Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal and right-leaning analysts and activists who think public criticism of Israeli policy is tantamount to betrayal have played up a recent report that Project Ploughshares not only funded J Street but also NPR, arguing that leftists, liberals, and the Obama White House have engaged in trickery and sleight of hand to shamefully trick the American people. This is a political argument only: groups, including media, which share a policy agenda have long cooperated with each other to promote public policy. Political leaders have also always worked to “sell” their ideas to citizens, voters, and key elites.
Rather, the genuine story here is that it provides further proof that pro-Israel advocacy in the American Jewish community has opened up to an unprecedented degree. That, in turn, could have long-term political and policy effects in both Jewish politics and American politics.
Pro-Israel advocacy (the term itself is vague, but generally means support for Israel’s existence as an independent state with a Jewish identity) has since the 1980s been dominated—perhaps controlled—by what are often considered mainstream organizations. These are the large national institutions that are recognized by American politicians and policymakers and non-Jewish groups as the address for discussion with the Jewish community on Israel issues. They are mostly accepted, through active or tacit support, as such by a majority of American Jews: AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents, the American Jewish Committee, and the ADL.
These groups, particularly AIPAC, have since that decade represented a consensus position in politics on Israel issues. Most important is avoiding partisan battles over Israel and letting the Israeli government of the day take the lead on key foreign and security policy issues.
The consensus position has nonetheless always been challenged, sometimes by outsiders (e.g., Breira in the 1970s) and sometimes by insiders (e.g., splits within the community over the Oslo process in the 1990s). But these disputes were never refracted into the American political arena. American political leaders still largely viewed the four organizations mentioned above as the interlocutors for all Jewish things Israel, despite the establishment or rejuvenation of several smaller groups on both the right and left beginning in the 1990s.
The emergence of the leftwing J Street in the late 2000s took this process of challenging mainstream groups farther than ever before. Supported by more money than many smaller groups had previously managed to gather, buttressed by an activist grassroots movement—particularly among college-going Jews—eager for an Israel-related outlet for their left-liberal values, and enhanced by an Obama Administration closer to its positions than to those of the mainstream (particularly in its acceptance of the need to critique Israeli policies and to exert pressure on Israel on the peace front), J Street has been able to offer a viable alternative to AIPAC.
What the Ploughshares story tells us is that J Street’s ability to play a bigger role in politics is augmented by the growing assertiveness of other leftwing and progressive groups that hold to an agenda on foreign affairs that dovetails with J Street’s own agenda regarding Israel. In this case, that was a determination to promote a nuclear deal with Iran as in both America’s and Israel’s interests. By promoting itself as an ally in the political struggle over the Iran deal, J Street was able to offer the Obama Administration an alternative to the mainstream groups—they should now be called centrist instead—that opposed the deal. This means American politicians increasingly have options when it comes to working with Jewish groups on Israel or Middle East issues.
We have already seen what this looks like: Obama himself tacitly relied on AIPAC to drum up Congressional support for a military strike on Syria in 2013 and then worked with J Street to promote the Iran deal. As policymakers see that they have options, they will likely turn to those organizations that best fit their political and policy needs on a case-by-case basis. This, in turn, will undermine a steady American policy toward Israel, especially on peace issues, and it will facilitate a more fractious Jewish politics, particularly but not only as it related to the place of Israel in American Jewish identity.
The centrist groups remain powerful and still broadly accepted as the main representation of the Jewish community. And changes in American politics might refocus attention on the centrist groups, divisions within J Street might split the organization, and developments within Israel might affect US Jewish identity and politics to a greater degree than they already have, with unclear consequences.
Still, changes have occurred and the Obama Administration has utilized these changes to its own benefit. It’s not clear yet if this is a long-term trend, or if it’s just a coincidence that occurred during the Obama presidency. But at least thus far, the outcomes –such as the Iran deal—have mattered a great deal.