J Street crosses the line

J Street crosses the line

Should American groups that support those living in the West Bank lose their tax-exempt status because the support fosters the entrenchment of Israeli settlements and is contrary to formal American policy? Is it even American policy to oppose the settlements?

The self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group J Street says it is and has encouraged the U.S. Department of the Treasury and its Internal Revenue Service to withdraw the tax-exempt status of groups working to “entrench or expand” Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria. That’s a bad idea, and the mere invocation of the effort starts a very dangerous precedent.

Many Israeli left-wing nonprofits receive funding from foreign governments, including the United States. Right-wing, pro-settler movement groups, on the other hand, are largely funded by private donors. In its challenge, J Street named three groups that have received millions of dollars from U.S. donors “to strengthen the settlements and weaken the Palestinians’ presence in the West Bank.” The three are, in the words of J Street, “Regavim, which presses for the demolition of Palestinian houses; Elad, which works to transplant Jewish settlers into important Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem; and The Hebron Fund, which funds the expansion of the heavily armed Jewish enclave in the heart of Hebron … at the expense of the local Palestinian population.”

Those are serious accusations, which are premised on the disputed presumption that a Jewish presence in any of the identified areas is prohibited by U.S. policy and somehow violates the law. But the problem with J Street’s effort goes beyond debate over international law. It brings focus to the organization’s ability to function in the big tent of the Jewish community, where organizations may disagree — even strongly — but need to respect the rights of others to hold contrary views.

There are legitimate questions about the legality or wisdom of some settlement activity, just as there is debate over what constitutes “expansion” and “entrenchment.” But J Street relies on a 1979 determination by the State Department’s legal adviser that “Israeli settlements are illegal under international law” is not definitive and may not be the law 37 years later.

The three groups that receive the bulk of J Street’s venom are not known for working within neighborhoods like Maale Adumim or Efrat — areas of the West Bank that everyone agrees will almost certainly be part of Israel under any peace agreement that might be negotiated. But if J Street gets its way, you can be sure that anyone who builds a community center or housing unit in either of those cities will be next in the “pro-Israel” group’s hit list.

We urge J Street to engage on the issues in the marketplace of ideas rather than trying to put those with whom it disagrees out of business.