The Slatest

J Street: There Is No Democratic Divide Over Israel

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami at the J Street National Conference in D.C. on March 23, 2015.
Erin Schaff/for the Washington Post via Getty Images

The controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s controversial tweets about Israeli influence in Washington is being widely interpreted as a sign of a growing divide over Israel policy within the Democratic Party, with supporters of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement on one side, and pro-Israel hawks—many of them in party leadership—on the other.

Somewhere in the middle of that debate is J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group founded in 2007. J Street was set up to counteract AIPAC, the target of Omar’s ire, and push for a more moderate, balanced U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it also opposes BDS and some of the positions of farther-left Israel critics. The group dropped its endorsement of Rep. Rashida Tlaib before the midterm elections when it became clear she does not support a two-state solution.

In a statement about the latest controversy, J Street said, “elected officials must be extremely aware that tropes about Jewish money and political influence have been used for centuries to target and stigmatize our community” but added that Republican candidates had also used such tropes. It also said that “elected officials should also refrain from labeling all criticism of Israeli actions or policies as ‘anti-Semitic.’ ”

Despite the controversy, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, denied in a phone interview Monday that there’s a Democratic rift over Israel. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Joshua Keating: J Street’s statement on this whole affair was quite evenhanded. Do you think the criticism of Omar’s tweets was justified, or was it overblown?

Jeremy Ben-Ami: It’s the entirety of the argument that’s overblown. What we’re losing sight of is the actual issues that we should be discussing. We’re debating whether or not a particular tweet or expression is anti-Semitic. The issues I’d like to see a focus on are the occupation, the settlements, and the question of whether we can end this conflict.

Has Rep. Omar met with J Street?

We’ve met with her staff and her over time, not recently. But we’ve laid out our views to her. She’s not one of the folks our PAC endorsed.

Are you worried about a growing Democratic divide on Israel?

If you define a divide as a handful of people who disagree, then sure, call it a divide. I would say that when 90 percent of a caucus is in one place, and a handful of people are in another, that’s not a divide; it’s a couple of outliers. We’ve seen a shift in the Democratic Party on its overall stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a more moderate and balanced place that is supportive of Israel and supportive of the cause of Palestinian self-determination. That is the consensus position in the Democratic Party. There are a couple of people in the caucus who have come out in favor of BDS, but there’s 230 members who have not. I don’t see that as a sharp divide. What I see is Republicans who, for partisan purposes, are trying to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party.

So, traditionally J Street’s main role has been trying to push for a less hawkish position on Israel. Now that the debate has expanded on the other side, are you now spending more of your time trying to pull those on your left toward a more moderate position?

It’s a good position to be in. We have people on our left who are in the sort of “Israel is always wrong” school and people on our right who are more “Israel is always right.” We’re going to work on both of them to show it’s not so black and white. That’s emerging as the consensus position. It’s a dramatic change in the party.