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On George Soros, J Street acknowledges a wrong turn

By Dan Eggen
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 10:09 PM

JStreet, an up-and-coming pro-Israel lobbying group, has attracted criticism from both its detractors and its usual supporters for allegedly making misleading statements about one of its top financial backers.

The liberal group's Web site suggested that J Street had received no funding from George Soros, the wealthy philanthropist who serves as a bete noire for many conservatives. It also said that donors were "primarily individual Jewish Americans" and that it "accepts no funding from foreign governments or from foreign organizations."

But confidential tax records mistakenly made public by the Internal Revenue Service seemed to undermine those characterizations - causing a major public relations problem for the fledgling group, which has enjoyed regular access to the White House and senior Obama administration officials.

The tax records, which were discovered by the conservative Washington Times newspaper, showed that Soros and his family had contributed $245,000 to J Street in 2008, and J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami acknowledged that the group has received $500,000 more since then as part of a three-year gift.

(On Leadership: Five ground rules for the billionaire's club)

After the report was published, Ben-Ami apologized on the group's Web site for "being less than clear" about Soros's support for the group.

"I said Mr. Soros did not help launch J Street or provide its initial funding, and that is true," Ben-Ami wrote. "I also said we would be happy to take his support. But I did not go the extra step to add that he did in fact start providing support in the fall of 2008, six months after our launch."

But Ben-Ami also said that many of the group's critics were attempting to use the donations to attack the group's reputation for ideological reasons.

"I'm thrilled to have him as a supporter," Ben-Ami said in an interview Wednesday, referring to Soros.

Since its founding, J Street has rapidly made its mark as a liberal alternative to the more hawkish - and far more influential - American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC.

(READ RELATED ARTICLE: Living Judaism in the West Bank)

J Street says it has raised more than $11 million so far, including more than $2 million through its political action committee. J Street's nonprofit arm, which collects the bulk of its revenue, is not required to disclose its donors under U.S. tax laws.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, a president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, called J Street "irresponsible" for its handling of the Soros issue and said it would hardly have been controversial to acknowledge the funding from the beginning.

"It will be somewhat damaging" to J Street's credibility, Gutow said. "But I don't think it will be a lethal blow or anything like that. I think they have a role and they will continue to fulfill it."

Soros adviser Michael Vachon said the Hungarian-born billionaire "made no secret" of his support for J Street, but he added that "no one ever asked."

Soros, who has described himself as a non-practicing Jew, has come under attack from some conservatives for his sharp criticism of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Vachon said right-wing critics "create a caricature of his views and then attack him."

(READ RELATED ARTICLE: Soros gives $100 million to Human Rights Watch)

"Mr. Soros believes that J Street plays an important role in the policy debate over the Middle East," Vachon said. "He is a financial contributor to the organization."

A brewing battle

The nation's alcohol wholesalers have been in a panic over the threat posed by direct sales from beer, wine and liquor producers to consumers, which have been gaining ground in the wake of favorable court rulings.

As The Post noted last month, the National Beer Wholesalers Association helped craft a bill to limit the practice - while also giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to House lawmakers. The group's main goal was to get a hearing on the legislation.

On Wednesday, it got one. The House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), heard testimony from lawmakers and others about the alcohol-sales legislation, which has been watered down from its earlier incarnation but still considered anathema to major producers.

The beer wholesalers rank as Conyers's biggest contributor this cycle, funneling more than $50,000 to him. The beer group and its ally, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, together have donated more than $4 million to lawmakers in 2010, records show.

Even so, it's unclear where the bill will go from here. There's always next year.

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