Email is a wonderful thing. Quick information bites. Easy to bookmark and save. Easy to use. Easy to pass along. And too easy to misuse in email strings that spew incorrect information, but take on the air of authoritative commentary.
Many of those email strings circulating within the Jewish community now relate to J Street. Yes, recipients of those emails could use Snopes, the Internet fact checking website of record, to fact check. Yes, Snopes exists because of the very human tendency to self select whatever “information” best supports a person’s preconceived notions, so that would seem to make fact checking even more important.
But, for many, that would be one step too many. If you get something that fits your thinking in the initial email, why take the chance of learning it may not be true?
So today www.Bumpspot.com is your Snopes. Today I’ll outline short snippets of four emails that I have received in just the last few months and also provide my analysis; read no further if you prefer to avoid bubble busting:
”J Street, that so-called pro peace, pro-Israel group NEVER criticizes anything the Palestinians do. They ALWAYS go out of their way to criticize Israel. Let me send you this email I got from Stand With Us. They explain it all.”
(Comment: If you ever receive something from (or quoting) “Stand With Us,” assume there are more chapters to the story. Stand With Us also has an unfortunate tendency to use straw man arguments. And a simple “google” search or view of J Street’s website will reflect the many times J Street has both supported Israeli actions and attacked Palestinian actions.)
“ If J Street was really pro Israel they wouldn’t ALWAYS join with the Palestinians and blast Israel in public. That’s why Israeli officials won’t even meet with them.”
(Comment: The Israeli government DOES meet with J Street officials. In fact, I recently returned from a small meeting with Ambassador Oren and senior J Street leadership. One clear takeaway was that the Israeli government now sees J Street as a critical organization to utilize in helping Israel execute the implementation process of any peace agreement with the Palestinians.)
“J Street supported the Goldstone Report even though Goldstone primarily blamed Israel instead of Hamas for the Gaza deaths, injuries and damage.”
(Comment: If J Street calling the report “biased and one sided” is supportive, then this criticism is accurate. J Street did encourage Israel to conduct its own investigation, which Israel, to its credit, eventually did.)
“J Street supporters have far more in common with Israel’s enemies than with its friends. George Soros, that anti-Israel Jewish billionaire, provides most of J Street’s funding. Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans are on their Board of Directors. J Street actually defends Iran and its nuclear program. And J Street even opposes Israel’s right to respond to the Hamas and Hezbollah bombs, bullets and missiles.”
(Comment: This last string is at least comprehensive in its inaccuracies. J Street was not clear enough about Soros’s funding, but it amounted to only 7% of all funds J Street has raised to date. Regardless, a fair reading of Soros’s many statements and activities does not suggest he is guilty of being anti-Israel as much as he is, at times, guilty of very clumsy p.r. and poor articulation of his views. J Street’s support is almost entirely from Jewish Americans and that is who comprises J Street’s Board. Regardless, there would be no logical reason for J Street to discourage broad based (non Jewish) pro Israel supporters any more than Israel has discouraged Pastor Hagee’s Christians United For Israel group as supporters. J Street is strongly opposed to an Iranian nuclear program, but does not see attacking Iran at this point as a wise move. This also is, and has been, America’s position going back to the Bush years. And J Street DOES believe Israel has a right and duty to respond if she is attacked by Hamas and Hezbollah. J Street also believes that back channel discussions with Hamas and Hezbollah should not be precluded. In fact, Israel currently uses various individuals and countries like Egypt and Turkey to informally act on its behalf today. This is the same strategy Israel employed for many years with Egypt and Jordan before they eventually reached a peace agreement.)
Unfortunately, email strings have acted as “truth destroyers.” They make it easier for so many on both sides of the Israeli and Palestinian contretemps to cling to innuendo and heresay along with their over ripe narratives of who did what to whom 2000, 20 or even two years ago. We are, after all, now a society that appears to prefer its news fair and balanced, but also interpreted. CNN just gives us the facts. Fox and MSNBC so conveniently tell us how and what to think. That no doubt largely explains their meteoric growth and CNN’s continuing relevancy fade.
