called for the expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel—was an emergency, and the US government needed to act. Panels and speeches on LGBTQ rights in Israel and the Israeli right’s assault on democratic norms reflected the conference’s pessimism. “We can’t help but feel distress and concern over the outcome of Israel’s recent elections,” said J Street board chair Alan Solomont in his opening address. A packed panel on congressional oversight of US military aid to Israel demonstrated a concern for the role US weaponry plays in Israel’s occupation. Unfortunately for this audience, Blinken joined them only to confirm that US military aid to Israel was “sacrosanct.” J Street staffers internally lamented Blinken’s “business as usual” speech. “The reaction to it by pretty much everyone at the conference was pretty negative,” said the J Street employee. A junior J Street staffer, who also requested anonymity to protect their job, recalled that “folks were sounding off in the virtual chat and also afterwards in person about whether he should be there.”

In proposals released ahead of the conference, J Street had outlined a handful of policies that it hoped the Biden administration would enact: clear differentiation between Israel and the West Bank; a rejection of Donald Trump’s plan for Israel/Palestine, which envisioned Israel’s formal annexation of West Bank settlements; “accountability” for the way Israel uses US military equipment; and a refusal to meet with or engage Ben-Gvir. An additional policy proposal, released about a month after the conference, entreated the Biden administration to make it clear to Israel that there would be consequences for the displacement of Palestinian residents of Masafer Yatta in the West Bank, including a potential investigation into whether Israel had violated US law by using American weapons to carry it out. Such oversight of Israel’s use of US military aid would be unprecedented for the US, as would any decision to boycott Ben-Gvir; these demands underscore the ways in which, as Israeli politics have moved to the right, J Street has shifted to the left. “We think the administration is doing a lot of really good things. But it is not going as far as it said it would, and it needs to probably now go further,” J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said during a sit-down with reporters at the J Street conference.

And yet, J Street has been willing to push the boundaries of the Washington debate over Israel only so far. The organization has yet to express support for placing human rights conditions on US military aid to the country—a move that many of its own constituents support. Critics both inside and outside of J Street say that its leadership fears that such policies could cost them legitimacy in Washington. “Certain members of senior staff and certain members of the J Street board don’t think that it’s strategic to try to leverage our power with the administration. They’re more concerned with being considered relevant by the Democratic establishment,” the junior J Street staffer said.

The limits of J Street’s leftward shift were also on display at the conference in December. When the crowd filed out of the hall after Blinken’s speech, some attendees encountered a small group of students affiliated with J Street’s student wing, J Street U. The students handed out red flyers addressed to Blinken, demanding that the State Department “support an investigation into the murder” of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who Israeli soldiers shot and killed in May. While some of the messaging on the flyers echoed J Street’s own advocacy—the organization has also demanded an independent US investigation into the killing—other aspects departed from the official line. J Street has not used the word “murder” because they don’t see it as “particularly helpful,” according to Logan Bayroff, J Street’s vice president of communications. Aharon Dardik, a member of Columbia University’s J Street U chapter and one of the students who passed out the flyers, said that “while J Street is not in a position to push this more leftward message, J Street U very much can.” Still, the small action was not welcome at the conference. “Hotel security escorted them out, and they were reprimanded by J Street staff and told not to be disruptive at national events again, or they would face repercussions,” the junior J Street staffer said.

The episode exemplified a central tension within J Street: The organization is simultaneously too critical of Israel for the mainstream Democratic establishment it courts, and not critical enough for its own constituency. As the most far-right government in Israeli history begins to enact its agenda—advancing plans to enfeeble Israel’s Supreme Court, attempting to ban the Palestinian flag from public spaces, and planning to expand settlements and displace Palestinian villagers—J Street’s gradualist approach is coming under increasing strain. “There’s a growing problem for J Street as the situation on the ground is getting worse and worse,” the J Street employee told Jewish Currents. “It’s getting harder for people like me to convince others that the strategic decisions that staff make about what policies to push for in Congress and the administration are actually meeting the challenges of the moment.”

“There’s a growing problem for J Street as the situation on the ground is getting worse and worse. It’s harder for people like me to convince others that the strategic decisions staff make about what policies to push for in Congress are actually meeting the challenges of the moment.”

And though J Street’s balancing act is intended to protect its power in Congress, some critics on the left argue that the group would gain from embracing an unambiguously progressive line instead. In the 2022 election cycle, AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), Israel-advocacy groups to J Street’s right, have poured a combined $41 million into electoral races, focusing on Democratic primaries where progressives who they saw as potential critics of Israel had a chance of making it into Congress. J Street has struggled to keep pace, spending only about $9.1 million in contributions to candidates and independent expenditures, and losing key races in places like Maryland’s Fourth Congressional District, where J Street ally Donna Edwards was defeated by AIPAC-endorsed Glenn Ivey. In such conditions, critics both inside and outside of J Street argue that the organization can’t afford to maintain red lines that keep it from forming coalitions with the pro-Palestinian left, such as its policy against endorsing candidates who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. “Those are people who are invested in justice and peace for Palestinians and Israelis and are potential allies for J Street,” said a former J Street staffer who requested anonymity for fear of harming their professional relationships. “Even a slight shift to allow J Street to work with groups and endorse candidates who support BDS would be meaningful . . . That would open new doors for partnership on the left.”

