Gaza War Pushes Some to the Left of J Street

Ex-staffers say the liberal group is now less vocal in quest for mainstream acceptance.

Natasha Mozgovaya

NEW YORK — The Israel-Hamas conflict has been good for groups at the far-left edge of American Jewish Israel-related activism, propelling some people for whom J Street is now too moderate to more radical affiliations.

The platform of Jewish Voice for Peace, which is part of the global boycott-divestment-sanctions movement, calls on the U.S. government to suspend military aid to Israel. The group, whose members propelled the Presbyterian Church (USA) into divesting from companies used by Israel in occupied territories, says its membership and support have rapidly increased since the latest Israel-Hamas round of violance in Gaza began.

“We’re seeing a really incredible rate of growth,” Rebecca Vilkomerson, the group’s executive director, tells Haaretz. Dues-paying membership is up 20 percent in the past month. Five of its 40 chapters are brand new and 16 more are in development. JVP’s Facebook likes have tripled and its Twitter following doubled in the past month, says Vilkomerson. JVP members have been conducting protests they call “actions.” On July 22 a number of its members were arrested inside the midtown Manhattan office of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces when they lay down in the street in a “die-in.”

Some of JVP’s new members have jumped ship from J Street, though no mass exodus is taking place from the latter group. And while support for far-left-wing Jewish groups may have risen because of the conflict, other Israel-related organizations across the political spectrum are said to have added to their membership rolls as a result of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

Seth Morrison, who was chair of J Street’s Washington, D.C.-area chapter, left the organization last October and immediately got involved with JVP. “It became really obvious that the Israeli government was going to do nothing constructive, and nothing J Street was going to do would make a big enough difference,” Morrison said in an interview. “It’s very clear that the occupation is the root cause of all of these problems. Only the tough love of BDS, of cutting U.S. aid, of really strong steps, is going to make Israel change.”

Allying with JVP has cost him friendships and business, said Morrison, a marketing and strategic-planning consultant. But most of the pushback has come since Operation Protective Edge began. “A number of friends, or former friends, have said some vile things, that I’m a fake Jew, that I was being duped by my new friends, that I was ignoring the Holocaust,” Morrison says. He was pressured to resign from the leadership council of the New Israel Fund’s Washington, D.C., chapter, which he did. “Gaza has further polarized the community,” he says.

J Street, which in April failed to win membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations after a tumultuous campaign, is still considered unacceptably left-wing by some American Jews. But many who are J Street supporters say that the group’s quest for acceptance has made it noticeably less outspoken about the Gaza crisis than it was in crises past.

While in 2009 J Street was vocal in its opposition to Operation Cast Lead, calling Israel’s escalation “counterproductive,” and got significant pushback, this time around the organization has articulated a more centrist position. In a July 30 statement it said:

“J Street strongly supports Israel’s right to defend itself proportionately against the threat of relentless rockets and to destroy tunnels leading into Israel. But it’s now time for Israel to look for a way out of Gaza. Ultimately, there is no military victory over an ideology and no military solution to a fundamentally political conflict. We adamantly oppose calls for Israel to ‘reoccupy Gaza.’ ”

J Street was burned again in 2011 when the organization called on President Barack Obama not to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution that placed all responsibility for the impasse in the peace process in Israel’s lap. Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat who served in Congress for 30 years, was the ranking member of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, and had been supported by the J Street political-action committee, publicly distanced himself from the organization while blasting it for not being truly pro-Israel.

The difference in its stances then and now, says Carinne Luck, who was J Street’s first chief of staff and left the organization nearly two years ago, is that at the time of Operation Cast Lead it was new and “very tiny.”

Luck now works as a consultant to advocacy groups and is a creator of If Not Now, an ad hoc group that has organized several protests outside the Conference of Presidents office and a Tisha B’Av service in Brooklyn Monday night. It remains small, attracting several dozen participants, some of whom are leaders of J Street U, the group’s student-organizing arm.

Today J Street is “a big organization,” says Luck. “It has a lot of people it represents, that it reflects, that it is accountable to. It is an organization that has to reflect its membership in the broadest possible way.

“J Street is taking a less confrontational approach,” says another former J Street senior staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They are not calling things out as clearly as they once did. There’s a chunk of constituency that doesn’t like that. Their numbers and budget continue to grow, but there are definitely some people who were once involved in J Street and have left.”

“J Street over the last few years has been involved in a moderating effort,” said another former staff member who declined to speak on the record. “It was very much an upstart organization at the beginning and is now a different one. Now it’s trying to go through conventional routes.”

In an interview with Haaretz, J Street Chief of Staff Steve Krubiner denies any change. “Our messaging continues to be anchored in our position that a two-state solution is absolutely needed for Israel to survive,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve moderated our tone or our voice.”

Isaac Luria, another former J Street staffer, says, “Do I wish that J Street had taken a riskier and probably more accurate position this time around? Definitely. But I hope that they’re right about this strategy.”

Luria, who now works at Auburn Theological Seminary as a social-justice organizer, adds, “This is a signal to the mainstream Jewish community and the more progressive Jewish left about what J Street’s going to do and not do. I hope the strategy works in terms of more mainstream acceptance, but I’m skeptical. They certainly have grown a very large and powerful organization.

“The test will be in a year or two when there’s another peace-process potential on the table and we see if the American Jewish community helps Israel move where it needs to go, to see that without this solution, they’re in real danger. That’s the next real test.”