The irony is delicious. In the fall of 2008, the leaders of the J Street lobby boldly asserted their group’s coming preeminence as the leading voice in Washington about Israel over the more established AIPAC. The reason for that confidence was J Street’s close ties to the incoming Obama administration. Pointing to the huge majority of Jewish votes won by the Democrat in the 2008 election, J Street not only claimed that its views were more representative of American Jewry but that it would serve as a necessary pro-Obama counterweight to what they falsely claimed was an AIPAC that favored Republicans. But fast forward to September 2013 and the reality of the alignment of these two groups is vastly different from what J Street propagandists were saying a few years ago. Not only is J Street a shadow of the liberal behemoth that some expected would lead the discussion about the Middle East, disconnected from public opinion in Israel and bereft of influence on Capitol Hill or in the White House. It is also at odds with the man they once served as his main Jewish cheerleaders.
While AIPAC has reacted to the president’s puzzling decision to pass off responsibility to Congress for a strike on Syria by mobilizing its resources to back him up on the issue, J Street is standing on the sidelines of a vote that will have huge implications for the future of U.S. influence in the Middle East. In doing so, J Street is not only burning what’s left of its bridges to an administration that they’ve been out of step with for the past two years. It’s also showing that their leftist roots as the Jewish rump of the MoveOn.org movement trumps their loyalty to the president or to the cause of human rights.
That J Street should be aligning itself with the isolationists on both the left and the right against the administration shouldn’t be any surprise. Despite their boasts about representing the mainstream of Jewish opinion in this country, it has always been a creature of the isolationist left. Though opposition to Syria intervention is widely unpopular, J Street might have been expected to rally to President Obama’s side in what is probably the most crucial moment of his second term. If Congress fails to grant him authority to attack Syria his credibility is shot at home and abroad and we might as well hang a sign around his neck saying “lame duck.”
But the MoveOn.org crowd from which J Street sprung does not share the president’s apparent ambivalence about the use of U.S. power even when used against a Syrian dictator who has used chemical weapons against his own people. They are always against it. While J Street belatedly condemned Syria’s use of chemical weapons their outrage over this crime wasn’t enough to convince the leaders of the group to back up the president whose stands on Israel once enthralled them.
I deplore J Street’s belief that the U.S should use its status as Israel’s only ally to pressure it to make concessions to a Palestinian Authority that has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn. But do they think America’s capacity to use its influence in the Middle East will be enhanced by the evisceration of Obama’s ability to lead on foreign affairs by Congress? It is that reason that the pro-Israel community in this country which largely disagrees with J Street’s calls for pressure on Israel has weighed in on the president’s behalf. AIPAC was loath to involve itself in the squabble in Syria because it rightly felt that Israel favored neither side in the Syrian civil war. But a United States that is no longer capable of stepping up to punish those who use weapons of mass destruction in this manner is also an America that has been effectively rendered irrelevant in the Middle East. No matter what you think about the fighting in Syria or about the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, that should be a big problem for those who purport to speak for pro-Israel opinion in this country.
Nevertheless, it should be conceded that J Street’s opposition to Obama on Syria wouldn’t decrease its influence in Washington. That’s because it has none. Though it has been cheering wildly for Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to restart peace talks, it’s been out of touch with the administration’s attitude toward Israel since the beginning of 2012 when the president began a Jewish “charm offensive” in order to help his reelection. J Street loved it when Obama was picking fights with Israel during his first three years in office, but even then it was clear the White House understood just how insignificant a player the group was. That it must now look to AIPAC for help on Syria again demonstrates not only the mainstream lobby’s importance but also how foolish J Street’s attacks on it have been.
When push comes to shove, it appears J Street’s core beliefs about the illegitimacy of American power will always trump its claim to want to bolster Israel or even Obama. If few have noticed that they’ve abandoned the president, it’s largely because their hard-core ideological approach to issues always rendered it a marginal force even in Democratic councils, let alone the public square they once thought to dominate.