When J Street launched in 2007, it set out to push the US government to advocate for a two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. In doing so, it established a robust alternative to AIPAC, the dominant pro-Israel voice in Washington, which tended to resist any form of US pressure on Israel. As J Street’s “pro-Israel, pro-peace” tagline suggests, it has always identified firmly as (“liberal”) Zionist and has maintained support for the US military aid package to Israel. Still, it has repeatedly faced attacks from mainstream Jewish groups. The most consequential of these came during Israel’s 2008–09 assault on Gaza, when J Street, in a letter to supporters, wrote that “while there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families,” there is also “nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.” That prompted Eric Yoffie, then the head of the Union of Reform Judaism, to cast J Street as “morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naive.” “For Jeremy, in particular, it was a question of ‘can this thing exist if it does not have any credibility with the Reform Movement’?” said a second former J Street staffer, who likewise requested anonymity to preserve their professional standing. The aftermath of those attacks “meant a shift towards a more Zionist, more mainstream Jewish consensus,” the former staffer added.

Nonetheless, over the past 15 years, J Street has managed to challenge the stagnant Washington consensus on Israel. J Street-backed letters calling on the US State Department to express opposition to home demolitions in the West Bank routinely garner the signatures of nearly a third of House Democrats. In addition to their lobbying and campaign fundraising efforts, the organization also takes members of congress to Israel and the West Bank, bringing them to Palestinian cities and villages to see Israel’s military occupation for themselves. “It was a life-changing event to go on the J Street trip, to understand better the deep richness of the Israeli experience, but certainly to understand the injustices and the struggles of the Palestinian life,” Pennsylvania Rep. Madeleine Dean told the J Street conference. “I look to you for ideas on how Congress can be a further help, to make sure that the . . . people who do not enjoy full freedom will get to that place of a two-state solution.” A J Street trip to the West Bank even helped convince Congressman Jamaal Bowman to stake out a position beyond J Street’s own policy line. Last February, Bowman announced he would no longer support a J Street-backed bill bolstering Israel’s normalization agreements with Arab states. He attributed his change of heart in part to his “experience on the ground” in the West Bank.

As J Street’s sway in Congress has grown, its rivalry with AIPAC has intensified. In J Street’s early years, Ben-Ami took a conciliatory line toward AIPAC, once saying that “AIPAC, through its history, has many important achievements.” But AIPAC’s endorsement of 109 House Republicans who voted not to certify President Joe Biden’s election, combined with its unprecedented campaign spending against J Street allies, prompted J Street to go on the attack last year, accusing the lobby of supporting “dangerous politicians” and harming American democracy. At the December conference, protecting democracy in both Israel and the US was a prominent theme, with speakers drawing parallels between the Israeli and American far right.

J Street continues to face down a torrent of spending by AIPAC’s new political action committee and its Super PAC, launched in late 2021 to directly involve the organization in elections. (In the past, AIPAC had merely encouraged Israel supporters to donate to outside PACs.) “The amount of money that is being poured into races by AIPAC and DMFI is in part a reflection of J Street’s success,” said Matt Duss, a visiting scholar in the American Statecraft Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the former foreign policy adviser to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. But AIPAC and DMFI have the financial resources to outspend J Street. Though Bayroff argued that J Street’s message and values, unlike AIPAC’s, “are actually in line with Democratic candidates and the Democratic base,” he acknowledged that “the money situation is a challenge.” J Street’s newly-created Super PAC spent about $2 million during the 2022 election cycle to back progressives in Democratic primaries, a total that paled in comparison to the $26 million spent by AIPAC’s Super PAC. The results of J Street’s campaign spending were mixed: Though its candidates won in seven of the 13 competitive Democratic primaries where it endorsed, it lost in five of the seven races where it went directly against AIPAC or DMFI. AIPAC is promising more of the same in the 2024 election cycle: “It’s all about giving more to more campaigns,” one attendee of its Political Leadership Forum recently told Jewish Insider.

