Among the many political fault lines unearthed by the debate over American military intervention in Syria, one touched directly on the internal rift running through J Street, the left-leaning pro-Israel lobby.
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The group has prided itself in the past for “having the president’s back” as he seeks to advance Israeli-Palestinian peace. But in this case, the group decided to turn its back on U.S. President Barack Obama’s drive for congressional approval of a resolution authorizing the use of military force against Syria.
Since hundreds of civilians died in a poison gas attack near Damascus August 2, the group has put out two statements condemning Syria’s government. But it has taken no decision on whether to support the president.
J Street’s decision to sit out the Syria debate was reached only after the group failed to agree internally on whether to back or oppose the call for military action — a failure that reflects the built-in tension between J Street’s broadly progressive activist base and its pragmatic leadership, which tends to hew closer to mainstream communal sentiment within the pro-Israel community. After initial hesitation, most establishment Jewish groups have strongly backed Obama’s congressional resolution.
J Street’s internal debate about Syria was long and detailed. On a closed listserve where the group’s top supporters and activists exchange views privately, the fierce discussion encompassed the diversity of views that make up the dovish lobby, and sometimes hobble it.
“The emails were flying at a pace of one every half-hour for three or four days,” said one activist who participated in the discussion. “There was no consensus among those who took part in the debate, although the preponderance were against U.S. military intervention.”
Like many J Street sources in this story, the activist spoke to the Forward only on condition of anonymity in order to talk freely about the lobby group’s internal matters.
Another participant shared the main arguments raised by J Street activists: those against supporting the call for a military strike raised concerns about collateral damage to Syrian civilians and about the possibility of unintended consequences, which might lead from what the administration portrayed as a limited military attack to an expansion into full-scale war. Those opposed to intervention, the participant said, echoed lessons of the Iraq war.
But others, arguing to back Obama’s call for a punitive military strike against Syrian president Bashar Assad, cited the need to maintain Obama’s credibility in the international scene. They also voiced concern that failing to respond to Syria’s use of weapons of mass destruction could send the wrong message to Iran as it attempts to achieve nuclear capabilities.
A similar discussion took place between J Street’s board members in lengthy conference calls debating the issue. One source informed about the discussion described a “marathon” conference call during which J Street’s lay leadership could not reach consensus. The board, made up of activists and top donors, includes many Jewish Americans who are among Obama’s top donors and as such could be more inclined to help him out on the issue of Syria.
But still, even after devoting several hours to the issue, the board could not reach an agreement that would reflect a broad consensus regarding Syria.
J Street’s executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami served mainly as a facilitator, said an activist informed about the discussions. While it was widely understood by board members and activists that Ben-Ami would favor backing Obama on this issue, he did not try and influence the board.
“Jeremy is a pragmatist,” the activist said. “He wants to keep us as progressive as possible without going too far from the mainstream.”
Ben-Ami refused to comment for this article. Jessica Rosenblum, J Street’s director of media and communications, would not reply to specific questions about the group’s decision not to take a stand on the Syrian issue. She referred the Forward to the two statements made by the group condemning Assad’s use of chemical weapons. In the statement issued on August 29, J Street called Assad’s actions “inexcusable” while acknowledging that “there are no easy or clear-cut solutions.”
Tensions regarding the lobby’s policy have erupted in the past when controversial issues relating to Israel came up. Two years ago, J Street discussed whether to support the Palestinian bid for statehood presented to the United Nations, a proposed UN resolution that largely reflected the group’s own stated goals. But J Street eventually decided to oppose the move, falling in line with most other Jewish organizations. More recently, the lobby debated taking a stand on the decision of the European Union to boycott products made in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, but here again, the mainstream view prevailed and the lobby decided to steer clear from the issue.
The question of supporting a military move against Syria did, however, have an added dimension to it. For pro-Israel groups, making the decision on the White House’s request from Congress to use military force against Syria was not only a policy issue, but also a political measure.
The administration spoke to all major Jewish players but focused its pitch on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby that has at times in the past been at odds with Obama. AIPAC took on the mission wholeheartedly, making hundreds of phone calls and dispatching activists to Capitol Hill to lobby for the resolution.
J Street, on the other hand, was not approached for help, according to several sources close to the organization. M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer who has since become a harsh critic of the group, said that this reflects nothing more than a cold political calculation by the White House.
“Everyone knows that J Street can’t change votes [in Congress] and everyone knows that AIPAC can,” Rosenberg said. His remarks highlighted the significant gap in the political clout of the two groups, a gap made clear by Obama’s decision to turn to AIPAC when he needed help on Capitol Hill.
Rosenberg, however, did not view J Street’s refusal to adopt the administration’s approach on Syria as detrimental to the group in any way. “This was kind of a courageous thing for them to do,” he said of J Street’s decision, explaining that the group chose to adhere to its anti-war roots rather than endorse a policy advocated by a president they support.