J Street’s Pro-War Stance Prompts Staff Departures

The liberal Zionist lobbying group’s support for Israel’s assault on Gaza has sparked staff dissent and alienated onetime allies.

Mari Cohen
February 9, 2024

Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the J Street National Conference, Dec. 4th, 2022.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Since October 7th, at least seven staff members have left J Street, with at least four making it known to colleagues that the liberal Zionist lobby’s lack of support for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza had motivated their resignation, according to three former and current J Street employees. These departures are among several indications that J Street’s three-and-a-half months of support for the war—which, to date, has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, and which many experts consider a genocide—sparked significant dissent from the group’s employees and supporters. In late November, 19 employees signed an internal letter to the executive team asking the group to call for a ceasefire. In the letter, obtained by Jewish Currents, the staffers describe themselves as “increasingly troubled by our organization’s reluctance to commit to an end of violence and suffering.”

At the time the November letter was circulated, the organization—which frames itself as an “anti-occupation” and “pro-peace” alternative to AIPAC in Washington—was still advocating for Israel’s right to maintain a military operation in Gaza. On January 22nd, well after several of its own congressional endorsees had come out in favor of a ceasefire, the organization released a statement advocating for an end to the war. But disillusioned staffers say that by waiting so long—as organizations and figures from the United Auto Workers to the Pope called for a ceasefire and UN officials raised the alarm about genocide—J Street sacrificed its credibility with progressives who previously viewed it as a pragmatic vehicle for opposing mainstream Israel-advocacy positions on the Hill. “It felt like we backtracked on 15 years of work that we were genuinely proud of, that we felt was making a difference. All of a sudden, it’s moot because it took us three-and-half months to make any sort of statement that we were against the bloodshed that was happening,” said Marisa Edmondson, a former J Street communications associate who helped co-write the pro-ceasefire letter before leaving the organization in December. “We lost a lot of donors, and a lot of student leaders who I think could have been the next generation of J Street staffers.”

Following Hamas’s attacks on October 7th, J Street repeatedly issued statements affirming its support for Israel’s right to “defend itself” and to “disarm Hamas” so long as it did not violate international law in the process—a position that, the November 29th staff letter argued, “is not tied to reality.” Given that Israel has been accused of frequent international law violations, the letter claims that a “moral and lawful Israeli-led military campaign is wholly unachievable”; it also described certain statements by Israeli leaders as demonstrating “genocidal intent” against Palestinians in Gaza.

The letter also argued that J Street’s position was counterproductive given its own stated mission. “We are setting Israel up to lose an entire generation of American Jews who support Israel’s right to exist,” the staffers wrote, citing increased disaffection among young Jews, who are far more likely than their older counterparts to oppose US support for Israel’s war. They also pointed out that the war was likely to further radicalize Palestinians in Gaza and that “Hamas can only truly be defeated by giving the Palestinian people a true political horizon.” The employees underscored that J Street’s stance was damaging the group’s credibility among onetime allies: “Each day, we are losing the support of younger generations, Jews and non-Jews, who once saw J Street as an essential player in US politics and as the only viable left-leaning organization with sway in Washington over Israeli policies and practices.”

Indeed, while anti-Zionist groups to J Street’s left have long critiqued some of the liberal Zionist lobby’s positions, many also conceived of them as a useful counterweight to more powerful Zionist groups to their right. “We have always understood them to have a certain tactical role in the ecosystem,” said Stefanie Fox, the executive director of the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). But J Street’s moves since October 7th—including pulling its endorsement from progressive US Representative Jamaal Bowman last month—have changed that calculation. “In punishing the few Democratic members brave enough to echo the demands of the vast majority of Democratic voters, in a way they are working hand in glove with AIPAC and DMFI [Democratic Majority for Israel] to punish support for Palestinian rights and hold Democrats back from representing the will of constituents,” said Fox.

In a statement to Jewish Currents, J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami said that the lobby had “welcomed” the November letter as an affirmation of the “broad spectrum of opinion on these difficult issues within the organization’s leadership and staff.” According to Edmonson, the executive team responded to the missive by hosting several meetings with the staff about the organization’s messaging, including a town hall meeting attended by the board. “Let’s just say those meetings were nasty,” she said. “We were essentially told, ‘We can’t do anything with Hamas in power. So this war is actually part of our pro-peace mission, and anybody saying that this war is not pro-peace is wrong.’” (Ben Ami disputed this characterization: “In the opinion of J Street senior staff and board leadership . . . the discussions internally have not been anything but respectful.”)

In its support for the war, J Street has also parted ways with the student activism burgeoning on campuses around the country—which has led to significant attrition from its student wing, J Street U. The national network of J Street U campus chapters have long served as an entry-point into activism for Jewish students critical of Israel; some have gone on to work at the organization, while others have eventually joined Jewish organizations to J Street’s left, like IfNotNow and JVP. “I had known J Street to be an anti-occupation organization, and I feel like it has failed to show up for the community it previously represented,” said Lila Steinbach, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis who previously served as the president of her campus J Street U chapter. Since October 7th, she said, she has pivoted to organizing with a broader coalition of Palestinian and Jewish students pushing for a ceasefire. Two other former J Street student leaders interviewed for this article similarly described turning away from the organization to join new pro-ceasefire campus activist formations, or to get involved with JVP.

