Year-Old Liberal Jewish Lobby Has Quickly Made Its Mark

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

When a group of Jewish liberals formed a lobbying and fundraising group called J Street a year ago, they had modest hopes of raising $50,000 for a handful of congressional candidates.

Instead, the group's political arm ended up funneling nearly $600,000 to several dozen Democrats and a handful of Republicans in 2008, making it Washington's leading pro-Israel PAC, according to Federal Election Commission expenditure records. Organizers say 33 of the group's 41 favored House and Senate candidates won their races.

"It certainly exceeded our expectations," said Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's executive director. "We didn't know what level of success we would have. But we think this is a message whose moment has come."

Riding alongside the ascent of President Obama and other liberal Democrats, J Street blends old-style politicking with a media-savvy approach aimed at altering the U.S. political debate over Israel and other Middle East issues.

The group bills itself as the "political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement" and argues that the debate over Israel in the United States has tilted to the right despite the liberal sympathies of most Jewish Americans. J Street supports a "two-state solution" for Israel and the Palestinians and generally favors diplomacy over military force, according to its Web site and statements.

But the group's aggressive tactics have prompted criticism from many established Jewish advocacy groups, which say the project appears calibrated to grab attention and often goes too far in its critiques of Israeli policy. Critics also say J Street has drawn most of its financial contributions from a relatively narrow group of supporters, raising questions about the breadth of its appeal.

J Street's emergence comes as Obama prepares to grapple with a new, hard-line government in Israel led by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has not endorsed a separate state for Palestinians, as the United States has done. Obama's Mideast envoy, George J. Mitchell, met with Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders yesterday in Jerusalem.

In a break with common practice among U.S. Jewish groups, J Street has not been shy about aggressively criticizing Israeli leaders. This month, the group launched an unusual YouTube video accusing new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of running a "racist and incendiary" election campaign and alleging that many U.S. Jewish leaders are "whitewashing what Lieberman stands for."

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, told the Jewish Week newspaper that such criticism "doesn't help Israel."

J Street also came under fire for loudly criticizing Israel's recent military incursion against the Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip. "While there is nothing 'right' in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing 'right' in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them," J Street wrote in a message to its members.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, called J Street's position on the Gaza conflict "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve."

One of J Street's biggest targets is Washington's preeminent pro-Israel lobbying group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has more than 100,000 members and spent $2.5 million on lobbying last year. J Street, by contrast, has spent little on lobbying so far; AIPAC does not directly contribute to candidates as J Street does.

AIPAC declined to comment on J Street or its aims. But Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the new group has a long way to go before it can rival AIPAC, which has often taken hawkish positions on Israeli defense issues.

"AIPAC has found a way over a half-century to tremendously energize people about their mission," Alterman said. "Can J Street build a donor base who believe that it is something that is vital in the way that AIPAC does? I don't know if that's possible."

Ben-Ami said he has no expectation that J Street will become as large as AIPAC, but he believes it can become influential enough to change the parameters of the U.S. debate over Israel policy. The group's budget is slated to double to $3 million in its second year, he said, and J Street is preparing to launch an education arm focused on U.S. college campuses. Ben-Ami said the group plans to announce that its new political director will be Dan Kohl, a former Obama fundraiser and nephew of Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).

Ben-Ami also said J Street deserves credit for attracting more than 100 co-sponsors in the House for a resolution welcoming Obama's appointment of Mitchell as Mideast envoy; AIPAC was neutral on the issue.

"The notion that 100 members of Congress are willing to sign on is a real accomplishment," Ben-Ami said. "We're not changing the world, but it's a signal that things are shifting."

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