Friday, October 28, 2011

J Street rejects ‘Unity Pledge’ on Israel, joining Right-wing groups

Jonah Lowenfeld

J Street Founder and President Jeremy Ben-Ami, seen at Temple Israel of Hollywood in April 2011.

When the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) put out a call for “bipartisan consensus on Israel” on Oct. 19, conservative groups critical of the Obama administration’s policies towards Israel were the first to object to what they saw as an attempt to silence them. Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), said in a statement that the AJC-ADL “National Pledge for Unity on Israel,” amounted to an “effort to stifle debate on U.S. policy toward Israel.” The Emergency Committee for Israel dismissed the pledge on similar grounds.

Count J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” lobbying group that has frequently supported the Obama administration policies towards Israel, among those national Jewish organizations who won’t be signing the new pledge.

“I’ve signed the pledge for civility,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s founder and president said in an interview on Oct. 26. He was referring not to the recent ADL-AJC pledge for “unity” but to an earlier pledge, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ “Statement on Civility,” which was first circulated in November 2010 and has since been signed by over 1,000 American Jewish leaders, including the RJC’s Brooks.

But while he supports that earlier call for civil discourse among American Jews about Israel, Ben-Ami isn’t interested in downplaying any disagreement within the community of how to best show support for the Jewish state.

“You can have a unified support for Israel—for the state of Israel, for the concept of Israel, for its future and for its security—but a vehement disagreement about how you get there,” he said, “and that’s what we have.”

The RJC and the Emergency Committee, Ben-Ami said, align themselves with the Israeli settler movement, while J Street is charting a course that that is “grounded in a two state solution, grounded in the notion that security rests on a peace agreement.”

“It’s a totally different view,” Ben-Ami said, “but we both care deeply about Israel and we hope that there will be unified American support for the State of Israel.”

The ADL-AJC pledge, according to the Forward, has so far only been signed by a handful of Jewish leaders.

Responding to the conservative groups’ criticism, ADL National Director Abe Foxman said in a press release on Oct. 25 that the pledge was intended as a request that “participants in the political discourse ... avoid harsh and personal rhetoric or tactics in the form of attacks on political opponents’ positions on Israel.”

Foxman’s clarification didn’t appease the conservative critics, though. Jonathan Tobin wrote in Commentary that the pledge “should be amended to remove the line about ‘wedge’ issues or scrapped entirely.” In a posting on Twitter, the Emergency Committee said it “welcomes the ADL & AJC retraction of ‘unity pledge’ call to refrain from criticizing Obama admin’s Israel policy.” The pledge, as of Friday morning, was still featured on the ADL website.

But Foxman’s apparent backtracking was enough to mollify Ben-Ami’s reaction.

“You can disagree and still have civility, and as Abe Foxman clarified, they’re not asking that people don’t express their political disagreements,” Ben-Ami said. “But they’re asking that they do it in a way that reflects unified support for Israel—and that I have no problem with.”

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