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A New Street in Town, and So Far, It's a Little Bumpy
J Street is coming to Philadelphia, but so far, it hasn't inspired much brotherly love. Instead, it's been treated more like the black sheep of the family.
A flap over Hillel of Greater Philadelphia's decision to lease its space to J Street -- for the official launch of its Philadelphia branch -- is just one local manifestation of a debate that has roiled much of the national Jewish establishment since the advocacy organization was founded nearly two years ago.
As the group launches grass-roots branches here and in more than 20 locales across the country, individual communities and organizations are becoming absorbed into what has been until now mostly a Washington, D.C.-based controversy.
The question at the heart of it: Should J Street be included in the American Jewish tent of pro-Israel organizations?
In the local Jewish community, where the left/right divide has often cut particularly deep over the years -- and where many in the peace camp have long lamented that more hawkish elements have held sway -- sparks have already begun to fly.
Gary Erlbaum, who sits on the Jewish Community Relations Council's Israel advocacy committee and is also a board member of the Jewish Publishing Group, has been outspoken in his opposition to J Street, and is upset about Hillel's decision to host the group's Feb. 4 event.
"What makes them pro-Israel? If the Palestinians had a lobby, it would be called J Street," said Erlbaum. "The Hillel building is an inappropriate spot for a group that's anti-Israel."
Steve Masters, a Philadelphia lawyer who is playing a major role in J Street's efforts to build its local presence, said that the group has been misunderstood. (He served as the national president of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom-Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace before it merged with J Street last year.)
"J Street is a completely pro-Israel organization -- and there are so many different ways to be pro-Israel," he said. Creating a narrow definition of pro-Israel and excluding "anybody who doesn't follow a particular point of view or path" is a "ridiculous proposition."
Crossing a Line?
J Street's critics point to several issues that angered much of the pro-Israel community since the group's founding.
They say that the group was quick to criticize Israel's war in Gaza in December 2008.
Throughout the fall of 2009, J Street was one of the few Jewish groups opposed to a legislative effort to enact more sanctions against Iran. It later reversed course on that issue.
And in November, it called for significant amendments to a congressional resolution slamming the U.N. Goldstone report -- a document that accused Israel of committing war crimes in the Gaza Strip.
J Street's detractors also note that the Israeli government itself has said the group doesn't work in Israel's interests.
Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, declined an invitation to speak at the group's inaugural policy conference in October, and later stated that it had "crossed the line" with positions that were at odds with Israel.
Now, the group is going local, with its central program slated for Philadelphia, where the group's founder and executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, will appear in person and simulcast his speech to 20 other venues across the country.
"J Street certainly came along at the right time; there were a lot of people looking for this," said Hadar Susskind, director of policy and planning for the group.
Explaining the reason for the local groups, he said: "Until now, J Street has been an online list of online supporters and activists.We haven't had a real presence on the ground."
Despite the existence of Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, many who favored an aggressive U.S. approach to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy have felt they lacked a powerful voice in Washington. J Street was founded on the idea that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other entities, like the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, did not represent the majority of American Jews and were too hawkish in their politics.
According to the group, Israel's long-term survival depends on a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians -- as soon as possible.
The name itself suggests that it's filling a missing void since there's no actual J Street on Washington, D.C.'s grid.
At a time when most Jewish agencies are cutting back, J Street's staff and budget have grown dramatically; it now boasts 36 staffers and a $4 million budget.
In 2008, the group injected itself into electoral politics. Its political-action committee -- a separate arm from the group's advocacy organization -- donated $600,000 to congressional candidates. It will likely spend more in 2010.
In fact, its first list of endorsements includes one local candidate, Doug Pike, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. Congress in the 6th District. A campaign spokesman said that he was happy to have the endorsement, though J Street's positions don't necessarily reflect the candidate's stances.
While J Street hasn't gotten much love from Jerusalem, the organization has received a warm greeting from the Obama White House. National Security Advisor James Jones spoke at J Street's inaugural policy conference in October, and last summer, J Street's founder was among 14 Jewish leaders invited to a sit-down with the president.
Masters asserted that many of J Street's positions have either been twisted or misinterpreted.
"We represent the part of the pro-Israel community that is completely committed to Israel's security as a Democratic and a Jewish state, and we believe the only way that Israel can sustain itself is to have a lasting peace agreement with the Palestinians," he said.
According to Masters, J Street has backed Israel's right to self-defense, but argued that Operation Cast Lead in Gaza wouldn't make southern Israel any safer.
He also said that J Street disagreed with the timing of Iran sanctions, rather than the idea itself. In December, once it became clear that Tehran had rebuffed American overtures for diplomacy, J Street announced support for sanctions against Iran and urged the American government to build a broad international consensus on the issue, said Masters.
That fact hasn't been lost on Israel's diplomatic contingent here.
Daniel Kutner, Israel's consul general in Philadelphia, said that "we appreciate J Street's support for congressional legislation" on sanctions. He added that Israeli diplomats "maintain contact with J Street as with all other Jewish advocacy groups."
That being said, it probably won't do much to quell passions concerning Hillel's decision.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus is among the Hillel board members who opposed the decision taken by Hillel's Rabbi Howard Alpert to rent the facility to J Street. Marcus, founder of a right-leaning start-up called Z Street, is working on organizing her own event at the University of Pennsylvania's Steinhardt Hall to offer a competing perspective.
Edward H. Rosen, another board member for whom Temple University's Hillel building is named, also said he's no fan of J Street, but reasoned that not allowing them a chance to speak on campus would serve little good.
"In my view, they are on the extreme left of the political spectrum. They are not supportive of the government of Israel," Rosen said, adding that denying them space would have created a bigger stir and put Hillel on the wrong side of a free-speech debate. "On balance, I am in favor of them appearing. I am in favor of the discussion."
Hillel, which is in the process of drafting new guidelines for speakers, released a statement defending its renting of space to J Street. "We believe it is important that all voices that abide by our principles regarding Israel's right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people have an opportunity to express themselves in our building," the statement by Alpert said.
Amid all this debate, Masters is already at the table of the Jewish Community Relations Council's Israel advocacy committee.
Adam Kessler, director of the JCRC here, said that Masters was asked to participate because of his longtime JCRC involvement, and not as a representative of J Street. He also said that he was intentionally seeking to have more diverse viewpoints included at committee meetings.
Said Kessler: "I believe as an umbrella organization, we need to broaden the tent and to make sure that we have a larger group of people who are at our tent who strongly support Israel."
For its part, J Street's local organizing committee includes longtime activists Rabbis Arthur Waskow and Rebecca Alpert, both vocal opponents of Israel's policies regarding the Palestinians.
According to Rabbi Leonard Gordon of Germantown Jewish Centre, the absence of centrist-liberals who advocate for a two-state solution may have more to do with the group's initial organizing than its actual message, which he called "within the boundaries of the broad, pro-Israel consensus in our community.
"The debate around J Street is a serious one concerning whether diversity of voices benefits our community in its public policy work or whether diversity undercuts our strength," he added. "I am a firm believer that the inclusion of multiple voices is a sign of strength and vitality."
But Kory Grushka, a Center City lawyer who is active in Democratic politics and follows Israel closely, said he's skeptical that J Street will be able to attract a large following here.
"The majority of Israelis today are more to the center and right of J Street," he said. "It's hard to say that you are pro-Israel when many or most of your positions run counter -- and, at times, offensively so -- to the official Israeli positions."