J Street, Marginalized in D.C., Leeching into the Hillels

By: Lori Lowenthal Marcus
The controversial organization J Street had its first annual conference in 2009. The organization initially snagged a large number of members of congress to speak at the conference, and an even larger number to merely allow their names to be used as “co-sponsors” of its Gala. But when word got out that despite its self-description as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, most pro-Israel folks – including the actual Israeli government – had quite the opposite view of the organization, many congressional members beat a hasty retreat.
J Street has had its public ups, and even more public downs, with Americans who believe themselves to be pro-Israel. There was the revelation that while J Street said the virulently anti-Israel George Soros was not a donor, in fact J Street’s tax records proved that not only he, but members of his family were bankrolling the organization. There was also the J Street claim that the vast majority of its donors were American Jews, when it was later revealed that there were quite a few non-Jewish donors, and actually the largest donor for at least one year was neither Jewish nor American. The list goes on.
J Street has recently been reduced to publicly crowing not about how many members of congress were willing to speak at its conference, but instead how many were willing to take its money. Imagine that! your biggest achievement is that a politician was willing to take your money.
But as J Street was slowly eased out of its comfort zone in Washington, D.C., it proved itself to be very adaptable. It oozed out into the countryside, where it was harder to mobilize a critical mass of knowledgeable critics. At least in part because of that diffusion, J Street found homes at the municipal level. The Big Tent approach of most mainstream Jewish Federations was a tremendous boon, even more so are the fecund, ultra-liberal, anti-authoritarian pastures known as university campuses.
While some Hillels were initially wary, others were welcoming.
One Hillel which initially responded to J Street’s approach very gingerly was the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, a Hillel whose campuses include not only the University of Pennsylvania, but also Temple University, Drexel University, Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College and Swarthmore College, as well as some smaller schools.
J Street approached HGP and asked to have the roll-out of its local J Streets hosted at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel, on Feb. 4, 2010. The roll-out was going to be webcast to 20 other cities across the country. The HGP leadership, anticipating the objection of at least some board members, extracted a firm commitment from J Street Chief Jeremy Ben-Ami. That commitment was an element of an agreement to rent the space to J Street as part of a business transaction. It was affirmatively not an ideological vote of confidence.
Not to worry, said J Street to the local Hillel leadership: “We promise not to mention that we’re using your facility, and to make clear in our written and oral statements that Hillel does not endorse us.” That condition was agreed upon—it was “not just a promise, it was an agreement”—according to Rabbi Howard Alpert, the executive director of all the Philadelphia area Hillels. On the strength of that essential agreement, Hillel went ahead and rented J Street its space.
And then? Within seconds of beginning his welcome to the live audience in Philadelphia and to all those listening and watching through the livestreaming, J Street’s Ben-Ami said exactly what he’d promised not to say—that he was speaking “here at Penn Hillel.” He failed to say a word about what he’d promised solemnly to make clear: that Hillel does not endorse J Street or its message.
Not only did J Street explicitly violate its firm commitment, it did so with breathtaking audacity.
Within hours of the event, J Street sent out thousands of releases and emails urging everyone who was not present at the launch to go to its website and watch the video. While the video of Ben-Ami’s remarks is no longer – four years later – still up on the website, it was for many months. In fact, the text of the statement still is on the J Street website. You can see it for yourself.
For some reason, perhaps because they did not want it known they had been duped so completely, the Philadelphia-area Hillel leadership chose to not publicly remonstrate with Ben-Ami over his calculated lie at Hillel’s expense. But because J Street’s brazen deception was not shared with other Hillels, other campus organizations, and other Jewish organizations, were denied an early opportunity to know about the deception and to raise the honesty bar before J Street. The bar itself seems to be lost.
In fact, anecdotal evidence from college students around the country raise concerns that J Street has not only been embraced by the Open Tent of Jewish communal organizations on campus. Now there is a danger of it becoming the owner of the tent.
Just one example of that comes from an op-ed which recently appeared in The Jewish Press. It described a Brandeis University campus event at which J Street U members entered late, shouted at the speaker and disrupted the event. What is even more galling is that after the event, a J Street U student criticized the other students, claiming J Street U was shut down because its views are “unacceptable.” The views were not the reason there was criticism, it was the behavior displayed by J Street U students that was.
And now word comes that J Street is again setting up shop in various cities across the country, this time to have what it is calling a Town Hall. The goal of the Town Hall is to continue banging the drum for its obsessive goal of creating a Palestinian State. And J Street is hosting one of its Town Hall events in Philadelphia, at the University of Pennsylvania Hillel!
The University of Pennsylvania Hillel seems to enjoy playing the losing end of the game “Heads I win, Tails you lose.”

There still are members in those big tents, especially the Jewish-built ones on campuses, who see real peace in the Middle East as the only acceptable goal of the Middle East Peace Process. This distinguishes them from organizations such as J Street, whose sole goal is the immediate creation of a Palestinian State. Maybe what you see as the goal of the peace process is a legitimate litmus test to use for groups who enjoy the benefits of being in the Big Tent.Originally published in The Jewish Press