Timeline: April 2008 – the present
Historical Context: Jeremy Ben-Ami – previously an advisor to President Bill Clinton, National Policy Director for Howard Dean, and veteran of numerous local, state, and national campaigns — is the founder and President of J Street. His grandparents were among the founding families of Tel Aviv, and his father was a leader in the Revisionist Zionist organization the Irgun.
In the mid-2000s, Ben-Ami drafted a position paper outlining how American Jews who advocate for a two-state solution could more effectively work together to secure diplomatic leadership on the issue. He believed that an advocacy and educational organization would be most successful if coupled with a political action arm. This was an innovation among pro Israel pro-peace activists. Almost all previous dovish pro-Israel groups had been 501(c)(3) nonprofits. That status allowed them to accept tax-deductible donations and conduct a limited amount of advocacy, but not to endorse candidates.
After securing significant financial backing and other support, J Street was officially launched in April 2008, not long before President Barack Obama was elected, inspiring great hope among Israel-Palestinian peace advocates, many of whom had supported his election. Obama had long been close with Chicago area Jews who strongly and vocally supported two states. Initial activity by the Obama administration appeared to confirm his commitment to making the issue a top priority. He called both Israeli PM Netanyahu and PA president Mahmoud Abbas on his first day of office and appointed George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace on his second day. In a February 24th speech to a joint session of Congress, President Obama publicly confirmed his commitment:
In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun….We cannot shun the negotiating table, nor ignore the foes or forces that could do us harm. We are instead called to move forward with the sense of confidence and candor that serious times demand.
To seek progress toward a secure and lasting peace between Israel and her neighbors, we have appointed an envoy to sustain our effort.
The election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February, 2009 made this great promise virtually impossible to fulfill Although he lost the popular vote, Netanyahu was able to form an effective coalition with right wing groups. On June 14, he did voice support for a two-state solution for the first time – but with many caveats. Any Palestinian state, for example, must be demilitarized and cede control of its airspace to Israel. The most controversial prerequisite was a requirement of that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the Jewish state.
Brief Description: J Street is “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans fighting for the future of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.” The group posits that for Israel to simultaneously be both Jewish and democratic in character, it must relinquish a portion of the land it currently occupies to create a Palestinian state. To reach this two-state resolution, J Street argues that outside assistance, specifically U.S. diplomatic leadership, is necessary.
J Street grounds its mission and approach in Jewish values; integral to J Street’s work is the promotion of respectful debate about Israel/Palestine within the Jewish community.
J Street has three legal arms: a 501(c)(4) registered lobby, a Political Action Committee (PAC) that endorses federal candidates, and a 501(c)(3) organization for its educational and organizing work, including a campus program.
Since its founding, the organization’s budget has grown substantially for two major reasons. Longtime donors have increased their giving and J Street has expanded its appeal to many liberal political donors who had not been engaged on the issue previously.
J Street launched with a sophisticated new media strategy and regular commentary in both the Jewish and the mainstream press. This lead to a New York Times Magazine profile just a little over a year after it was founded. The concept of promoting progressive Jewish values by supporting the two-state solution appealed to a broad range of liberal Jews, some of whom had not previously engaged in Israel advocacy work, and by those who were uncomfortable with the mainstream policy of supporting every action of the standing government of Israel.
J Street built on the work of its predecessors — in some cases, quite literally. The Union of Progressive Zionists, a dovish national network of student activists founded by Ameinu, PPI, Habonim Dror North America and Hashomer Hatzair North America, was integrated into J Street in May 2009 to become J Street U, its campus arm. In January 2010, BTvS joined J Street; its 50,000 members became the core of J Street’s grassroots activism (J Street Local) and its hundreds of rabbinic supporters helped form the core of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet.
Activism strategy: J Street believes that the U.S.A. will only assume leadership toward a two-state solution if the political dynamics around Israel in the US change. Thus, the organization aims to transform American politics by building political support for “pro-Israel pro-peace” positions in Congress and by demonstrating that there is a diversity of opinion about what it means for American Jews to be pro-Israel.
J Street’s work includes lobbying, securing political endorsements through its PAC, education, campus organizing and outreach, and rabbinic engagement. J Street regularly issues policy positions on a variety of issues related to Israel and Middle East, has a strong presence in both the Jewish and mainstream media.
Membership/Chapters: J Street launched its field operation – J Street Local – in February, 2009, integrating Brit Tzedek chapters and activists into a larger program. As of December 2012 there were 46 locals around the country. J Street presently has 180,000 online supporters, 5,000 student members and close to 700 Rabbinic Cabinet members.
Activities: A national team leads J Street’s advocacy and education activities with regional directors; fundraising activities are similarly organized. Community-based leaders host speakers (J Street staff, trained volunteers, and experts), engage in home district lobbying, and promote other educational programming. Much of their local activity has been centered around mobilizing participation in national campaigns such as “Two-State Summer,” “The Future of Pro-Israel,” and “Our Time to Lead.”
J Street’s team of professional lobbyists garners support for pro-Israel pro-peace legislation and work to defeat harmful initiatives, coordinating with grassroots activists and supporters.
J Street PAC secures endorsements for political candidates and raises money for their campaigns. In the 2012 election cycle, J Street endorsed 71 candidates of whom 70 won, and they raised over 1.8 million, making it the largest pro-Israel PAC.
On the educational front, J Street has held an annual Washington DC conference, collaborating with dozens of participating organizations. In 2012, over 2500 were in attendance – the single largest national gathering of two-state advocates.
Packaged educational programs include discussion guides on topics such as “Why Two States? Why Now? Israeli and American Perspectives.” They organize educational missions to Israel and the West Bank for their national leadership and for Members of Congress.
J Street grew the Rabbinic Cabinet initiated by BTvS to close to 700, has attracted many nationally prominent rabbinic leaders and added a Rabbinic Cabinet Executive Council. Like Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, J Street has launched several rabbinic letters that address relevant issues from both a political and a moral perspective.
J Street’s media presence includes print media, television spots, and new media where many of its graphics and videos have been shared widely. J Street is continuously increasing the frequency and visibility of media placements regarding J Street’s positions and activities.
J Street U has chapters on 42 campuses, 5,000 members and over 100 student leaders. 650 students attended the 2012 national conference. The organization has successfully engaged young people in a degree of Israel advocacy not seen since the early 1980s and the work of New Jewish Agenda.
Key Contributions: J Street has significantly expanded the reach of pro-Israel pro-peace advocacy, reaching more Jewish Americans than any previous effort through the effective use of the internet, traditional and social media, grassroots and grass-tops outreach.
The organization has tapped into financial resources at a level many times greater than any previous like-minded endeavor, most of which operated on shoestring budgets. Its level of staffing (45 as this goes to press) is unprecedented. At a time in which money increasingly dominates politics, J Street has brought Israeli-Palestinian peace issues to the table through its ability to attract donors with access at the highest levels of government and in the Jewish communal world.
J Street’s pro-peace PAC has brought a new tool to pro-Israel/pro-peace advocacy. The impact of its work was borne out when a December 2012 House bill calling on President Obama to shut down the PLO office in Washington as punishment for pursuing United Nations non-voting member status failed to win support from any J Street endorsees.
J Street has engaged every level of the Jewish communal structure with its message that support for Israel need not equal wholesale support of Israeli policies.