Joel Rubin, a fourth generation Pittsburgher, comes from a family that has long taken an active role in supporting the State of Israel.
Take a walk along Forbes Avenue and check out the front of the building that once housed the Pittsburgh Zionist Organization of America. The name of Rubin’s great-grandfather, Samuel Hyman, a major supporter of the ZOA here, is emblazoned across the entrance
So it’s not surprising that Rubin himself has made his career as an Israel activist — or more specifically, an Israel peace activist.
Rubin, 38, is the political director of J Street, a political arm of the pro-Israel pro-peace movement, which advocates for a new direction in U.S. policy in the Middle East, one that advocates a resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict through peaceful means, including diplomacy. The two-state solution is the crux of its position.
Founded in 2008, J Street’s name is meant to symbolize an alternative to more established lobby groups, which have their offices on K Street in Washington.
In addition to its work on the Hill in support of a two-state solution, J Street’s political action committee endorsed 41 candidates for the House and Senate in the 2008 election, 33 of whom went on to win. It also raised $578,000 for the candidates it backed.
“We are a new organization. We are pro-peace and pro-Israel — strongly pro-Israel,” Rubin told The Chronicle. “We believe in the survival of Israel as a Jewish democratic state; it’s our central focus, it’s why we were created. And central to it (Israel’s survival) is a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Rubin will state the J Street position on Israel when he speaks Friday at Temple Ohav Shalom in the North Hills.
J Street believes the majority of American Jews, and Americans in general, support a two-state solution, Rubin said, but that that position has not been made clear to U.S. lawmakers.
“Our message is to show there is political support for this position to members of Congress, so that they can support peace making in the Middle East,” Rubin said.
Though unabashedly pro-Israel,
J Street, in its short history, has been willing to criticize the Israeli government. It has come out against statements made by Israel’s new foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, of the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu Party.
And during the recent Gaza conflict, J Street issued a statement thah lamented Israel military response “that is disproportionate and escalatory [and] will ultimately prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability for Israel, the Palestinians, the whole region.”
Rubin, one of the three top ranking officials at J Street along with Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami and Chief of Staff Rachel A. Lerner, doesn’t back away from controversial positions. Rather, he embraces them.
“I understand its hard for people to hear criticism of Israel in times of conflict, at a time when we acknowledge Israel has right to defend its citizens,” he said. “What we are arguing about [regarding] the Gaza fight is that did not help Israel’s security, and it actually created a humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The [situation] in the southern part of Israel is still very uncertain.”
“We are big advocates for a calm in that area, within the past year calling for U.S. involvement to stop the rocket fire.
Capitalizing on the victory of Barack Obama last year, J Street is pushing for a more engaged United States in the peace process. While J Street does not call for a U.S. dialogue with Hamas, which it brands as a terrorist group, neither does it want American interference with countries that are trying to engage both sides.
“We believe the U.S. should not be preventing third parties from getting between Israel and Hamas to calm the situation down and work things out,” he said, “and if third parties are doing that then the U.S. should not interfere.
“The idea is to resolve the conflict.”
Its positions notwithstanding, Rubin says J Street does not see itself as an opponent of more established pro-Israel organizations; namely, AIPAC.
“We are not competing with AIPAC; we are competing on ideas,” he said. “We’re trying to set up a debate on ideals; it’s not debate between organizations.”
And though Jeremy Ben-Ami recently described J Street as “liberal Israel lobby” during his March 18 appearance as 92nd Street Y panelist, Rubin says J Street is nonpartisan and has worked with Republicans in the past and even GOP candidates last year.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)