J Street to put our money where our mouth is
Somebody squealed. The “J Street” project, America’s first progressive Israel PAC, was supposed to be launched next month, but the Jewish Week breaks the story that indeed, forces of the American Jewish community are organizing to kick the right-wing stranglehold on Congress in the knees.
Having been to DC in legislators’ offices for various causes and in particular Israel, it’s disgusting how the Hill functions. Most legislators don’t make decisions on Israel — they defer to the Jewish Congresspeople. Who in turn defer to Jewish money. In exchange, a Jewish legislator votes according to those other reps on their issues. As a result, issues with single-constituent lobbies (i.e. almost nobody lobbies on Israel except the Jews) get their way, which means a donor in New York can easily influence a legislator from Arizona on an issue with little or no Arizonan constituency. Lastly, Bills are rarely written by legislators but by the lobbies, who pitch them to friendly lawmakers, and then whip other legislators into line. Lobbies invent faux grassroots groups and think tanks to support their interests (case in point: CMIP, a publisher of repudiated research on Palestinian textbook hate speech).
And it’s sad that real votes (local constituents calling, phoning and visiting) are only an expression of money, as in how many votes can you organize for your issue with the money you have? For comparison, AIPAC is on the Hill four times a year; ZOA brought 300 people to their last advocacy conference; the JCPA (although far from the worst) represents 125 organizations of the American Jewish community’s old guard yearly. Despite all that, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom was founded in 2002 to put Jewish votes behind pro-peace legislation and has brought to Washington a new knowledge (and a few slim victories) that the Jewish community is diverse — and that the old guard poorly speaks for the average Joseph. BTVS just announced it’s annual leadership conference and advocacy visit to the Hill, June 21-24, which you should join.
But sadly, American democracy is more coin-operated that hand-crank.
AIPAC’s real influence is it’s coordination of millions of dollars of other PACs’ monies; it gives very few dollars directly to campaigns itself. In DC, legislators pay lip service to voter groups. I speak from experience: who gets appointments with Senator Clinton herself, and who gets a 10-minute meeting in the hallway with an intern? Yep, the monied and the unmonied, respectively. It was a sad day when I realized that instead of fighting for two weeks to get a meeting with my Crown Heights representative, all I had to do was donate $500. That might be significant enough for some name recognition and some customer service. This is how American government presently functions.
J Street was founded with an impressive list of big name advisors — from former Presidential aides, former MKs and Mossad cheifs, prominent rabbis and communal leaders — with the intent of putting money and political pressure behind candidates which existing dove groups cannot. AIPAC’s most successful tactics are prohibited from tax-exempt nonprofits: tallying Congresspersons’ votes along right-wing “pro” and “anti” Israel bills, publishing vote score cards, and endorsing candidates. With J Street, now we can count votes our way, and counter the flagrant scare tactics with some balance.
And it’s about freakin’ time. I’m damn frustrated that progressive Israel organizations flounder with tiny staffs and tiny funds — UPZ has one staffer to combat the combined ugliness of the entire ICC; Brit Tzedek and APN have two DC staffers alongside the offices of AIPAC. I don’t say this to imply they are always at odds or that right-left groups don’t work together on a suprising basis. Our similarities outweigh our differences; we want a secure and safe Israel. But those differences make all the, well, difference. And it’s a function of money. Money money money.
This begs a bigger question of why we are allowing ourselves to stoop to the level of playing along with a corruptable “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” approach to justice, fairness and rights. (You can join the BTVS conference in DC to push back against it anyway; scholarships available.) It’s all platitudes and this is politics, so we’ve got no choice but to ante up and pay for the democracy we want. The right-wingers are right: Freedom ain’t free, democracy ain’t free. But I bet this isn’t what they meant.
With the official launch of J Street in about a month, you can count that I’ll be making it one of my top donations — and I don’t care about the lack of tax-deductibility. I’ll be expecting my dividends in peace.