Israeli committee debates whether U.S. Jewish group is pro-Israel

March 23, 2011

Israeli lawmakers held a highly unusual hearing Wednesday to decide whether J Street, a Washington-based Jewish advocacy group that bills itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” ought to be declared anti-Israel.

The group’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, flew in to attend the two-hour session, which frequently deteriorated into a verbal brawl among members over what it means to be “pro-Israel” and who has a right to speak on Israel’s behalf, particularly abroad. It also revived a decades-old debate about what role, if any, Jews living outside the country should have in Israeli policymaking.

The hearing, convened by Danny Danon, the Likud party chairman of the Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs parliamentary committee, came at a time when right-wing Israeli politicians have accused human rights and advocacy groups in Israel of feeding an international campaign to portray the country’s conduct toward the Palestinians as villainous.

Some lawmakers have pushed for Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to investigate the foreign funding of such organizations. The move against J Street, some observers here said, appeared to be an extension of the effort to combat perceived attacks on Israel from within its own ranks.

J Street, which was founded three years ago, says it has 170,000 members in the U.S. Jewish community, many of whom, organizers say, want an outlet for their support of Israel without feeling required to be in lock step with every government decision.

The new model is considered treasonous by those in Israel who think the American Jewish community’s role should be to back the Israeli government’s decision.

“J Street is not a Zionist organization. It cannot be pro-Israel,” lawmaker Otniel Schneller, a member of the centrist Kadima party, said at the hearing, asserting that the group’s love of Israel “has strings attached.”

Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former minister in charge of relations with Jews abroad, disagreed. “It’s not love conditioned on anything,” he said. “It is most important to enter a dialogue with people who care about Israel, not to boycott them.”

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has declined to meet with J Street representatives or take part in the group’s conferences. The most recent one, in February, drew 2,500 people.

The group — whose name is a nod to Washington’s lobbyist headquarters, K Street — has in particular pressed President Obama to push more aggressively for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israeli lawmakers at the hearing who came out against the group were especially critical of its opposition to Obama’s veto of a U.N. resolution this year condemning settlements.

J Street’s position prompted Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) to publicly dissociate himself from it. He called the group’s stance the “befuddled choice of an organization so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out.”

Ben-Ami told the committee that J Street thought the veto ran contrary to long-standing U.S. policy on settlements and undercut U.S. credibility. The United States has long stated its position that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are illegitimate and an obstacle to peace.

Questions were asked about J Street’s funders and its policy on Iran sanctions — critics said it opposed sanctions, but Ben-Ami said it lobbied in favor of them — and the group was accused of giving money to congressional candidates who lawmakers said were anti-Israel.

Ben-Ami sought to assuage the committee’s concerns and warned “of the grave risk that Israel faces in thinking that only those who hold certain political views can be your friends.”

“This country is too small, our people too few and the dangers too great for us to let political differences sever the bonds between Jews living here and abroad,” he said. “Now is not the time to push away your friends and family, even if we criticize one policy or another.”

Danon said he would call for a committee vote in a week or two to have J Street labeled a pro-Palestinian rather than a pro-Israeli group, a move Ben-Ami said in an interview could undermine the group’s efforts in the United States.

“We’re fighting a very, very difficult battle to be able to have the space at the table in the American Jewish community, to be allowed into synagogues, Hillels, federations, to speak,” he said. “And if the government of Israel, through the Knesset, has some kind of a resolution that says, ‘No, J Street is not pro-Israel,’ the doors will be shut.”

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