J Street Jiu-Jitsu
How the group navigated the Soros scandal
The right will still have J Street to kick around—and, in a sense, it has itself to blame.
The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization looked on the ropes last month. It had, at best, obfuscated about having received roughly one-third of its revenue—some $245,000—for the period between July 2008 and July 2009 from controversial left-wing donor George Soros. It further turned out that Mort Halperin, a Soros confidante and senior adviser to Soros’s Open Society Institute, had been one of J Street’s unrevealed officers and directors—which critics seized on as the smoking-gun evidence that Soros wished to substantially influence the group.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the woodshed. J Street honcho Jeremy Ben-Ami apologized to the group’s board, and the board decided to stick with him. Ben-Ami apologized to supporters. It’s not a month later, and despite—because of?—calls from the right for candidates like Joe Sestak and Robin Carnahan to return J Street funds, J Street is back to raising money for its preferred candidates: Earlier this week for two New York Democrats; now for Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), who is facing a tough challenge from Republican Joel Pollak. In fact, Schakowsky is using calls for her to return J Street’s money—calls predicated on the Soros revelations—as fundraising leverage: “I reject calls by my GOP opponent to return campaign contributions from JStreetPAC,” she said, “and his cynical attempt to turn Israel into a partisan wedge issue at this delicate and potentially historic moment.”
J Street’s so-far successful strategy has been to change the conversation from whose money it took to what it and its opponents respectively stand for, and trust its opponents, who might have been feeling a touch of vindication from the Soros news, to overreach. Ben-Ami concluded his original apology, all the way back in September, by going on the offensive: “Those who attack J Street over the sources of its funding are not good government watchdogs,” he argued. “In reality, our opponents are on the other side of a broader ideological battle over American and Israeli policy, looking for any excuse to avoid debating the merits of the issues. They are defending an indefensible status quo and would lead us to a future that ensures perpetual conflict and violence, not long-term security for Israel or the United States.”
And it has worked. Kudos to James Besser for predicting all of this, also several weeks ago:
The ongoing, over-the-top opposition to J Street by so many Jews on the right—and even some Jewish leaders seen as centrists—may ultimately help limit the damage caused by the group’s inexplicably ham-handed actions on Soros.
J Street will “probably be saved by enemies who greatly overstate their case,” [former J Street legislative director Doug Bloomfield] said. “That hysteria is part of what put J Street on the map in the first place, and overreaction of those same enemies may save them from more damage.” …
J Street isn’t just wrong on the issue of the best route to peace for Israel, these critics say, it’s anti-Israel, it’s comprised of self-hating Jews, it’s a shill for a president who is determined to punish an Israel he despises and an apologist for Islamic terrorists.
And George Soros isn’t just a very rich guy who’s pretty far on the left and lacks warm fuzzies about Israel but a vicious Israel hater and probably an anti-Semite to boot.
We’ve heard this stuff since J Street was created in 2008, and if anything it’s just gotten more extreme in the past year. It’s a good bet it’ll be ratcheted up still further in the wake of the new revelations.
Such rhetorical overkill plays well with a lot of Republicans and with the Jewish right—but among Democrats it could very well produce a sympathetic backlash for a group that acted really stupidly by lying about Soros’ donations—but will be seen by many progressives as the victim of extremist rhetoric from the right despite that.
It would be wrong to call this a failure of Republican Jewish forces. They have assuredly raised a pretty penny from all of this themselves. The Emergency Committee for Israel is still getting its footing, but it will be around; its prime candidate, Rep. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, will probably defeat Sestak in their Senate race. But I do think the right’s pushback against J Street, and its broader pattern of misconstruing J Street’s agenda, actually gave J Street something to lean on as the winds of scandal raged. If that pushback hadn’t existed, would those winds have topled J Street? We’ll never know.
J Street Raises Money Off Raising Money Off J Street [Capital J]
Related: Will The Jewish Right Save J Street From Itself? [Political Insider]
Earlier: Soros Funding of J Street Revealed