Friday, August 19, 2022

Twenty years ago, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) were considered two of the leading organizations helping shape U.S. policy towards Israel. In 2007, J Street emerged and promised to be the “political home of pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”

Since its inception, J Street’s approach to “pro-Israel” advocacy has involved pressuring Israel over “the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory.” The group also called the decision by Ben & Jerry’s to cease sales within “settlements on occupied Palestinian territory” a “principled decision.” In 2019, Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s president, stated that American aid to Israel is not intended to be a “blank check.”

While J Street’s annual conference in 2009 attracted over 1,500 participants, its gathering in 2019 grew to over 4,000 progressive activists, with several Democratic presidential candidates choosing to attend the J Street event over appearing at the bipartisan AIPAC annual meeting in Washington, D.C. According to its website, in 2020, J Street netted an income of over $10 million, and today boasts an impressive consortium of approximately “900 rabbis, cantors rabbinic and cantoral students who support J Street’s ‘pro-Israel, pro-peace mission’.”

While it is true that the lobby’s increasing success is in part attributed to a leftward shift within the Democratic Party, its expansion could not have occurred without the backing of Jewish organizations like the Westchester Jewish Council (WJC). Unlike the Conference of Presidents, which rejected J Street’s bid to join the Jewish umbrella group back in 2014, the WJC openly promotes J Street as one of its member organizations.

Formed in 1975 as the Westchester Jewish Conference, the WJC represents over 135 Jewish organizations ranging from prominent pro-Israel groups such as Friends of the IDF (FIDF) and AIPAC, to left-leaning lobbies like the New Israel Fund (NIF). Yet over the last several months, WJC’s endorsement of J Street-sponsored events has eclipsed its promotion of other groups that are firm pro-Israel advocates.

In the days surrounding Israel’s war against Hamas last May, several WJC member organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, held briefings informing the Jewish community of the challenges facing Israel as it sought to defend itself against the barrage of rocket attacks. Yet on May 14, as Israeli Jews were contending with rockets raining down on them, the WJC encouraged its Westchester constituents to sign up for a virtual J Street event titled “From Westchester to Washington: New Approaches to The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” featuring anti-Israel Congressman Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Jeremy Ben-Ami. Most recently, the WJC promoted—to its 1,400 followers on Facebook—a virtual town hall between J Street and Congressman Bowman on November 29.

Just as Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s meeting with a J Street delegation earlier this month may have been aimed at ingratiating Israel’s coalition government to the Biden administration (though Bennett also claims he is trying to revive broader bipartisan support for Israel both in Washington and at the grassroots level), the November 29 J Street event is pandering to Congressman Bowman who, while in Israel, sent a tweet decrying Israel’s “occupation.”

That event is also intended to highlight Bowman’s vote last September to approve funds for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Despite ultimately voting to fund the Iron Dome, the congressman made clear that any future aid to Israel is both conditional and debatable, and blamed his original opposition to replenishing the defense system on moderate Democratic leaders who threw “something on our table last-minute,” and expected blind support.

Westchester County is home to the eighth-largest Jewish community in the United States, and a sizable Modern Orthodox community, of which I am a part. The WJC board reflects the diversity within Westchester, and consists of members from varying religious and political backgrounds. Yet the organization’s timid approach to Israel advocacy was evidenced earlier this summer when the group co-sponsored a rally against “antisemitism and all forms of hate.” While a handful of brave speakers correctly proclaimed that anti-Zionism is, in fact, antisemitism, there existed a palpable sense of downplaying any mention of Israel while underscoring other forms of bigotry.

WJC members who may privately express reservations about granting J Street membership status also believe their personal objections should not detract from the group’s mission to foster dialogue and strengthen Westchester Jewish communal ties.

While defensible within some liberal circles, said allowances made for Israel are rarely applied to other issues. More specifically, would the WJC welcome into its fold an institution that harbored a less-than-friendly platform towards the LGBTQ community, or whose mission statement aligned with the pro-life movement? If the attempts to intellectualize the legitimization of a controversial stream of Israel advocacy remain unchecked, the Westchester Jewish community may find itself abetting organizations that seek to undermine Israel while also placing the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship in the hands of the Jewish state’s detractors.

The author is a writer and pro-Israel advocate. Her work has appeared in The Algemeiner, The Jerusalem Post, JNS and Israel Hayom.

By Irit Tratt


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