Page last updated at 11:21 GMT, Wednesday, 16 April 2008 12:21 UK

US Jewish lobby gains new voice

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Washington

Are liberal Jewish voices in America being drowned out by powerful conservative lobbyists? A group of prominent left-leaning Jewish-Americans thinks so.

They have launched a new lobbying organisation, called J Street, which they hope will redress this perceived imbalance.

US and Israeli flags
America's relationship with Israel has often sparked debate
"The term 'pro-Israel' has been hijacked by those who hold views that a majority of Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, oppose," says executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton.

He says J Street will campaign for a two-state solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

Its political fundraising sister group - J Street PAC, for political action committee - will raise money and donate to sympathetic politicians.

Furious debate

The group is billing itself as a counterweight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac), the most prominent Jewish lobbying organisation in the US.

J Street says Aipac does not reflect the liberal views of a large number of its existing donors, let alone the mainstream of Jewish-American opinion.

The role of the pro-Israeli lobby - and of Aipac itself - in American politics has been the subject of furious debate in recent years.

The most pro-Israel thing any American politician or policy maker can do is help to bring about a two-state solution and a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and her neighbours

Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street

In 2006, academics Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago caused a storm when they published an article arguing that groups like Aipac had pushed US foreign policy in a pro-Israeli direction often against America's national interests.

Critics of the two academics countered that the pro-Israeli lobby should be allowed to make its case to government just like any other interest group, and that characterisations of Jewish lobbyists as "well-funded" and "powerful" were liable to play into the hands of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.

The team behind J Street do not necessarily buy into the Walt-Mearsheimer analysis, but they do believe that America's current policy tilts too strongly towards Israeli right-wingers, and is in the long-term interests neither of Israel nor the US.

"The most pro-Israel thing any American politician or policy maker can do is help to bring about a two-state solution and a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and her neighbours," says Mr Ben-Ami.

No threat

Although Aipac have not publicly commented on J Street's launch, they are - perhaps unsurprisingly - not thought to be particularly supportive of the new group's aims.

Nor are they concerned that they will lose their pre-eminent position within the Jewish-American community.

"I believe that Aipac has very broad support and will continue to enjoy it," Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which Aipac is a member, told the Washington Post newspaper.

Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem
J Street wants the US to help broker a peace deal

Financially, J Street is certainly unlikely to pose a threat to Aipac.

Its first-year budget of $1.5m (750,000) will be no match for Aipac, which has an endowment of more than $100m (50m), over 100,000 members and 18 offices around the US.

J Street hopes that its voice will be amplified by some of its more high-profile backers, including former senator Lincoln Chafee.

It may also be able to draw on the power of online fundraising groups like, from which some of J Street's organisers have come.

A similar attempt to create a liberal Jewish pressure group took place in the UK last year, with the launch of Independent Jewish Voices (IJV).

IJV set itself up as an alternative to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which it said was too uncritical in its attitude to Israeli policy.

'Vague approach'

At its inception, IJV was able to unveil a number of high-profile supporters, including the writer Stephen Fry and the film director Mike Leigh.

But it was criticised by some for what journalist Seth Freedman described as its "vague, indistinct approach", particularly in its attitude towards the controversial proposal from members of the UK-based University and College Union to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

J Street will get hammered and accused of being anti-Israel
Ken Wald, political scientist

In November 2007, one of IJV's leading members, Rabbi David Goldberg, resigned from the group, citing the organisation's "lack of direction".

J Street will be more focused on raising money and lobbying influential politicians than IJV, and the American group is unlikely to engage in divisive political campaigns.

But it is likely to draw criticism from more conservative pro-Israeli factions.

"[J Street] will get hammered and accused of being anti-Israel," University of Florida political scientist Ken Wald told the Jewish Week newspaper.

"A lot will have to do with the way they actually frame their arguments," he added.

J Street may not succeed in its ambition to become a rival to Aipac and the other pro-Israeli lobby groups.

But the vibrant - and sometimes fractious - Jewish-American conversation will certainly be getting a little louder.

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