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Guest: A new kind of pro-Israel lobby?


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Two years ago, a new Jewish, pro-Israel organization, J Street, was introduced.

J Street claims a two-part mission: “first, to advocate for urgent American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution and a broader regional, comprehensive peace and, second, to ensure a broad debate on Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community.” These goals may seem uncontroversial.

Who isn’t for a constructive U.S. role in bringing about peace? Who could be opposed to vigorous debate?

Yet J Street’s arrival on the scene was met with a combination of suspicion and derision from both the right — which didn’t accept its criticisms or its prescriptions — and the left — which believed it was pursuing a naïve, and possibly even anti-democratic, approach. Far from sliding easily into the midst of the Jewish mainstream, J Street has had a difficult two-year journey to prominence. I believe it has achieved more than its skeptics predicted by standing firm on principles that are widely shared while moderating some of its rhetoric.

J Street would probably not have been founded — or, at least, it would have taken a different form — were it not for the prominent role played for many decades by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. That group claims — with good reason — that it is among the most effective lobbies in Washington: Congress and successive administrations have stood behind Israel, and Israeli governments have been reliable friends of the United States. Several years ago, I attended one of the group’s dinners with hundreds of members of the House of Representatives and scores of senators, along with several thousand other people, both Jewish and non-Jewish. It was a strong show of support for the committee’s mission and reinforced my belief that the interests of Israel and the interests of the United States are mutually reinforcing.

But not everyone in the Jewish and pro-Israel community has been satisfied with the American-Israel committee’s approach, particularly during the years of the Bush administration. For some critics, the friendly relationship between the committee and leaders of both parties in Washington was seen as an impediment to debate and progress. If U.S. officials defended or ignored Israeli actions that even Israel’s supporters questioned, the committee’s influence was blamed. It was regarded as reluctant to criticize Israeli policy or to encourage U.S. officials to pressure Israel to make changes on issues such as Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

J Street has tried to play an in-between role. Both supportive and critical of Israel, it has advocated for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians that entails greater and more immediate Israeli concessions than the American-Israel committee or other groups are calling for. At times, J Street went too far: At a 2009 conference, its college division attempted to drop “pro-Israel” from the slogan, “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” implying that the two were inconsistent. To their credit, J Street’s leaders stepped in and insisted that the slogan not be watered down.

J Street has succeeded in broadening the debate within the Jewish community. Individuals and perspectives that were rarely heard are increasingly part of the mainstream. For an umbrella organization like Hillel, whose mission is to serve all of the Jewish students at the University of Iowa, this broadening of the debate is healthy and exciting. Hillel and the American-Israel committee have shared a constructive partnership for many years, and that is not about to change.

But to the extent that J Street draws in more student interest in the crucial issues surrounding the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its emergence is beneficial to Hillel and the Jewish community in general.

Gerald Sorokin is the director of Hillel.

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