J Street goes on offense, carefully

Bernie Sanders addresses the J Street conference in 2019, where he endorsed conditioning US military aid to Israel. (photo: Michael Brochstein / Sipa USA via AP Images)
J Street is placing advocacy for restricting aid front and center.

By Mari Cohen | Jewish Currents | May 5, 2021

“I think J Street supporting this initiative does show a type of sea change, not just in terms of what that group is willing to publicly advocate for on the hill, but also about where the Democratic caucus is,”
— former J Street policy staffer requesting anonymity

At the J Street annual conference on April 20th, Sen. Elizabeth Warren took the virtual stage and called for the United States to take “immediate steps” to push for peace negotiations between Israel and Palestine. “If we’re serious about arresting settlement expansion and helping move the parties toward a two-state solution, then it would be irresponsible not to consider all of the tools we have at our disposal,” she said. “One of those is restricting military aid from being used in the occupied territories.”

While there was no audience to applaud, the conference’s virtual chat lit up with approval. “We love aid restrictions!” wrote one attendee. “She’s got a plan for American pressure to end the occupation!” said another. In a session that evening, Reps. Pramila Jayapal, Alan Lowenthal, and Ro Khanna, as well as conference headliner Sen. Bernie Sanders, all echoed Warren’s appeal, calling for the US to ensure that its aid to Israel would not be used for occupation-entrenching projects like home demolitions and settlement expansion.

This isn’t the first time that J Street, the liberal Jewish lobby that has advocated a two-state solution since its founding in 2007, has confronted US military aid’s role in Israel’s occupation of Palestine. In 2019, J Street’s conference played host to a debate over whether the US should condition its aid on Israel ceasing certain human rights violations. The Democratic primary presidential candidates in attendance were asked whether they would consider conditioning aid; Sanders expressed his support for the tactic. But days later, J Street issued a statement clarifying that the group itself opposed either conditioning or reducing the $38 billion in aid that the US has pledged to send Israel between 2016 and 2026. J Street did indicate that it would be open to a more moderate strategy of restricting how that aid could be used: sending the full amount but ensuring that the money did not fund human rights abuses in the occupied territories. At the time, however, the group did not treat the issue as a priority. When Rep. Betty McCollum introduced bills in 2017 and 2019 to prohibit the use of US aid to fund the military detention of Palestinian children, J Street did not endorse them.

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