It is certainly much easier to accept whatever commentators and editorial writers we agree with say than to consider any information that might force us to form a different opinion. And email strings are oh so definitive. So consider this column to be an email string that today is co-sponsored by Rabbi Steven Morgen of Houston’s Congregation Beth Yeshurun, the largest conservative synagogue in America.
Rabbi Morgen was not and is not a J Street supporter. But he took me up on my invitation to meet with Dan Kohl, J Street’s National Political Director, and Anne Gregory, J Street’s Southern Field Director.
As a strong AIPAC supporter, Rabbi Morgen certainly has been subjected to some of the many vicious email strings about J Street as well as the generally negative feedback from his congregants, who are, after all, located in a fairly conservative southern state. The easy thing to do would have been to avoid broaching the J Street topic. But, to Rabbi Morgen’s credit, he conducted his own research. He admits that led him to form a more enlightened and nuanced view of J Street’s potential utility.
While we certainly do not share the same point of view on all of the J Street issues he discusses below, we both share a passion for an Israel that is able to soon live in peace with its neighbors. We also share a passion for primary research and informed analysis. If that means we start a trend that puts Snopes out of business, then so be it.
J Street – Myths, Facts, and My Opinion
Rabbi Steven Morgen, October 22, 2010
I remember the evening all too well. It was 15 years ago and I was a student in rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. I had a once-a-month job at the University of Connecticut Hillel house, acting as Hillel Rabbi. That Friday night we had Shabbat services and dinner. I stayed with Diane overnight at the Catholic Newman Center next door, and in the morning we led services for the students and had lunch. As the sun set I went back to the Hillel House as planned to make Havdalah with the students and have a quiet evening socializing with them. But shortly after Diane and I had arrived, the students came in, and they were crying.
Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, had been assassinated, just after singing a song of peace at a Peace Rally in Tel Aviv. We quickly made Havdalah and turned on the television. And we sat together and cried watching the news reports. On Sunday and Monday we had special programs at JTS in New York. We were all in a state of shock. We watched the television coverage of the funeral as a community at the seminary. President Clinton was among those who gave a eulogy, ending with two Hebrew words: “Shalom Haver,” “Goodbye Friend.”
Diane and I had been in Israel just the year before as part of my Rabbinical School program. In 1994-95 the country was all a-buzz with the Oslo Peace Process. Hope was in the air. We watched once as a Presidential motorcade with President Clinton drove past us on the street. Peace seemed just around the corner.
But there were troubling signs even then. Terrorism was still posing a very real danger, as buses and other public areas were sometimes bombed. And the political rhetoric for the coming Israeli elections was getting fairly nasty. Arabs who opposed the “Peace Process” tried to derail it with terrorism. Jewish extremists who tried to derail the peace process were calling Rabin a traitor, and putting up posters of Rabin wearing an Arafat-like Kafiyah, or head scarf, some of them even had a gun-site-like target painted around his face. The political rhetoric at the time was feverish, it was nasty, and it was incendiary.
Rabin was killed not by an Arab terrorist, but by a Jewish religious zealot. A fanatic who was taught to believe that Rabin was giving away land promised to us by God, and was therefore violating God’s will by negotiating some of it away for peace. The assassin also believed that instead of peace, Israelis would be setting themselves up for another war – a war in which thousands of Israelis would die trying to hold on to the territory that would have remained as part of Israel under the supposed peace treaty. And because Rabin was “guilty” of giving away land against God’s will, and potentially guilty of causing untold Jewish deaths in the predicted war that would follow, this assassin believed that Jewish law permitted Rabin to be killed – without a trial, and without deliberation.