Last fall was not the first time J Street angered its left flank by condoning an Israeli military campaign. In 2014, after facing ostracization by mainstream Jewish groups when it criticized Israel’s 2009 Operation Cast Lead, J Street supported Israel’s Occupation Protective Edge, which killed 2,200 Palestinians; in response, frustrated student leaders and alumni organized their own protests against the war, which eventually led to the formation of IfNotNow, a group that seeks to end the American Jewish community’s support for Israeli apartheid. Still, in recent years, J Street had shown signs of moving left, including by pushing the US to ensure its aid to Israel is not enabling human rights abuses in the occupied territories. When Israel began bombing Gaza in May 2021—after Hamas fired rockets in response to Israel’s attempts to displace Palestinian families in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah—J Street immediately rallied its congressional allies and called for the Biden administration to broker an “urgent ceasefire,” arguing that “there is no ultimate military solution possible to this crisis.” As Edmondson reflected: “I do think we were one of the reasons that a ceasefire was called 11 days in. That was something that I was so proud to be a part of, and I know a lot of my colleagues felt the same.”

In the weeks following October 7th, 2023, however, J Street not only stood apart from the members of Congress organizing for a ceasefire; it even went after them. When some progressive legislators declined to co-sponsor a congressional resolution that condemned the attacks on Israelis but made no mention of the killing of Palestinians, J Street threatened to un-endorse the dissenting lawmakers, according to The Intercept. The move drew the ire of more than 100 former staff and student leaders, who, in October, signed a letter calling on J Street to back a ceasefire. As months went by and the death toll in Gaza continued to increase, some longtime J Street allies—including Reps. Jamie Raskin, Becca Balint, and Jan Schakowsky, and Senators Jeff Merkley and Peter Welch—began to call for a ceasefire, while the organization continued to back the war. A current staffer, who helped draft the letter and asked to remain anonymous to protect their job, speculated that the organization—which brought in a record fundraising total in 2023, according to Edmondson—may have been trying to appeal to former AIPAC donors who had grown disillusioned with the more right-wing lobby. “If those are the people we’re trying to get, then it’s not surprising how long it took J Street to call for an end to the war,” the staffer said. In January, J Street announced it was withdrawing its endorsement of Bowman in his re-election campaign, because, as J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told The Forward, the “rhetoric, the framing and the approach” of Bowman’s criticism of Israel’s campaign, including his assertion that Israel is committing genocide, had “gone too far.”

Edmondson said that the executive team was not transparent with the staff about why J Street had now decided military force was, in fact, effective. “It felt very personal and not very strategic,” she said. “A lot of staff had friends or family who were either drafted [to the Israeli military] after October 7th, or were killed. But the policies that we were choosing, and the stuff we were putting forward, it just didn’t seem to make sense.” Ultimately, Edmondson said, she decided she could not continue working for an organization that was supporting a genocide in Gaza, and she gave her two weeks notice after Thanksgiving. While the majority of the employees who have left J Street since Israel’s assault on Gaza began were, like Edmondson, junior staff members, the organization has also lost employees in more senior positions, including communications director Logan Bayroff, who had his last day at J Street last week after ten years working with the group. Reached by phone, Bayroff confirmed that he was no longer with J Street but declined to comment on the specifics of why he had left.

On Thursday, January 18th, J Street’s leadership hosted another staff town hall, according to the current staffer. This time, they said, the tone was different; whereas before, Ben-Ami had been “defensive,” during this gathering he and other senior staff seemed more open to hearing employee grievances. The following week, J Street issued its statement declaring that “the time for war has come to a close” and “now is the time to lead with diplomacy.” While calling for a negotiated end to the war, the statement did not include the word “ceasefire.” “The J Street leadership is hung up on the fact that the ceasefire could insinuate that Hamas should remain in power once the crisis subsides,” said the current staffer, who added that the organization did not explain to employees why it had now decided to stop supporting the war. Ben-Ami told Jewish Currents that the January 22nd statement did not mark a shift in J Street’s approach but was consistent with its earlier messaging, including the organization’s December threats to pull its support for Israel’s military campaign if Netanyahu did not start to conduct the war within the bounds of international law. “In January, we reached the point where we called for urgent diplomacy to stop the fighting and bring home the hostages. Our positions on the war have been informed by the many constituencies within J Street, which include those who were calling for a ceasefire early and those who are staunchly supportive of the ongoing military campaign,” he said.

Edmondson said she understood that J Street has historically moved with caution to maintain its ability to lobby Washington officials, but argued that now would have been the time for the organization to take a clear stand: “We’ve spent 15 years building this political power to rival AIPAC. And now, all of a sudden, when that power could be wielded during a literal genocide, it’s like, ‘Oh, we actually can’t do any of the things we’ve been saying all these years that we can.’”

Mari Cohen is associate editor at Jewish Currents.