J Street helped transform Jamaal Bowman’s view of Israel but the ‘pro-peace’ group remains soft on genocide

J Street helped transform Jamaal Bowman’s view of Israel but the ‘pro-peace’ group remains soft on genocide

Last week, Politico reported:

In late 2021, Jamaal Bowman stepped out of a tour bus into the heat in Hebron. The then-rookie New York congressman was visiting the H2 area of the ancient city in the West Bank, which remains under Israeli military occupation with barbed wire-covered checkpoints every few blocks.

Bowman had been in the Middle East for just three days, but he was already seeing sights that were changing the way he understood the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That day, along with a handful of his congressional colleagues on a trip sponsored by the liberal Zionist organization J Street, he toured a boys’ school administered by the United Nations. The young students there regularly heard live ammunition and smelled tear gas seeping through the school’s walls.

Bowman left profoundly demoralized. “There are streets they cannot walk and places they cannot go, simply because they are Palestinian,” he wrote, sharing a picture of himself posing with the students. “When I asked about their dreams, their answer was simple: freedom. The occupation must end.”

Reflecting back on the experience three years later, Bowman says, “You can almost breathe it in the air how suffocating the West Bank felt with the settlement expansions.”

The trip was a “transformational moment” for him, he tells me, one that left him doubtful about the prospects of a two-state solution — the default stated policy of most Democrats in America and liberal Zionists the world over. “[The two-state solution] was the thing that you say so that everyone leaves you alone … so that at the very least you could satisfy both sides, Palestinian freedom and the Jewish state,” he says. But what he took from five days of meetings and interviews, over boxed lunches and fancy dinners, was that there was no political will at the top of the Israeli government to pursue a two-state solution or engage in any sort of sustainable peace process — and that America’s willingness to send significant aid to Israel without any conditions attached was therefore unwise.

After the trip, Bowman changed from a relatively mainstream Democrat on Israel into one of the country’s chief antagonists in Congress. He moved from voting for aid to Israel and supporting the country’s normalization agreements to eventually signaling his support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — a Palestinian-led attempt to pressure Israel to withdraw from occupied territories and allow for Palestinian right of return. [Continue reading…]

In February, Jewish Currents reported:

Since October 7th, at least seven staff members have left J Street, with at least four making it known to colleagues that the liberal Zionist lobby’s lack of support for a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza had motivated their resignation, according to three former and current J Street employees. These departures are among several indications that J Street’s three-and-a-half months of support for the war—which, to date, has killed more than 27,000 Palestinians, and which many experts consider a genocide—sparked significant dissent from the group’s employees and supporters. In late November, 19 employees signed an internal letter to the executive team asking the group to call for a ceasefire. In the letter, obtained by Jewish Currents, the staffers describe themselves as “increasingly troubled by our organization’s reluctance to commit to an end of violence and suffering.”

At the time the November letter was circulated, the organization—which frames itself as an “anti-occupation” and “pro-peace” alternative to AIPAC in Washington—was still advocating for Israel’s right to maintain a military operation in Gaza. On January 22nd, well after several of its own congressional endorsees had come out in favor of a ceasefire, the organization released a statement advocating for an end to the war. But disillusioned staffers say that by waiting so long—as organizations and figures from the United Auto Workers to the Pope called for a ceasefire and UN officials raised the alarm about genocide—J Street sacrificed its credibility with progressives who previously viewed it as a pragmatic vehicle for opposing mainstream Israel-advocacy positions on the Hill. “It felt like we backtracked on 15 years of work that we were genuinely proud of, that we felt was making a difference. All of a sudden, it’s moot because it took us three-and-half months to make any sort of statement that we were against the bloodshed that was happening,” said Marisa Edmondson, a former J Street communications associate who helped co-write the pro-ceasefire letter before leaving the organization in December. “We lost a lot of donors, and a lot of student leaders who I think could have been the next generation of J Street staffers.” [Continue reading…]

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