Of course, Yigal Amir, I hate to even mention his name, was wrong. Criminally wrong. Murderously wrong. The law he relied on allows someone to stop a murderer from committing a murder, even if you have to kill the murderer to do so. But the law itself is called the law of “Rodef,” the law of the “Pursuer,” because the murderer has to be pursuing the act of murder at the time you stop him. You cannot claim the defense of “Rodef” against an imagined murder that might happen at some distant future time.
This last week I met with two members from “J Street,” an official lobbying organization that proclaims itself to be “Pro Israel and Pro Peace.” Many of you may have heard of this organization, and others probably haven’t. For those of you who have heard something about J Street, you have probably heard that it is controversial. You may have heard that it is secretly anti-Israel, or that some of its donors or leaders are anti-Israel, or that it does not support the idea that Israel should be the identified as the Jewish State. And in some of the internet media and blogs, members of J Street are called “self-hating Jews” or collaborators with “the enemy.”
And as I reflected on Rabin’s death, now 15 years ago, I concluded that we need to constantly remind ourselves of the power of words, and to be careful how we express ourselves, especially in this type of situation which is – for many of us – very emotional. And so, after meeting with these two J Street representatives, who impressed me as being very sincere in their desire for a strong and secure Jewish State of Israel, and after doing some independent research of my own, I want to present to you this evening some myths and facts about J Street, and conclude with my own personal opinion.[i]
Myth number one: J Street is not fully supportive of Israel.
If you go to their web site, you can see that they support the Two State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and they see that solution as providing for a Jewish and Democratic State of Israel. They do not believe that someone needs to support every policy of the government of Israel to be considered “Pro Israel,” and I would agree with that. I certainly have disagreements with Israeli policies from time to time – particularly with respect to the need for recognition of un-Orthodox streams of Judaism. I would love to see the day when I (or one of my Masorti rabbinic colleagues) could perform a wedding in Israel that would be recognized by the government, or when funding of Reform and Conservative congregations in Israel are on a par with Orthodox synagogues. I would also like to see the government be more pro-active in taking down some of the illegal “outpost” settlements that some religious extremists have set up in the West Bank without approval of the government. So I certainly recognize that one can be critical of a particular policy of the Israeli government without being “anti-Israel.”
In addition, J Street recognizes the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose not only to Israel but to the entire Middle East, as well as Europe and even the United States. They strongly oppose Iran’s efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and are in favor of economic sanctions against Iran to try and prevent that from happening. However, they are opposed to military action against Iran by either the United States or Israel.[ii]
No one, of course, who knows anything about military combat would like to see a war with Iran. Particularly after two very long, expensive, and challenging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and knowing the potential cost in “blood and treasure” that another war in Iran would entail, it is horrifying to contemplate the consequences of a military engagement with Iran. BUT, what if economic sanctions do not stop Iran from proceeding with their nuclear weapons program? Which is more horrifying to contemplate: a war with Iran, or an Iran who has already openly threatened to annihilate Israel and has obtained a nuclear weapon that would give them the means to do just that?
What about the other consequences of a nuclear Iran? Suddenly all of the Arab countries in the area either will race to obtain nuclear weapons of their own, creating a nuclear tinderbox in the region, or they will align themselves with Iran and against the United States because they will realize that Iran poses a greater threat to them if they do not capitulate. I am not, by any means suggesting that we should go to war against Iran in such a case. But I am suggesting that this is not by any means a simple question, and J Street is simply dodging the difficulty. In any event, let us hope it does not come to that.
J Street recognizes that Hamas supports terror against Israeli civilians and they clearly state that this is reprehensible and abominable. But they do suggest the old adage that you make “peace with your enemies, not your friends.” I am considerably less interested in dealing with Hamas. It is not just that they support terrorism. Their constitution talks about the Jews being the enemies of God and Islam, and that it is the duty of Muslims to annihilate Israel and the Jewish people. Their Imams regularly preach this message in their mosques and on television. Until that dynamic changes, I don’t see what the point of engaging them is at all – whether or not they have significant support from Palestinians. My advice would be to find ways to demonstrate to the Palestinians that Hamas is not a helpful, effective or positive political force for achieving a Palestinian State or any of the government services, infrastructure, or facilities of a civilized society. And at the same time to promote counter-education for Palestinians that teaches tolerance, respect and understanding of Jews and Israel that have the potential to lead to truly peaceful coexistence.
