“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – St. Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th century.
By Lyon Roth
Globes Magazine

jstreet2Today, most political roads seem to lead to Washington DC. Once there, you will also discover that nearly every letter of the alphabet enjoys a real road or street named after it in one or more of the four quadrants of the city. Poor letter J does not have any street named after it in any quadrant. However, it now adorns the name of a new lobby that, according to its web-site, purports to be the “political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.”

J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami emphasizes passionately that the organization “is so clearly pro-Israel, is grounded in and based in Jewish values and a Jewish desire to support the State of Israel.” It also boasts its own political action committee to fund candidates who endorse the group’s objectives. Unfortunately, many legacy pro-Israel advocates, Jews and non-Jews alike, are confused. Perhaps trying to be all things to all people, J Street disregards what is still a rather complex matrix of issues arising from the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ben Ami stresses that J Street rejects the “us versus them” thinking, opting instead for a non-partisan approach to the vexing dilemmas plaguing the Middle East. Sadly, however, its Pollyanna notions of regional peace neither conform to the practical realities confronting the parties who will have to achieve such peace, nor recognize certain partisan positions that remain diametrically opposed.

For example, the Palestinian insistence on a right of return for refugees is fundamentally incompatible with Israel’s essential identity as a Jewish state. These can’t be preserved simultaneously any more than one can be both Jewish and Christian simultaneously. J Street isn’t convinced. According to Ben Ami, Israel need not be referred to as a “Jewish state.” Rather the label “Jewish, democratic home in the state of Israel” ought to suffice.

All this reminds me of another faction pretending to advocate –with neither authority nor mandate — the genuine best interests of its “constituents.” Jews for Jesus was founded by Moishe Rosen in 1973. Born Jewish, Rosen converted and became a Baptist minister. His organization seeks to convert Jews who have not yet embraced the enhanced version of their theological beliefs. The group’s efforts have been overwhelmingly rejected by all Jewish denominations. While its evangelical activities may be perfectly appropriate for Christians, aside from using a few Yiddish and Hebrew expressions, they have nothing to do with Judaism.

So, as Israelis like to say, “we’ve been in this movie before.” Much as Jews for Jesus distorts the definition of membership (Jews) in order to expand its tent of adherents, J Street similarly manipulates the definition of “pro-Israel” to achieve its peculiar goals. And, like most distortions, it winds up resembling a bad movie. Some call the J Street version a comedy. Others think it’s a horror film. To me, it’s still mostly a mystery — on multiple levels.

For starters, we have the burgeoning list of unanswered questions: How much of J Street’s funding is actually contributed by Arab sources? First we heard 3%. A few weeks later, it was adjusted to 10%. What will the numbers be next month? Are there five major Arab donors, as initially reported, or over 30 major Arab donors, as recently disclosed? Does it matter? In my view it does.

When an organization receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from entities that are historically hostile to Israel’s existence, all sorts of motive-related questions need to be addressed. Has founder Jeremy Ben Ami severed his ties to Fenton Communications, his former Washington lobbying firm, whose client, the Qatari government, retained the company this past March to spear-head an 18-month anti-Israel campaign on college campuses? Is that connection in any way related to J Street’s abject refusal to criticize the UN-commissioned Goldstone Report, a pre-packaged anti-Israel screed that is blatantly short on facts, sloppy on law, and unilateral in its condemnations? What is the real motivation behind J Street’s decision to fight Israel’s efforts to secure US sanctions against Iran?

One question that has been answered already is why J Street pulled the “pro-Israel” prefix from its messaging to students. It learned that several potential new recruits were turned off by that emphasis, so it’s been reduced to “pro-peace.” Moreover, much of the debate at the student sessions within J Street’s recent conference focused on whether divestment initiatives should be directed only against products from the Israeli settlements or against all Israeli merchandise.

The deeper one digs, the sillier this gets. Designating J Street as a pro-Israel lobby seems as logical as having Michael Jackson, while he was alive, serve as the spokesperson for all Caucasians or nominating Renee Richards as the poster child for female tennis players. Theo Epstein, the manager of the Boston Red Sox, doesn’t seek advice from the New York Yankees when reviewing next year’s draft picks. Pepsi doesn’t consult Coca Cola on branding new products. India doesn’t cooperate with Pakistan on defense procurement strategies. These entities compete with each other on the field, in the marketplace, and in battle. Any organization that sees moral equivalence between Hamas raining thousands of lethal rockets on Israeli towns for eight years and Israel’s Gaza incursion to disable those batteries all the while insisting on an immediate Israeli ceasefire — simply doesn’t get it.

Therefore, as one might expect, nearly all Israelis and most American Jews who see themselves as pro-Israel have never heard of J Street and certainly don’t subscribe to the J Street agenda. Furthermore, while Ben Ami and friends remain frustrated that it is taking so long for Jews and Muslims to resolve their issues like good Christians, my thought is that if it doesn’t look like a duck, doesn’t walk like a duck, and doesn’t talk like a duck, it isn’t a duck.

To date, J Street doesn’t look like a pro-Israel lobby, it doesn’t walk like a pro-Israel lobby, and it certainly doesn’t talk like a pro-Israel lobby. It merely quacks along a street leading nowhere.

Lyon (Lenny) Roth is a senior executive at an international wealth management firm, a member of Ben Gurion University’s Board of Governors and the Jewlicious Board of Directors.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news – www.globes-online.com – on November 11, 2009

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2009

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