Film examines J Street’s ambiguous approach to pro-Israel groups

Film examines J Street’s ambiguous approach to pro-Israel groups

Two American Jewish filmmakers are producing a sympathetic documentary about the left-leaning group, but struggle to define its relationship with the larger pro-Israel camp

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

People pick up J street lobbying material during a conference in Washington DC (image capture: J Street: The Documentary trailer)
People pick up J street lobbying material during a conference in Washington DC (image capture: J Street: The Documentary trailer)

NEW YORK – J Street bills itself as the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby. Its name is meant to evoke a real-life street in Washington DC: K Street, famously the home of many of the American capital’s most influential lobbying firms.

But those designations aren’t mere branding; they tell a story. In Washington’s alphabetically named street grid, there is no J Street. It is the missing street, and the organization’s tagline of “pro-Israel, pro-peace” is thought by many to be a statement about what else is missing in Washington, a pro-Israel lobby that supports peace efforts.

That implicit standing critique of the pro-Israel community in Washington has been a built-in source of tension between J Street and other groups, particularly the pro-Israel giant, AIPAC, which has assiduously avoided expressing its opinion of the smaller upstart since its founding in 2008.

Now, a new documentary may shed new light, and raise the old questions, about J Street’s stance toward the rest of the pro-Israel camp in Washington.

“J Street: The Documentary,” by Ken Winikur and Ben Avishai, is not affiliated with the organization, but it is openly supportive of its goals and positions, as its Kickstarter fundraising video makes clear.

And it seems to share the view attributed to the group – though it was denied to The Times of Israel by J Street officials – that the rest of the pro-Israel community is less than supportive, and even hostile, toward peace efforts.

“What people were frustrated by was kind of the monopolization of what it means to be pro-Israel,” Ben Avishai told The Times of Israel in a recent interview. “People felt there was an atmosphere that to be pro-Israel was one thing — to support Israeli governmental policy no matter what it is. I think why people have responded to J Street the way [they have] is that that’s not what J Street is saying.”

J Street’s view, he explained, “is that a two-state solution and American involvement to make that happen — that, too, is pro-Israel.”

On the documentary’s Kickstarter fundraising website, the filmmakers explained that J Street “challenges incumbent political forces in Washington and around the US — groups that claim to be ‘pro-Israel’ but actually pressure American politicians to endorse the occupation and speak in platitudes about America’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami (photo credit: Courtesy J Street)
Jeremy Ben-Ami (photo credit: Courtesy J Street)

That criticism, the film materials imply, is shared by J Street itself. The film’s fundraising trailer quotes J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami saying, “This isn’t just a fight for Israel. This is a fight for the heart and soul of the American Jewish community.”

The campaign is looking to raise some $35,000 by a May 9 deadline to produce the film; it has already reached $21,000 of that goal.

Do the filmmakers believe “incumbent political forces in Washington” — the most famous and influential of which is AIPAC — work to “endorse the occupation?”

“AIPAC has done tremendous work in securing the State of Israel and furthering the health of the state,” Winikur said. “We’re certainly not interested in saying AIPAC is evil.”

But “we’re still struggling to define [AIPAC’s role] within the context of the film. AIPAC historically has served a very important role, and the question is, has that run its course? Is it time for a broader dialogue with the broader community about this issue?” Winikur asks.

AIPAC declined to comment for this story, but the group’s website lists its stated view on the peace process.

“AIPAC strongly supports a two-state solution and works tirelessly to bring peace to the region. A two-state solution – a Jewish state of Israel living in peace with a demilitarized Palestinian state – with an end to all claims is the clear path to resolving this generations-old conflict,” the website reads.

“We’re not looking to demonize AIPAC with this film,” explained Avishai. “But we are looking to broaden this conversation so that pro-Israel can also mean being anti-occupation without people being called anti-Israel.”

That tension — from describing a pro-Israel camp that urges US leaders to “endorse” the occupation, to insisting they are not looking to vilify pro-Israel groups, to then implying that pro-Israel groups do not accept principled opposition to the occupation as “pro-Israel” — seems to lie at the heart of the film.

Shortly after the interview with The Times of Israel, the language on the Kickstarter page was changed to remove the reference to groups who pressure politicians to “endorse the occupation.”

The new text reads: “The term ‘pro-Israel’ must mean more than speaking in platitudes about the two nations’ ‘special relationship’ while turning a blind eye to political decisions that go against core democratic principals (sic).”

It adds: “J Street’s strong stance challenges incumbent political forces in Washington and around the US and has revealed a fault line in the American Jewish community. A debate is raging.”

The pro-Israel camp is now accused of mere blindness to (and not actual advocacy for) occupation.

For its part, J Street rejects out of hand the suggestion that it believes the rest of the pro-Israel camp supports the occupation or is opposed to peace.

“No, absolutely not,” said Jessica Rosenblum, J Street’s director of media and communications, in an interview with The Times of Israel. “The framing you’re pointing to is an invention of the media. People like to simplify — David and Goliath, good and bad — for the sake of the neatness of the narrative. The media has always sought to paint J Street as a counterweight to AIPAC and other organizations in the more established Jewish community. That’s not the way we think of ourselves. We certainly don’t want to represent ourselves [that way].”

Where does J Street see itself in the context of the pro-Israel advocacy camp?

In part, Rosenblum explained, J Street’s unique role has to do with its different priorities.

“J Street’s raison d’etre, the very reason it exists, [is] advocacy for a two-state solution. That is the top priority on our agenda, and we believe that it will take active engagement of our political leaders and our grassroots to advance that goal,” she said.

“That’s not a critique of AIPAC,” she insisted. “It’s an affirmative description of J Street, of what’s important to us. Your question assumes a diametrical opposition: you’re either for peace or against. We’re founded to fill a vacuum, to change the conversation on Israel, not in opposition to anyone. I certainly wouldn’t cast the Jewish community as a whole as pro-occupation or pro-settlement.”

In fact, she added, “While I don’t know if I can take responsibility for all 180,000 of our constituents, I defy anyone to find a quote from Jeremy [Ben-Ami] or any leader in the organization” that makes such an accusation against the general pro-Israel camp.

The film has yet to be released, so discussion of it is limited to interviews, marketing materials and a fundraising trailer. But in conversation with The Times of Israel, the filmmakers pointed to one major point where their views intersect with those of J Street: that American Jewish advocacy can and should have a profound influence on the advancement and outcome of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

“Every kind of major figure that we’ve interviewed, from [former prime minister Ehud] Olmert to the PLO ambassador [to the US] has said that it’s essential to have American involvement within this conversation,” explained Winikur.

“The American pro-Israel community speaks to the US government. This [citizen lobbying] happens on [issues ranging from] gun control to ethanol subsidies. This is how our democracy works. The US clearly has an important role to play. Therefore the American Jewish community clearly has an important role.”

“Other organizations exist for other things, and the two-state solution is a part of that [agenda],” said J Street’s Rosenblum, before repeating the organization’s refrain: J Street’s “very reason for being is to actively advocate for a two-state solution achieved through American leadership. That’s not a small thing [for us]; it’s our reason to exist.”

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