Before I begin this post let me make a few disclosures. I once thought very highly of J Street. I don’t anymore. I think it’s a useful organization, but little more than that. At one time, I believed it would be an independent progressive voice for a just Jewish approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Instead, it has become a Jewish rooting section for the Obama presidency and its Middle East agenda or as Jeremy Ben Ami has proudly put it: “Obama’s blocking back.”
At least, that’s what its public statements reveal. I suspect that its leadership and donors may actually have a more genuinely progressive agenda which they are too cautious to display. But again, this isn’t the face they show the public so there’s little way to judge whether or not this is so. All this to say that I have no special axe to grind one way or the other in what I’m about to write.
The Moonie Washington Times, and its pro-Israel neocon correspondent Eli Lake, have mounted a full frontal assault on J Street and its director Jeremy Ben Ami. The charges? J Street, after telling the world at its founding that George Soros would not be a leader or donor, actually accepted $750,000 from him over three years. Apparently, right-wing Jews like Eli Lake think George Soros is a cross between Beelzebub and the Wicked Witch of the East. But the last I checked he was a U.S. citizen entitled to fund political groups with which he feels compatible, just as John Hagee is. Why anyone in their right mind would be scandalized that Soros has funded J Street is beyond me. And Lake has stirred up a tempest in a teapot.
Besides this, Lake has made egregious errors in his reporting. He claims that Soros’ gift was “secret” and that the group “repeatedly denied” it. His proof? This statement at the J Street website:
“George Soros very publicly stated his decision not to be engaged in J Street when it was launched — precisely out of fear that his involvement would be used against the organization.”
The worst that can be said about this is that it is misleading. But only the most partisan and uncharitable reading would claim this is a deliberate attempt to conceal Soros’ gifts. Further, J Street reported the gifts to the IRS, as it was legally required to do, which is how Lake discovered it. In this day and age, it’s almost impossible to conceal such donors and J Street did not do so from the IRS.
Lake reported the gift was “one-third” of J Street’s overall financial support for the 2008-2009 financial year, when according to figures from J Street published in The Atlantic, it was actually around 20% if you count it towards 2008 around 5% if you count it toward 2009. Even the 20% number is taken out of context because it only covers a single year of the group’s three-year existence, and not even its most recent one.
Yes, Ben-Ami made a bonehead decision in not publicly revealing that Soros supported J Street (though since 501 c 4 donors are usually not publicly divulged, he may not have had Soros’ permission to reveal his status). The best approach to these potential controversies is to be transparent to a fault. If you’re not, you’ll be made to pay. And Jeremy, telling a group of Florida donors that Soros was a donor at an off the record fundraising event doesn’t constitute full public disclosure.
On a personal note, I want to reveal my own person connection to one of J Street’s major donors, Bill Benter. Bill is not a mystery to supporters of Israeli-Arab peace though he appears to be a sinister force (see also, More Donations to Radical, Anti-Israel Causes) for much of the right-wing pro-Israel blogosphere that has taken to chanting his name at their covens. The Wall Street Journal has him pegged as one of the world’s most successful sports bettors, as if this is a grave offense against decency. They seem to forget that Shelly Adelson and Irving Moskowitz have each raked in more cash from betting than Bill Benter ever lost from their respective gambling empires. And Bill Benter doesn’t prey on poor addicted saps willing to part with their life savings and ruin the lives of their families for good measure–all for the sake of the big score. It should be mentioned that Bill has earned his fortune honestly as the CEO of a medical transcription company.
I have met Bill, sat next to him during last year’s J Street conference, and frankly without good souls like him the peace movement would be a shadow of what it is.
Bill solicited a large J Street gift ($800,000) from a Hong Kong resident of whom none of the pro-Israel right have ever heard. She too is a ‘sinister figure’ liable to have roots in Arab terror if you believe the whisperings of some journalists who’ve reported on this. It appears that if you are from Hong Kong and wish to support a friend’s philanthropic activities around Israeli-Palestinian peace, you do so on pain of being likened to Suha Arafat. Again, there is nothing illegal about a Hong Kong resident contributing to J Street.
Here is what Lake writes:
President Obama and the White House have expressed concerns about untraced foreign influence on the U.S. political system through donations to tax-exempt “501(c)(4)” nonprofit organizations in recent months.
First, this gift is NOT untraced since it was fully reported to the IRS. Second, if there is something wrong with foreign influence on 501 c 4s, then perhaps pro-Israel groups shouldn’t be accepting any gifts from Israeli citizens. Do Aipac and the RJC wish to claim that such groups with which their donors are affiliated do not do so? Perhaps they should start looking through their own donor lists to make sure THEY don’t have Hong Kong donors.
Lake further claims that groups and candidates that Soros supports have distanced themselves from him. The proof? An assistant to an assistant press spokesperson for the Obama presidential campaign said that in 2008 Obama didn’t agree with an unspecified Soros criticism of Israel, saying “we agree to disagree.” Sounds like they’re rats fleeing a sinking ship, doesn’t it?
The unstated implication of all this is that J Street should distance itself too if it knows what’s good for it. Nowhere does Lake specify what specific views of Soros should make him anathema for a group like J Street other than he has made “sharp criticism of certain Israeli policies.” Well, that means that J Street should return my money too because I’ve done the same. How many of its 10,000 donors too have done the same thing? Perhaps J Street should return all their money as well.
