J Street Ben Ami - Alon Ron - Oct 1, 2010
J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami. Photo by Alon Ron
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With the growing detachment between the young U.S. Jews and the State of Israel, does it really matter, who brings them to visit Jerusalem? For some, apparently, it does.

Since the leftist pro-Israel lobby J Street announced several days ago its intention to lead the organization's first 10 day Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel this summer, focused on “Progressive Zionism and Social Justice” – word was spread amongst the right-wingers to petition Birthright to bar the trip.

“This trip is an incredible opportunity to connect with the Israel that isn't on the front page or in the guide books. Move beyond the headlines, and see what's really happening on the ground. If you're Jewish, age 18 - 25, and have yet to take a peer group trip to Israel, we strongly encourage you to sign up and be the first to know when registration opens”, J Street said in an announcement of the trip. The group promised to provide meetings with members of Israeli civil society and to provide “a cross-section of Israeli opinion”.

Right-wing bloggers did not view this as a progressive initiative, but rather an attempt to exploit Birthright's reputation to advance its own legitimacy – and on Monday, J Street announced it regrets that Birthright decided to cancel the trip.

Moriel Rothman, President of the J Street U student board, wrote that within 48 hours of announcing the trip, over 100 students had signed up for it.

“Those of us engaged on this issue on campus know that there is a deep hunger among our peers to connect with Israel in a way that reflects our Jewish and democratic values of justice and equality”, Rothman wrote in response to the criticism. “In light of this tremendous enthusiasm, we are deeply troubled by Birthright’s abrupt decision to cancel our trip. Revoking this previously-approved opportunity, planned in concert with accredited Birthright trip organizer Israel Experience, sends exactly the wrong message to our community and to our students - and it is a painful message to receive”.

According to J Street, the trip was to include the traditional highlights of the program, such as visits to the Kotel, Masada and Yad Vashem, as well as meetings with human rights advocates, politicians and reporters. As for their being political organization – J Street pointed out that AIPAC has its “Capital to Capital” Birthright trip for Jewish political activists.

“Given that other such trips are regularly offered, we were surprised and saddened that our trip was suddenly deemed inappropriate”, Rothman wrote.

A Birthright official told Haaretz that about three months ago they were approached by “The Israel Experience”, one of the trip providers, with this idea, but said that they are not interested in trips dedicated to a specific political experience. “Since then we didn’t have any requests from them”, he said. “And then we saw to our astonishment the press release of J Street that they are “leading the trip” – there is no such thing in our practice. We had no direct contact with J Street, no formal request was submitted. If a trip organizer wants to organize a trip oriented on social justice they have to submit a proposal. And trips of political orientation are not accepted. When it happened in the past, we discontinued working with them. The idea of a “Political trip” is out of question, and you can’t sign up for a trip with an organization that is not the trip provider and the use of our logo – they didn’t ask us to use it. There is obviously some misunderstanding or miscommunication”.

With regard to the so-called AIPAC trip, “Capital to Capital”, the official said that “it’s like a political science class, to understand Israeli political structure. The trip runs for several years and is closely vetted to make sure that there is no political tilt”.

It wasn’t the only embarrassment J Street had to deal with this week, shortly before the organization's annual conference in Washington that kicks off February 26, with an undecided list of congressional participants.

Following the harsh criticism of Congressman Gary Ackerman (D-NY), who denounced the group for allegedly supporting the looming vote on the anti-settlement resolution draft at the UN Security Council, J Street issued a harsh response to the Congressman who once accepted the group’s endorsement.

J Street claimed that the group does not support UN condemnation of Israel or endorse the resolution but rather is urging the U.S. Administration to consider withholding its veto on the resolution that in fact reflects its own policy on settlements. But the criticism of Ackerman, a supporter of Israel, but a liberal lawmaker, became the focus of the email sent by the J Street on Friday, and on Monday, J Street CEO Jeremy Ben-Ami apologized for the harsh tone.

“At times, we miss the mark. In particular, we allow ourselves to be dragged into the bitter hand-to-hand scuffling that marks modern politics, rather than remaining focused on sparking intelligent conversation on difficult issues” they wrote. “Too often, we descend to the level of those with whom we disagree and our campaigns and actions become too personal…. Allow me to apologize for the tone of our email on Friday”.

That was not the only embarrassment J Street had to deal out.
The pro-Israel lobby submitted to Haaretz email correspondences between an official from The Israel Experience and a J Street Campus representative, which show that JStreet sent the draft regarding the announcement of the trip for approval – and they received it. The Israel Experience official defined the draft as “perfect.” So it seems that the miscommunication occurred somewhere between “Birthright” and one of the trip organizers.‬

This week, the initially tense and later improved relations between J Street and the Israeli Embassy in Washington regressed when the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren said in an interview with the Daily Caller that “they [J Street] claim they’re pro-Israel. They are calling for Israel to be condemned in the Security Council for the settlements and they are condemning some of our best friends on the Hill. So they can call themselves what they like.”