J Street’s web site clearly declares that it “supports Israel’s right to defend herself militarily and believes that maintaining Israel’s qualitative advantage in the region is one essential element of a strategy to keep Israel secure for the long term.” They also state on their web site, however, “that it is equally important to Israel’s long-term survival and security to achieve a negotiated, diplomatic two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to define internationally accepted borders for Israel, and to gain broader diplomatic acceptance of Israel in the Middle East.” I don’t know who is really opposed to this agenda. The question is how do the parties arrive at this negotiated peace?
During the Gaza military operation in late 2008 and early 2009, J Street issued the following statement: “While this morning’s airstrikes by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza can be understood and even justified in the wake of recent rocket attacks, we believe that real friends of Israel recognize that escalating the conflict will prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability.”
On this statement, I think reasonable minds could easily disagree, and I for one, do disagree. Again, no civilized person wants war, or wants to be put in a position of having to go to war. And it would certainly be much better if we could all “just get along.” But every now and then it seems that simply is not possible. And it is not surprising that such a case exists between Hamas and Israel when you consider the rhetoric that Hamas is constantly pumping out about the Jews and Israel. And so the most you can do, when you are forced into a military conflict, is to try and avoid civilian and innocent casualties. And there is abundant evidence that Israel did just that in the Gaza war – more so than perhaps any other nation in any other conflict. The problem is that Hamas knows the Western Civilized mentality of not wanting to hurt civilians. And they used that to their advantage: with civilian human shields, sometimes dressing up their combatants in civilian clothes, launching rockets from schools and mosques, and so on.
Which brings me to a related issue. Most of you I am sure are aware of the U.N.’s investigation of the Gaza operation, and the Goldstone Report that was produced by the investigating committee, which accused Israel of “war crimes” and of “intentionally targeting civilians,” among other things. I don’t have time tonight to rehash all of the fatal flaws of this report, but it has been suggested that J Street facilitated meetings of Congressmen with Richard Goldstone after the report was published. Apparently, that was not done officially by J Street but rather by a few members of J Street who felt it is always a good thing for people to talk with one another.
I have to say that personally I think that was a huge mistake. Whether Richard Goldstone wants to talk to Congressmen or not, and whether Congressmen want to talk with Richard Goldstone or not, that is their business. But I frankly do not see how an organization that considers itself to be “Pro Israel” can get involved in any way with those meetings when the Goldstone Report was so clearly flawed, biased and distorted against Israel as it was. I do not understand what possible purpose facilitating such meetings would serve that could possibly be “Pro Israel.” But that’s just me.
The most recent buzz on J Street has involved its funders. It turns out that the liberal Billionaire George Soros and his family have made significant contributions to J Street. Soros is a sort of lightening rod for politically conservative pundits and analysts, and he has also written that he believes that AIPAC – the mainstream lobbying organization for a strong US-Israel relationship – is too powerful and too “Pro Israel.” In addition, J Street had been insisting for some time that Soros had neither founded nor funded J Street, and now that turns out to be only partially true. This is another miss-step that J Street now acknowledges, and it has apologized for the misleading information.
Some argue that J Street’s “Advisory Council” is made up of anti-Israel ideologues. Their web site responds to this contention by admitting that “Some on the Council have been publicly critical of Israeli policy – and so has J Street at times. We do not equate opposition to the policies of a particular Israeli government or official with being anti-Israel – just as we don’t equate opposition to a particular American party or official with being anti-American. We have a particular view on the policies that would be most beneficial to Israel and to the United States – and we realize that there are those who disagree. We urge an open and robust debate on the merits of our positions and an end to ad hominem attacks and name-calling against our supporters.”
