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HOLDING THE LINE

J Street to stick by Bowman, other endorsees despite split on Gaza

The progressive advocacy organization called on the White House to consider pulling its support for Israel’s war against Hamas

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, speaking at the J Street National Conference.

Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, speaking at the J Street National Conference.

Since the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks in Israel, the progressive Israel advocacy organization J Street has resisted calls for a ceasefire, even as some left-wing members of Congress who are close to the group have demanded Israel end its war against Hamas. Some of J Street PAC’s endorsees have gone even further — including Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), who has accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza. 

But J Street said on Thursday it will not reevaluate its endorsements, even as some of the candidates it supports diverge sharply from the organization, which continues to support Israel’s military campaign against Hamas.

“We’re now in December of 2023, so we’re more than halfway through, essentially, the [election] cycle. We probably will not change our endorsements in mid-cycle,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told Jewish Insider in a phone interview on Thursday. “The kinds of things that are being said and done now will probably have an impact on our reevaluation of people for the 2026 cycle.” 

Bowman, who has traveled to Israel and the West Bank with J Street, joined a pro-ceasefire protest in front of the White House in November, during the weeklong period when there was a truce in fighting. 

“We are against genocide. We are against ethnic cleansing,” Bowman said. “We have all read about genocides. We have all read about mass murders. I cannot believe I am living through one. And I cannot believe I am living through one and the U.S. government is condoning it and being complicit.” 

Ben-Ami said Bowman’s speech “certainly crossed the line in terms of the types of language that we use,” but it would not cause the group to reassess its endorsement of Bowman in his 2024 reelection campaign. Westchester County Executive George Latimer announced a primary challenge to Bowman on Wednesday; he is expected to receive significant support from donors aligned with AIPAC.

“The bottom line is that our endorsements of all of our current candidates still hold. They are based on alignment, not on every single word that everybody says and every single issue and every single vote but broad commitment to political resolution of this conflict that results in a Jewish and democratic and secure Israel,” Ben-Ami said. “He’s still within our parameters for endorsement.”

People have continued to make contributions to Bowman through J Street PAC’s online portal, but “we haven’t made any plans” to offer Bowman support from the group’s Super PAC, said Ben-Ami. Among J Street’s endorsees are other members of Congress who have sharply criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza, including Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Andre Carson (D-IN) and Summer Lee (D-PA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). 

Since Oct. 7, J Street has found itself at odds with some of its progressive allies, many of whom have called for a cease-fire for weeks and slammed Israel’s military campaign. J Street, meanwhile, has supported Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas while also questioning whether the Israel Defense Forces could do more to protect Palestinian civilians. The group’s endorsees have offered a wide range of responses and policy actions vis-a-vis Israel and Gaza, but Ben-Ami said that’s not J Street’s fault. 

“I don’t think there’s any lack of clear guidance from J Street. We just don’t agree, and they go ahead and do their own thing,” Ben-Ami said. “These are elected officials. They’re grown people.”

The organization plans to mount a lobbying campaign in favor of an amendment to President Joe Biden’s supplemental aid package that would condition aid to Israel and other U.S. allies receiving American military assistance. 

“We support that amendment 100%,” Ben-Ami said of the amendment, which was sponsored by Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Dick Durbin, (D-IL), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI). For years, J Street has inched close to supporting conditions on American aid to Israel, but they have avoided using that language. The amendment would require countries the U.S. to obtain assurances from countries receiving weapons to “cooperate fully” with U.S. and U.S.-backed humanitarian aid efforts before they can receive aid, although the administration can waive this provision.

“That’s saying you can have this $14 billion, but you have to use it in a manner that is consistent with our laws and with international law, and there has to be accountability for how you’re using it. That’s not a condition on giving them money,” said Ben-Ami, even though it would condition the provision of aid upon Israel offering the U.S. the assurances required in the amendment. “That is a restriction or an oversight of the use of the money and we support that 100%.”

The group might also “go further in supporting other requirements in such a supplemental bill,” said Ben-Ami, “for instance, getting a presidential certification that Israel is, in fact, committed to pursuing a political resolution of the conflict.” Despite Washington’s strong support for a two-state solution, Israeli officials have not committed to the postwar vision laid out by the U.S.

J Street released a lengthy policy letter on Thursday laying out the group’s thinking on the war in Gaza. The title of the document was dire: “Moment of truth for Israel’s government: Either heed Biden administration’s limits or lose U.S. support for military operation.”

Its key question: “What happens if the Netanyahu government continues to ignore the admonitions and guardrails that J Street, the Biden administration and many Americans – Jewish and not – support?” 

The answer, according to J Street, is that the Biden administration should stop supporting Israel’s war effort. Not by cutting off aid, or calling for a ceasefire, or making any policy changes — just by signaling a lack of support. But despite the group’s significant number of endorsees within the Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill, it didn’t outline any policy actions beyond recommending the use of sterner language. 

“You sort of come to the same point where there will be a phone call from the president to the prime minister saying, You’re out of runway,” said Ben-Ami. “When does that come? What I think we’re saying is the length of the runway is going to be directly related to the manner in which Israel pursues this military campaign.” 

But what happens at the end of this theoretical runway? “The policy right now of the United States is to support what Israel is doing, and we would be saying, at that point, that the time has come for the United States to say it can’t support what Israel is doing,” Ben-Ami explained. Still, he clarified that this is different from making calls for a cease-fire the backbone of U.S. policy, and he noted that Israel might still see reason to continue the war.

“Israel has to make Israel’s choices. Israel will move forward and do what it does. The question is, Does the United States — and does J Street — stand behind Israel and say, We support what you are doing?” Ben-Ami asked. “We can’t tell Israel to stop, but we can say we don’t support this any longer.” He declined to say whether he has discussed this idea with the White House or the State Department, neither of which has expressed any intention of ending American support for Israel’s war in Gaza.

J Street supports Biden’s approach thus far; their frustration is that, according to Ben-Ami, Israel is not heeding the warnings of the Biden administration, even though White House officials have said they believe Israel has been “receptive” to U.S. messaging about minimizing civilian casualties. 

“There’s some receptivity,” Ben-Ami acknowledged. “What we’re saying is they really need to do more and much closer to 100% of what’s being asked, more than just a percent.”

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