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Are J Street’s Days Numbered?

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Posted on January 14 2011 8:00 am
Seth Mandel is the former managing editor of four New Jersey-based newspapers, where he won awards for his coverage of the Middle East and Russia. He has appeared on Shalom TV's current affairs roundtable. He is currently based in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @SethAMandel

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Media bias doesn’t always help the actor it intends to shield. Often, it counterproductively insulates people and organizations from the scrutiny they are destined to face eventually, leaving them wholly unprepared when that moment arrives.

If a brief note in The Nonprofit Quarterly is any indication, I think something similar may be happening to the leftist lobby J Street.

Run by Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street launched itself in an excessively partisan manner. The Washington Post characterized the group in April 2008 as “a political action committee and lobbying group aimed at dislodging what they consider the excessive hold of neoconservatives and evangelical Christians on U.S. policy toward Israel.”

That is, J Street identified the groups most responsible for keeping the relationship between the U.S. and Israel strong, and made it their goal to weaken them because of Ben-Ami’s pathological mistrust and dislike of conservatives. The issue of U.S. support for Israel was now, according to J Street, an appropriate battlefield to settle old political scores, regardless of the consequences to either country.

The Post story continued:

“Organizers said they hope those efforts, coupled with a separate lobbying group that will focus on promoting an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, will fill a void left by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and other Jewish groups that they contend have tilted to the right in recent years.”

Of course, anyone who has more than a passing familiarity with AIPAC knows that–far from being taken over by neoconservatives–it is an organization made up largely of Democrats who support Israel. In only the most recent example, Josh Block, AIPAC’s spokesman for the last decade, just left the organization to start a Democratic consultancy with Lanny Davis, Ben-Ami’s former colleague in the Clinton administration, and join the Progressive Policy Institute, a leftist think tank.

What became clear, then, was not that the pro-Israel groups had moved to the right. It was the Israeli public who moved to the right after the failure of the Oslo process, and since AIPAC doesn’t discriminate, they simply continued doing their jobs. So that provides one answer: Ben-Ami was upset by the choices being made by the Israeli voting public, and he set out to oppose Israeli policy and denigrate the country’s democratic process.

And the other answer is that Ben-Ami moved to the left. This was perhaps foreshadowed by the trajectory of Ben-Ami’s own political career. After working in the Clinton administration, Ben-Ami went to work for Howard Dean. And the fact that Ben-Ami has opposed sanctions on Iran, wouldn’t condemn the Goldstone report and advocated for Judge Goldstone on Capitol Hill, criticized Israeli attempts to defend itself from attack, supported Hamas’ inclusion in the negotiating process, and overall consistently found a moral equivalence between Israel and Hamas shows just how far Ben-Ami has diverged from his old boss. (Clinton was famously furious at Yasser Arafat for derailing Mideast peace, so much so that he called Colin Powell after the 2000 election and told him: “Don’t let Arafat sucker punch you like he did me.” Clinton learned that to put equal blame on the Israelis and Palestinians for the failure of the peace process is a naïve and morally bankrupt venture.)

And of course there was the unforgettable quote Ben-Ami gave to the New York Times Magazine in a puff piece on the group: “Our No. 1 agenda item,” Ben-Ami said, “is to do whatever we can in Congress to act as [Barack Obama’s] blocking back.”

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