On this last point I heartily agree with J Street.
Now, unfortunately, in a short sermon on a Friday night, it is impossible to spell out more details about the Myths and Facts associated with J Street, but I hope this has given you at least some idea of what J Street is – and what it is not.
I want to conclude with four of my own personal observations and opinions.
First, I do believe that J Street and at least most of its leaders and supporters are sincere in their desire to promote peace and security for a Jewish State of Israel. In that sense, they are indeed “Pro Israel and Pro Peace.” They favor the Two State solution which I also believe is the only reasonable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: One Jewish State, and One Palestinian State. Each of the two peoples able to express their national identity in an independent sovereign country living side-by-side in peaceful coexistence.
Second, J Street appeals to a certain demographic of the Jewish people: typically younger, more “idealistic,” certainly more liberal. These Jews honestly believe that if more pressure could be put on Israel to do certain things, the Palestinians would respond favorably and agree to make the necessary peace agreement with Israel. I sadly disagree. I wish that were so, but my idealism has been confronted with the reality of the past 10 years. Nevertheless, I do believe that it is important for us to engage this demographic of Jews who are young and idealistic, and to have an address for their idealism so that they can engage in the Zionist vision of a Jewish State. We Jews have argued for centuries over matters both great and small, and I believe that the dialog and debate have strengthened us, not weakened us.
Third, we need to be able to express our differences of opinion – especially with those who essentially agree with us on the final goal and vision – without name-calling, without ugly and defamatory statements, and without ratcheting up the temperature of the atmosphere. It is good to be engaged, and to be passionate about something that is truly important. But at the same time, we should guard against increasing hostility among ourselves.
Finally, whether you decide to support J Street, whether you agree with their approach to achieving peace, or not, AIPAC – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee – is still the central address for fostering and maintaining a close and friendly relationship between the United States and Israel. AIPAC is not, as some seem to believe, a conservative-hawkish organization. It is bi-partisan, and it represents liberals as well as conservatives. Its focus is simply to promote a strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel. And I believe that that is a crucial pillar necessary to support any peace treaty between Israel and her neighbors.
May we all find ways to engage in the effort to foster peace, understanding, and respect for each other and for all humanity.
[i] Sources I reviewed include the following:
- “Myths and Facts About J Street” http://www.jstreet.org/page/j-street-myths-and-facts (from which the material in quotations in this sermon are taken)
- Other pages from the J Street Web Site
- Barry Rubin (a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, the Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the IDC, and a senior fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center’s International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism. He is also Research Director of the IDC’s Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy, and Strategy; the editor of the journal Turkish Studies; the editor of The Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA); a member of the editorial board of Middle East Quarterly. He blogs regularly at The Rubin Report) “Exposed: J Street is an Anti-Israel Wolf in Dove’s Clothing” at http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/2009/10/exposed-j-street-is-anti-israel-wolf-in.html. Mostly Ad Hominem attacks with some references to other articles that I read and have noted below.
– “Exposing the J Street Fraud” at http://rubinreports.blogspot.com/2009/08/exposing-j-street-fraud-why-is-pro.htmlSuggests that J Street opposes economic sanctions against Iran (but see J Street’s Myths and Facts for counter-argument), and that J Street is closely linked with Iranian lobby, and that there are no Israelis who actually support J Street (but J Street claims otherwise, as one can gather from its web site which lists quite a number of Israelis who supposedly support J Street – or at least are willing to work with J Street), and that J Street has never taken any actual “Pro Israel” positions. J Street’s web site states its position with respect to Israel though. It is in favor of “Two State Solution” with a secure, Jewish State of Israel. Several details of what this would look like are also set forth on their web page. The problem is that to the extent these positions are no different than any other “Pro Israel” organization, J Street is only adding another voice to a pretty strong, pre-existing chorus. Hence it is hardly noticed if/when J Street says something “Pro Israel.”
