J Street is an American advocacy organization that works to promote American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. It was founded in April 2008.
J Street describes itself on its website as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans fighting for the future of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.” It maintains that Israel’s Jewish and democratic character depend on a two-state solution, resulting in a Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security.
In addition to direct advocacy in Washington, J Street aims to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel in America, rooted in a commitment to Jewish and democratic values. In this fashion it seek to change the U.S. political dynamics around Israel by mobilizing broad support for a two-state solution, seeing that as in both Israel’s and America’s interest. It believes, too, that it expands support for Israel by affirming — along with many Israelis — that being pro-Israel doesn’t require supporting every policy of its government.
J Street comprises a family of legally independent organizations including:
- J Street – a non-profit advocacy group registered as a 501(c)(4) registered as a social welfare group. J Street aims to encourage “support strong American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israeli conflicts peacefully and diplomatically.”
- The J Street PAC – a political action committee that endorses candidates and makes direct political campaign donations. The J Street PAC provides political and financial support to candidates who are seeking election or reelection and agree with J Street’s goals.
- The J Street Education Fund, Inc. – a 501(c)(3) charitable organization. It aims to educate targeted communities about the need for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raise the visibility of a mainstream pro-Israel, pro-peace presence within the American Jewish community, and promote open, dynamic and spirited conversation about how to best advance the interests and future of a democratic, Jewish Israel. J Street Local, J Street’s national field program and J Street U (formerly the Union of Progressive Zionists), J Street’s on campus movement are programs of the J Street Education Fund.
- J Street U – the student organizing arm of J Street, organizing chapters on university and college campuses.
As of September 2013, J Street boasted more than 177,000 online supporters, 5,000 students, and 650 clergy in its National Rabbinic Cabinet.
J Street, as an American lobbying organization aimed at Washington leaders and policymakers, derives its name from the alphabetically named street plan Washington, D.C.: J Street is missing from the grid (the street naming jumps from I Street to K Street for historical/orthographic reasons). Also, by association, the letter J is a reference to “Jewish.” Further, K Street is a street in downtown Washington on which multiple influential lobbying firms are located, which become synonymous for Washington’s formidable lobbying establishment. Consequently, the choice of the name reflects the desire of J Street’s founders and donors to bring a message to Washington that, metaphorically like the missing “J Street” of the D.C. grid, has thus far been absent. It may also suggest being slightly different from the more “mainstream” lobbying entities.
J Street’s founding executive director is Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration. Ben-Ami’s grandparents were among the founders of Tel Aviv, his parents were Israelis, his family suffered in the Holocaust, and he has lived in Israel, where he was almost killed in a Jerusalem terror attack. Before founding J Street Ben-Ami worked closely for many years with Jewish peace groups, including the Center for Middle East Peace and the Geneva Accord.
According to the J Street website, the organization seeks to provide a political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who believe that a “two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to Israel’s survival as the national home of the Jewish people and as a vibrant democracy.” J Street has a two-fold mission: first, to advocate for urgent American diplomatic leadership achieve a two-state solution and a broader regional, comprehensive peace and, second, to ensure a broad debate on Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community. 2011, J Street opposed recognizing Palestine as an independent state at the United Nations.
According to its website, J Street “recognizes and supports Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people” and Israel’s “desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own.” According to executive director Ben-Ami, J Street is neither pro- nor anti- any individual organization or other pro-Israel umbrella groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Ben-Ami has stated that J Street is proud of AIPAC’s many accomplishments and emphasized that the two groups have different priorities rather than different views.
Explaining the need for a new advocacy and lobbying group, Ben-Ami stated: “J Street has been started, however, because there has not been sufficient vocal and political advocacy on behalf of the view that Israel’s interests will be best served when the United States makes it a major foreign policy priority to help Israel achieve a real and lasting peace not only with the Palestinians but with all its neighbors.”
In the fall of 2012, J Street publicly opposed the bid by the Palestinian National Authority (PA) to win recognition from the United Nations General Assembly as a non-member state. Israel and many of its advocates had opposed the measure on grounds that it violated the joint Israeli-Palestinian commitment within the 1993 Oslo Accords to refrain from unilateral actions that could jeopardize negotiations. At the same time, J Street lobbied the U.S. Senate against a group of bills that would have penalized the PA if it used its new statehood status to bring charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court. The bills failed to pass.
Since its inception J Street has fought a long, increasingly successful battle to win acceptance from the institutions of the mainstream Jewish community. In its early stages it was attacked by members and spokesmen of the Netanyahu government in Jerusalem as anti-Israel, despite its description of itself as pro-Israel. It was rebuffed in attempts in several places to join local Jewish community relations councils and committees, which bring together synagogues and Jewish organizations for joint action in more than 100 communities around the country. In addition, it ran into opposition when its leaders were invited to speak at synagogues and Jewish community centers in several cities. Representatives of the Israeli government turned down invitations to speak at J Street’s first two national conferences.
In 2012, for the first time, the Embassy of Israel in Washington sent a representative, deputy chief of mission Barukh Binah, to address J Street conference’s gala dinner. While his speech was critical of much of what J Street did, his presence represented a thaw in relations.
By 2013, however, J Street had established considerable credibility and acceptance, and had applied for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Its September 2013 national conference featured a broad range of guest speakers representing the Israeli political system, including Justice Minister Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah, Knesset budget committee chair Tzahi Hanegbi of Likud and deputy Knesset speaker Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas, as well as Vice President Joe Biden.
From the J Street website:
- Had over 2,500 attendees, including 650 students, to J Street’s Third National Conference.
- Sponsored Congressional, lay leader and student delegations to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, meeting with top elected officials and security, intelligence, and other leaders.
- Grew our National Rabbinic Cabinet to over 700 Rabbis
- Doubled the number of J Street U chapters on campuses across the country
- Convened the third-largest gathering of American Jews in North America
- Drew over 2,000 attendees, including 500 students, to J Street’s Second National Conference.
- Sponsored Congressional, lay leader and student delegations to Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt, meeting with top government and civil society leaders.
- Launched J Street Local, our national field program, now organized in 40 cities
- Grew government affairs team to 7 people, including 5 registered lobbyists
- Doubled what JStreetPAC raised in 2008, distributing over $1,500,000.
- Endorsed 61 federal candidates from 28 states, 45 of whom won their races.
- Accounted for 30% of all pro-Israel PAC funds distributed during the election.
- Remained the single-largest pro-Israel PAC in America.
- Increased organizational budget from $1.5 million to $3 million.
- Launched J Street U, a student-led campus movement, now active on over 50 campuses.
- Held inaugural J Street Conference, attracting 1,500 attendees.
- Emerged as the single-largest pro-Israel PAC in the country.
- Distributed $580,000 to 41 endorsed candidates, 33 of whom won their races.