On visit to Tucson, J Street policy director explains group’s mission

J Street, a pro-peace, pro-Israel lobbying group and political action committee, is often presented in the media as a left-wing counterweight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. But that’s not J Street’s mission, Hadar Susskind, J Street policy and strategic planning director, told a lunch crowd of about 40 invited guests on Friday, March 18 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.

Hadar Susskind

J Street is the only U.S. organization with the stated goal of trying to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said Susskind, who noted that AIPAC’s mission, which is important, is to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“I’ve never been more convinced as a Jew supporting Israel we need both organizations,” said Tucson Jewish community activist Larry Gellman, who organized the lunch after he learned Susskind would be in town to address the Tucson Committee on Foreign Relations. Gellman, who serves on the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona’s executive committee and as JFSA campaign vice chair, has been active in both J Street and AIPAC. And, if Gellman has his way, Tucson may be on the map for a future J Street chapter.

Susskind, who joined J Street a year and a half ago, was previously vice president and Washington director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs. He was born in Israel to American parents, served in the Israel Defense Forces, and has held several other positions in American Jewish community organizations, including the Israel Policy Forum, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.

This is a crucial moment, Susskind said, “if you care about Israel and want to see it continue as a Jewish, democratic state,” adding that he fears “the window is closing for a two-state solution.”

J Street’s goals are to support U.S. leadership to help the Israelis and Palestinians create a peaceful solution, and to try to change the discourse on Israel in the community, said Susskind. “Everything we do is looked at through the lens of whether it will bring us closer to peace.”

J Street, which was created three years ago, now has 50 staff members and 40 chapters around the country, including J Street U chapters on many college campuses.

Jewish perspectives on Israel are diverse, said Susskind, yet too often the only accepted view is support of Israel regardless of its policies. “So many people have walked away from the Jewish community entirely … because they felt they got shut down, or were ostracized about their views on Israel.”

Young Jews are being asked “to check their liberalism at the door, and what’s happened is they’ve checked their Zionism at the door,” said Susskind, referencing an article by writer and political scientist Peter Beinart, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” published last June in The New York Review of Books (www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/jun/10/fail ure-american-jewish-establishment/).

J Street “adds political voices to the community,” said Susskind, noting that there are “similarities and differences between J Street and AIPAC.”

For example, both J Street and AIPAC advocate for U.S. aid to Israel, and for sanctions on Iran. J Street lobbied 90 members of Congress who had not been on board to pass sanctions, said Susskind. “We worked with the Progressive Caucus and in the end when the vote took place only nine members didn’t support sanctions.”

Following Susskind’s talk, a question and answer session focused on J Street’s public image and how important it is for the Jewish community to present a united front.

“It’s appropriate to state publicly when we disagree with the government of Israel,” Susskind replied to a question from an audience member.

“J Street is an American organization,” noted Susskind. “We advocate to our public officials, to the U.S. government. Some people say that’s inappropriate. Many people say we should just have one voice – as long as it’s my voice. There’s no one voice on anything.”

“We’re trying to keep the folks on the Hill together,” said Donald Diamond, a Tucson Jewish community activist, lifetime member of the Federation board, and AIPAC lobbyist in Washington, who advocates “a Jewish united front. We’re trying to educate them [about Israel]. That’s the caution. We can’t be weak up there or they’ll take advantage of us.”

“Look around at the ages of people in this room,” said Marissa Wald, a Hebrew High teacher and University of Arizona graduate student, who at 30 was clearly one of the youngest attendees. “It’s an illusion to say we don’t already have a rift in the Jewish community. It’s generational and political.”

You would “never hear us say we represent the consensus voice of the Jewish community,” Susskind said. “We’re willing to engage with people with whom we disagree.”

Gerry Tumarkin, another lifetime member of the JFSA board, commented, “I think it makes us stronger, not weaker, to have different points of view on similar issues. It’s more democratic. It makes us more credible.”

Dan Karsch, chair of Tucson’s Weintraub Israel Center, raised the issue of the recent United Nations Security Council Resolution 446 against Israeli settlements. “The U.N. resolution is symbolic of Israel’s isolation. The settlements are a minor issue,” said Karsch. “Americans, Israelis and Palestinians know which settlements will stay and which will be evacuated. I call that issue a ‘red herring,’ avoiding the real issue, which is Israel’s right to exist as a real country.”

J Street’s website states its policy on settlements, saying “Israel’s settlements in the occupied territories, have for over 40 years, been an obstacle to peace,” and adds that “Continued settlement growth undermines the prospects for peace by making Palestinians doubt Israeli motives and commitment, and by complicating the territorial compromises that will be necessary in final status talks.”

J Street didn’t support the anti-settlement U.N. resolution or the U.S. veto of the resolution, said Susskind, explaining that J Street’s view is that the United Nations “is not where the issue should play out,” but rather in the direct peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians.`

Netanyahu is “ready to negotiate,” Karsch told the AJP after the meeting. “The Palestinians are holding up the peace process. I want a substantive agreement that recognizes borders and security, with the implied recognition of an Israeli Jewish state and a Palestinian Arab state, not just a piece of paper that makes Israel very vulnerable. They’re in a dangerous neighborhood.”

Karsch added that there must also be an end to incitement by the Palestinians, including what Palestinian children learn about Jews in school, which “borders on anti-Semitism.”

Another audience member asked how J Street — if it’s pro-Israel — could invite Jewish Voice for Peace to its recent national conference. Jewish Voice for Peace has been criticized for supporting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign targeting Israel and was listed by the Anti-Defamation League last October as among the top 10 anti-Israel groups in the United States.

Jewish Voice for Peace doesn’t make J Street policy, replied Susskind, explaining that J Street doesn’t agree with everyone who attends its conferences.

“I find Jewish Voice for Peace despicable,” Gellman told the AJP, “but it’s important that J Street provides a forum where all issues can be honestly discussed, not just Israel can do no wrong. The policies of the Israeli government in the past 10 to 15 years are of concern to good Jews everywhere.

“My biggest concern is when people who describe themselves as Jewish leaders adopt Tea Party methods,” he said, “spreading lies about J Street, and turning against Jewish values such as ‘love the stranger.’”