- Jeffrey Goldberg “J Street, Down the Rabbit Hole” The Atlantic at http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/09/j-street-down-the-rabbit-hole/63843/Noting that J Street was less than fully honest with its supporters (and detractors) by claiming it had not received funds from controversial liberal philanthropist George Soros, when in fact it had received significant contributions from Mr. Soros and his family. Soros is described as a “non-friend” of Israel by Goldberg. In addition to Soros, there is a strange donor from Hong Kong, also described in this article. I didn’t get into this issue in my sermon because of limited time – and the fact that, strange as all this is, I wanted to focus on the positions J Street takes, to argue the issues. More to the point (in my opinion) Goldberg relays the information first published in the Washington Timesthat J Street staff helped facilitate meetings of Judge Goldstone with members of Congress. This has been essentially admitted by Jeremy Ben Ami, the founder and President of J Street.
- Lenny Ben-David (a former senior member of AIPAC’s staff) “J Street’s a Crooked Road” Jerusalem Post, September 27, 2010, at http://www.jpost.com/LandedPages/PrintArticle.aspx?id=189445 Suggests that J Street is actually the fulfillment of George Soros’ “manifesto” of 2007 in the New York Review of Books, “On Israel, America and AIPAC” in which Soros (among other things) decried the “power” of Israel’s lobby (AIPAC) along the lines of the Walt and Mearsheimer duo. (See excerpt from Soros’ article in the following Ben-David article cited below) Ben-David also analyzes the mysterious Hong Kong funding connection at greater length, along with other apparent funders of J Street who are problematic, to say the least. He adds another piece of information with respect to the Judge Goldstone connection: Mort Halperin an officer/director of J Street and, according to Ben-David, he also “serves as senior adviser at Soros’ Open Society Institute. In October 2009, at the height of congressional condemnation of the Goldstone Report, Judge Richard Goldstone sent a letter to members of Congress defending his criticism of Israel. One enterprising reporter checked the document’s “properties” and discovered the real author: Mort Halperin.”
– “Showdown on J Street” October 20, 2009, at : http://pajamasmedia.com/blog/showdown-on-j-street/In this article, written over a year ago, Ben-David asks J Street some pointed questions about their funders, the leadership of J Street, their background and agenda.
- Walter Russell Mead (according to Wikipedia he is the Henry A. Kissinger senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relationsand was the James Clarke Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, and is recognized as one of the country’s leading students of American foreign policy, and he voted for Barack Obama in 2008) “The Problem with J Street” from his blog at http://blogs.the-american-interest.com/wrm/2010/10/16/the-problem-with-j-street/ Mead (who is not Jewish) argues that J Street is irrelevant. If its purpose is to present a different “Jewish” voice that is more critical of Israel, it is of no consequence because the fact is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are Pro Israel, and that (and not “Jewish” pressure on Congress) is what shapes American foreign policy.
- Eli Lake “Soros Revealed as Funder of Liberal Jewish-American Lobby”, The Washington Times, September 24, 2010, at http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/sep/24/soros-funder-liberal-jewish-american-lobby/print/. The article which broke this story.
[ii]It seems to me that J Street may have modified some of its positions vis a vis Israel over the last couple of years, perhaps in response to the criticism it received from the other “Pro Israel” organizations that the positions it initially held were really not helpful for advancing peace or Israel’s security. One of the articles I read, for instance suggested that J Street may have been less supportive of sanctions against Iran initially, whereas now they claim to favor such sanctions. If they have moderated their views on issues like these, then all the more so it is important for the “Pro Israel” organizations to continue to engage J Street and argue the issues. A vigorous debate may help J Street’s truly “Pro Israel” members to understand why the rest of us see some of their other positions as so problematic.