Lake further reported that J Street “facilitated meetings” and “was associated with” Judge Richard Goldstone’s visit to Washington to promote his report on Operation Cast Lead. Ben-Ami responds that J Street employees called the staff of “two or three” Congress members asking if their boss would be interested in meeting Goldstone. I’d call that something short of “facilitating meetings.” But again, if I were Ben-Ami, I wouldn’t shy away from this. Why not help Goldstone get a hearing on the Hill? What’s wrong with this? Is there some reason why Richard Goldstone should be in herem? Does he have political leprosy?
Lake claims the Goldstone Report accused “the Jewish state of systematic war crimes.” It did not. It said that there was enough evidence that such crimes may have been committed that it urged Israel and Hamas to investigate their respective acts leading up to and during the war. Here is further mischaracterization of the reception of the report by Jews and Israelis:
The Goldstone Report is widely viewed as slanderous toward the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) among the American Jewish community and in Israel.
This is not true. The vast majority of the American Jewish community doesn’t know a thing about the report. The majority of wealthy conservative pro-Israel American Jewish leaders consider it slanderous toward the IDF. But that is different from what Lake reported. He claims “at least” 1,000 Gazans were killed during Cast Lead, when the true number is 1,400.
Lake claims that Morton Halperin, a “senior officer” of J Street, played a key role in organizing Goldstone’s Washington visit. What Lake neglects to mention that Halperin is not employed by J Street and did not do so in his capacity as a J Street director. He did this in his capacity as a senior political strategist who works for George Soros.
It’s also interesting that instead of being an American like Lake or me, Soros is the “Hungarian-born billionaire.” Interesting how Lake can resort to zenophobia when it suits his purposes. Lake reminds me of the Maariv smearmeister, Ben Caspit, who worked together with Im Tirzu to drag Naomi Hazan through the gutter for NIF’s alleged collaboration with Judge Goldstone against Israel. In fact, Jeremy better watch out–the Washington Times is liable to feature a full page ad with him sporting a horn as Im Tirzu did to Hazan in every major Israeli paper. Maybe Lake can provide the copy and Aipac or the RJC can pay for it.
Lake rests a good deal of his case on an interview with Colette Avital, a former Labor MK and J Street’s Israel liaison, who he describes as having resigned her positions with the group. When Avital, in her public response, claimed not to have resigned, Lake fried her by posting the audio recording of her interview (warning: audio quality is atrocious) in which she explicitly confirms she is no longer affiliated with the group.
Frankly, this is again the problem with attempting to be a liberal Zionist organization having liberal Zionist allies who are constrained by ideological blinders and cannot name reality for what it is. When you have to rely on “luminaries” like Avital to give you juice you are also burdened by whatever limitations they bring. And Avital appears to have brought plenty, namely that she doesn’t understand that you can’t say one thing in an interview and then deny it later.
I’d venture to say that Lake didn’t tell her he was taping the interview, which probably means he broke the law depending on what jurisdiction he lives in. If she knew she was being taped, then she’s stupider than even I thought.
All this goes to my main problem with J Street: they’re being too smart by half in trying to hide their true progressive views under a bushel. If you want to be a Democratic version of Aipac as J Street has been over the past year, then do so and don’t take money from Soros or aid Goldstone. Make Colette Avital happy, play in the sandbox with the moribund Labor Party, etc. But if you want to be a truly independent progressive Jewish group why attempt to hide from anyone what you’ve done in taking Soros’ money or helping Goldstone? Why make common cause with an unreliable figure like Avital?
Personally, I’d rather be saddled with defending to the neocon press taking George Soros’ money, than having to explain why I was too afraid to tell the world I was taking it. That is why Jeremy Ben Ami is now on the defensive when he should be on the offensive.
All of this comes because J Street is successful at what it does. It offers a liberal alternative to Aipac. That means there are powerful forces running all the way from the Israeli embassy to Aipac to Republican Party offices that want to cut it down to size. This is a mere blip on the screen and will have no long-term impact on J Street. Of course, I wish it would embolden Ben Ami to become more independent and forthright when it comes to the issues. But that probably aint’ gonna happen.
Just as laughable as Lake though, is the breathless reporting (J Street Keeps Accumulating Scandals) of Aipac’s favorite Israeli media stenographer, Natasha Mozgovaya, who’s written two “exposes” recounting Ben-Ami’s less than candor. Apparently, the Israeli embassy and Republican neocons have done a lot of heavy breathing and persuaded her that this is a killer story. Her writing is so partisan in supposed news articles that it makes Ethan Bronner look like Lenny Brenner:
For some, Soros’ name might be a sufficient reason to cut ties with J Street because of his confrontation with AIPAC and his sharp criticism of Israeli policies. But J Street’s “less than clear” explanation regarding the issue is the reason even the organization’s most stringent supporters are raising their eyebrows.
Of course, she doesn’t manage to name a single “stringent supporter” who has raised their eyebrows over this non-story. Why should she? Should she be a journalist and actually dig up sources and do real research when she can just as easily call her pals Eli Lake and Ben Birnbaum at the Washington Times who can regurgitate the talking points for her?
I raise a challenge to every honest journalist who’s reported this story as if they’re uncovering Moses’ revelation of the Ten Commandments at Sinai. Go find the same IRS documents and tell us the major funding sources for Aipac and the Republican Jewish Coalition, the two groups who appear to be crowing loudest about this revelation. And while you’re at it why aren’t you screaming bloody murder about John Hagee’s tens of millions supporting settlements and Irving Moskowitz’s tens of millions supporting the Judaization of East Jerusalem, all with tax-deductible U.S. dollars. And if you don’t do this then you’re nothing but partisan hacks feeding from the Israel lobby trough.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.