J Street convened its eighth annual conference last week, its 11th year of existence. The gathering attracted 4,000 activists—including about 20 from Pittsburgh– and signaled to Democratic candidates that the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group might support tying aid to the Jewish state based on its compliance with certain policies.
The group’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, spoke Sunday night, Oct. 27, at the opening plenary at the Washington Convention Center, firming declaring: “Our aid is not intended to be a blank check.”
But the next morning, talking to reporters, Ben-Ami added parameters to the pledge: He was referring to precedent and existing laws. J Street was not advocating new legislation to restrict aid to Israel.
And he was less conclusive than the “blank check” line had made it seem. Ben-Ami clarified that the leveraging aid idea should be considered, stopping short of giving it a full endorsement.
“If it is against American policy to expand settlements, shouldn’t we be inquiring whether any of our dollars are going there?” he asked.
Ben-Ami said assistance to Israel could be checked against, for instance, the Arms Export Control Act, which requires U.S. arms sales to be used strictly for self-defense.
He also said the idea of using aid to pressure was not new. A number of presidents have withheld portions of loan guarantees commensurate with Israel’s spending on settlements, a mechanism that is enshrined in law.
Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh and a member of its national board, who was at the conference, clarified the position of the advocacy group in an interview with the Chronicle.
“We actually feel that you don’t cut the aid, you give the full amount of military aid, and then you say there are certain things it can’t be used for,” Bernstein explained. “It’s security aid for defense and security reasons, and there are certain things that Israel is doing that can’t be defined by that, like annexing the West Bank, demolishing Palestinian homes, expanding settlements in the West Bank.
“There are two laws–the Arms Export Control Act and the Leahy Law–that are pretty explicit about the purposes to which U.S. security equipment and assistance can and can’t be put by recipient countries,” Bernstein continued. “And that’s including Israel, but we’ve really never held them accountable for that. There have been other administrations that have conditioned aid, so it also isn’t the first time we are talking about this issue. And it was done by Democratic and Republican administrations.”
Many recent actions of Israel and the Trump administration have been “threatening the possibility of a two-state solution,” Bernstein said. “If you want to negotiate with a partner, you don’t bring them to their knees.”
The Trump administration’s moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, ending aid to the Palestinians, closing the Palestinian diplomatic office in Washington, and the Netanyahu administration’s “announcing plans to annex the settlements in the West Bank,” are all measures that impede movement toward a two-state solution, and “deepen the conflict,” she said.
Bernstein further linked right wing politics in the U.S. to Netanyahu’s Israel, noting that J Street is critical of both.
“We can’t be more opposed to what the right is doing here in the U.S. and what Netanyahu is doing in Israel,” she said, noting that J Street has become a “powerful voice for Jews”—and that politicians are listening to that voice.
“They know we are loyal to progressive and democratic values and not to Trump and Bibi and those values are being threatened here and in Israel,” Bernstein said.
In fact, 10 Democrats running for president delivered remarks to the J Street conference. Of those, four were opposed to the leveraging aid to Israel idea: Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.
Three backed it, to varying degrees of specificity: Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, as well as Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana.
Three avoided any comment: Former congressman Beto O’Rourke, self-help writer Marianne Williamson and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, who were among five candidates who submitted video messages and were not subjected to the live grilling carried out by Obama administration alumni Tommy Vietor and Ben Rhodes.
Only Biden, forcefully (and unsolicited, in his video) stood up for aid unequivocally.
Bernstein is confident that J Street is “impacting the conversation in the community and among the politicians about the relationship between Israel and the U.S.,” she said. “J Street has in its policies that Israel should maintain its military edge in the region but I think our support shouldn’t be a blank check. Right now we are in a fight to secure what we feel is Israel’s future as a democratic homeland to the Jewish people, and right now, our government is aligned with Israel’s openly hostile attitude toward a two-state solution.”
On Sunday night, Oct. 27, Bernstein took the conference podium to deliver an in memoriam to the 11 Jews murdered at the Tree of Life building last year. Rabbi John Rosove, head of J Street’s rabbinic cabinet sang “El Maleh Rahamim,” then all 4000 attendees together recited Kaddish.
“Many people in the audience told me that they were very happy that we did it and that they were very moved by it,” Bernstein said.
The conference also included several sessions on anti-Semitism and white supremacy as well as anti-Semitism on the far left.
“I think the take-away is the threat on the left is not proportionate to that on the right,” Bernstein said. “The ADL research shows that 100 percent of the anti-Semitic violence has been perpetrated by right-wing extremists. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up to anti-Semitism on the left, like we do to racism or any other -ism in our culture. This is part of our culture and we have to address it, but the answer was to educate people about the history of anti-Semitism to overcome these attitudes so we can work together, not to become more estranged.”
Conference speakers included Bashar Azzeh, a member of the PLO Palestine National Council & Central Council, and IfNotNow founder Emily Meyer. IfNotNow, a progressive Jewish activist group that targets Jewish institutions it sees as enabling Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians—in 2018, it led a campaign of walkouts of Birthright Israel trips—recently announced that it is expanding its mission beyond the Jewish community and will now officially lobby Democratic candidates in the 2020 elections to speak out against the “occupation.”
Having speakers from IfNotNow and the PLO at its conference is not a signal that J Street is moving further left, said Bernstein, but does indicate that “we are not afraid of hearing those perspectives. I don’t really understand what the danger is of listening to different perspectives, short of a Kahanist, a violent person. If somebody has an idea that not everyone supports, it still might be important to hear what they have to say. Frankly, IfNotNow is a pretty big movement in the United States among young Jews. I think it would be stupid to ignore them. We don’t have to agree with everything they do or think, but why would we want to ignore them?” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at