The scale of AIPAC’s spending has left its critics asking how progressives can best respond. “If you’re J Street, you have to find a way to get, if not to parity, then to a level of support for candidates that allows them to withstand that avalanche of AIPAC cash,” said Max Berger, a co-founder of anti-occupation group IfNotNow who worked for J Street from 2010–2011. “So far it’s been difficult for them to figure out how to do so.” Some argue that the first step is for J Street to change its position that candidates must support a two-state solution and eschew BDS in order to qualify for endorsement. The BDS criteria has prevented the organization from backing candidates like Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar. “I’m not sure [J Street] actually gains much by opposing BDS,” argues the former staffer who wants to see the policy changed—especially given that the organization also opposes anti-BDS laws, which “harms their credibility in more right-wing circles.” “If supporting BDS wasn’t a redline for them it would allow them to get involved in races where the progressive candidate doesn’t take a position on BDS or maybe supports it,” the former staffer said. “It’s a small pool that we’re talking about, but I suspect it will expand in the coming years.” J Street’s support could put some candidates over the top in tight races—like Yuh-Line Niou, a former state assemblywoman who supports placing restrictions on US military aid to Israel, and who lost her Congressional race in New York by a small margin—and thus give J Street more allies in Congress, the second former staffer argued.

“If you’re J Street, you have to find a way to get, if not to parity, then to a level of support for candidates that allows them to withstand that avalanche of AIPAC cash.”

Jewish Currents editor-at-large Peter Beinart has called in these pages for J Street and its progressive allies to work together, suggesting that the organization should unite with groups like the Working Families Party and Justice Democrats to coordinate an endorsement strategy centered around a platform of conditioning aid. “The story of the 2022 midterms isn’t only that AIPAC and its allies swamped pro-Palestinian candidates with their spending,” he wrote in October. “It’s that the progressive groups that might have shielded those candidates were too divided to do so. Unless those groups become more strategic, Congress will likely grow even more hostile to Palestinian rights in the years to come.”

For now, however, J Street’s policy contortions continue to place it in conflict with the broader left and the Palestinian-rights movement on legislative as well as electoral priorities. Though the organization endorsed Rep. Betty McCollum’s 2021 bill restricting US military aid to Israel from being used to detain Palestinian children, destroy Palestinian homes, or annex Palestinian land, for example, it also promised its allies in Congress that they would not be pressed to sponsor the legislation, according to staff notes from an internal meeting obtained by Jewish Currents. “They supported it, but that was not really followed up with any action,” said Brad Parker, senior advisor on policy and advocacy for Defense for Children International-Palestine, a group that supported the McCollum bill. Instead, J Street threw its weight behind the Two-State Solution Act, which also placed restrictions on US aid but lacked tracking and reporting provisions that Palestinian rights advocates said in a memo would create “true accountability.” In his speech at this year’s conference, Ben-Ami emphasized J Street’s support for oversight and transparency on Israel’s use of US military aid, declaring, “We have to ensure that our tax dollars aren’t being used to abet settlement construction, home demolitions, or other actions that deepen occupation.” But the organization’s December 6th lobby day on the Hill did not include any specific asks for new legislation that would mandate more transparency or introduce such restrictions. (Bayroff explained that J Street made this choice because the 2022 Congressional session was ending, and it was thus not an ideal time to push for new policy.)

The J Street employee said that the organization has actually softened its line on military aid in the last few years. In 2021, they noted, J Street emphasized “end-use restrictions,” the term for ensuring that foreign aid recipients are using US arms only for legitimate self-defense. “Right now the line is ‘oversight and accountability,’” the staffer said—a phrase with no immediate implications for how US weapons are used. The staffer attributed the shift to the poor reception that J Street’s emphasis on end-use restrictions received in Congress. “We took this step forward on restrictions, and then didn’t make a lot of headway in Congress, and are now having to backtrack,” they said. (Bayroff said that J Street has not changed its stance on aid restrictions, but that the first step toward enacting a policy of restriction is oversight, in order to better understand how the Israeli military is using US weapons.)

Ben-Ami frames the group’s advocacy around aid to Israel as an extension of its commitment to a “pragmatic” strategy. “There’s not going to be a vote in Congress to actually condition or restrict aid for decades to come,” he told The Forward last year. “We’re looking for effective things that can actually happen.” Bayroff made a similar argument: “There have always been differences between J Street and some of those to our left,” he said. “We’re going to be pushing for policies that we think are effective, but also realistic—that we can build support for and that there already is some support for among elected Democrats in Congress.” But critics say that, by deferring to the limits of the current consensus, J Street is forfeiting a chance to help determine what’s possible. “They can use their leverage to shape outcomes,” said Yousef Munayyer, a writer and a scholar at the Arab Center Washington DC. “There are things that have been made possible without them”—such as growing Congressional advocacy to prevent Israel from abusing Palestinian children with US aid—“and more could have been possible if they got behind those efforts. But they chose not to lead.”

Berger, the IfNotNow co-founder, argued that J Street could gain credibility by shifting its stance on conditioning US military aid. “It would position them as a leader that is defining what the Democratic Party should stand for on Israel,” he said. “Setting standards for Democrats would be a way for them to demonstrate their power as an organization.” But Berger acknowledged the risks of such a move: “The challenge that J Street faces is that their donors and other Jewish establishment figures might make it impossible for them to get there.”

This piece originally reported that J Street spent $5.8 million in contributions to candidates and independent expenditures during the 2022 election cycle. In fact, J Street spent $9.1 million.

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.