J Street is holding their annual policy conference this weekend, and the group duly requested speakers from the White House and the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. The results are unspinnable. The Israelis let J Street cool its heels until this week before dispatching deputy chief of mission Barukh Binah. Binah recently concluded a stint in Jerusalem as a Foreign Ministry deputy director-general, in which capacity he publicly castigated J Street for dishonestly manufacturing an anti-Israel publicity stunt, then building an entire media campaign around the stunt, then fabricating an Israeli apology related to the stunt. Sending him to be the embassy’s speaker was not the world’s most subtle move. The White House’s announcement of its surrogate, the vice president’s national security adviser Tony Blinken, left Ben-Ami bitterly complaining that the choice was a snub. He’s right. Blinken, for all that he is an experienced hand, is several rungs below U.S. National Security Adviser Jim Jones, who appeared at the first J Street conference and left J Street boosters musing about the group’s potential power.
J Street has gone from fantasies of being the anti-AIPAC to complaining publicly about its diminished influence. The spiral was a function of many things, but mostly of the group aggressively pushing counterproductive, failed, and toxic policies in Israel, in Congress, and in the media.
Israelis were always skeptical of J Street, even as the group was embraced by the Obama White House as the President’s anti-Israel enabler. Israeli embassy officials declared that J Street was damaging Israel, was “a unique problem,” and was “fooling around” with Israeli lives. When J Street’s founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami publicly insisted upon Ambassador Oren’s presence at the group’s first conference he was rebuffed, leading Ben-Ami’s White House allies to attack Israel over the snub in Israeli media outlets (reports from the conference justified Israeli skepticism). Last year Israel’s minister for public diplomacy and Diaspora affairs flatly called J Street anti-Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu won’t take meetings with the group’s delegations.
In the meantime J Street’s public campaigns – many implemented with tone-deafness and some with frankly shocking incompetence – eroded its Congressional support.
Its embrace of Richard Goldstone was followed by a fumbled cover-up. Its support of anti-Israel U.N. campaigns triggered a fistfight with Congressional allies. Its defense of anti-Semitic rhetoric is seeping in this weekend’s conference. Its coordination with pro-Iran lobbies has been unreal. Its stance on Cast Lead angered Israeli victims’ organizations..
J Street officials got caught misleading reporters on overseas Arab and Muslim funding and then launched a clumsy spin campaign. Then they got caught misleading other reporters about Soros funding and launched another clumsy spin campaign. When the group did its fundraising in public it was for yet another effort to pressure Obama into pressuring Israel.
On a smaller scale J Street launched campaigns to defend anti-Israel media campaigns and anti-Israel art and anti-Israel artists. Its PR flak defended Mary Robinson. It brought into the fold an apologist for the Muslim students who went after Ambassador Oren at UC Irvine. A J Street delegation held meetings with Palestinian diplomats in Ramallah on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day over Israeli objections and then Ben-Ami bragged about the trip in the Jerusalem Post. One of their board members met with Hamas.
As a small example: last year some House Republicans threatened to defund the Palestinian Authority. The move was opposed with various degrees of publicity by Democrats, the White House, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. J Street ostentatiously launched a three-month public campaign to push back, which culminated in 44 Democratic signatures on a letter. 44 is 10 fewer Democrats than J Street secured for far more controversial 2010 letter calling on Obama to pressure Israel on the Gaza siege, which J Street had to lobby for by proxy.
This time J Street was too weak to directly push on an open door in Congress. The White House and its political liaisons undoubtedly noted as much.
J Street and other anti-Israel Jewish groups will never totally collapse. They will always have a constituency, and that constituency will always pretend that they’re on the cusp of influencing the policy discussion. But everyone else seems to be tired of pretending that J Street is anything but a particularly elegant case study of how fringe progressive collapses under its own weight.