J Street, Down the Rabbit Hole

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Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, the liberal Jewish group, e-mailed Goldblog last night: "Reports of our demise (including from you) are greatly exaggerated...." He was referring to a question I posted earlier in the day: "Will J Street even be around in its current form in coming days, now that it is enveloped in a scandal (more of a cover-up than a crime, in the traditional Washington style)?"

The scandal grows from a decision by Jeremy Ben-Ami to cover-up, over a long period of time, something he knew to be true: That George Soros, the billionaire investor and non-friend of Israel, provided J Street with almost $750,000 in funding. James Besser, at The New York Jewish Week, frames the impact of this cover-up in stark and simple terms:

There's no way this isn't going to make the politicians supported by J Street and those who may be considering accepting its endorsement incredibly nervous. Instead of  providing protection for the politicians they supported, J Street essentially hung them out to dry - not by accepting Soros money, but by lying about their connection to the controversial philanthropist.

And there's no way this doesn't sow mistrust among commentators and reporters who write and speak about J Street, and who were repeatedly misled by its officials. J Street sought to create a climate of trust with a press corps that was being spun heavily by its opponents; this news undoes a lot of that effort.

An Atlantic reporter, Chris Good, was one of the journalists lied to by J Street; he ripped the organization a new one once he learned he was the target of a disinformation campaign.

News of the Soros donation, first brought to light by Eli Lake of the Washington Times, was accompanied by disclosures about a larger, and stranger, donation, by a resident of Hong Kong named Consolacion Escidul, who according to Ben-Ami, is a "business associate" of a prominent J Street supporter named William Benter, a well-known Hong Kong-based horse bettor. Escidul is responsible for contributing seven percent of all the money collected by J Street since its founding, but nothing is known about Escidul, or about the sources of her wealth, but the mere fact that she is not, as far as anyone can tell, an American citizen has J Street supporters on Capitol Hill worried that the organization is using foreign money to provide help to American political candidates.

And now there is a completely new scandal, brought to us, again, by Eli Lake and another Times reporter, Ben Birnbaum. According to an article posted on The Washington Times site last night, J Street helped arrange visits by Judge Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist appointed by the U.N. to investigate the most recent conflict in Gaza, to Capitol Hill. Goldstone's work, heavily reliant on Hamas for uncorroborated information, has been condemned on both the left and right, here and in Israel (including by the left-wing Israeli human rights group B'Tselem), for its fairly obvious biases. From the Times story:

Colette Avital -- a former member of Israel's parliament, from the center-left Labor Party and until recently J Street's liaison in Israel -- told The Washington Times that her decision to resign her post with J Street earlier this year was a result in part of the group's "connection to Judge Goldstone."

"When Judge Goldstone came to Washington, [J Street leaders were] suggesting that they might help him set up his appointments on Capitol Hill," she said.

In the Times story, Jeremy Ben-Ami denied that his group assisted Goldstone in his visit in any way:  "J Street did not host, arrange or facilitate any visit to Washington, D.C., by Judge Richard Goldstone." Then, in the same response, he contradicted himself, acknowledging that J Street assisted Judge Goldstone in his efforts to meet members of Congress: "J Street staff spoke to colleagues at the organizations coordinating the meetings and, at their behest, reached out to a handful of congressional staff to inquire whether members would be interested in seeing Judge Goldstone."

This statement is of a piece with Ben-Ami's non-denial denial concerning Soros. On the J Street website, however, Avital issued a more straightforward denial:

I made clear (to The Washington Times)  that I was and am completely unaware of any effort by J Street to facilitate visits by Judge Richard Goldstone to Capitol Hill.

I do not know how it is possible for a newspaper to run a story like this after I have specifically told them they have the story wrong.

Unfortunately for Avital, and for J Street, the reporter who interviewed Avital by telephone, Ben Birnbaum, recorded their conversation, and The Washington Times has posted the audio. The recording shows that Avital was quoted accurately, and more than that: It shows that it was Avital, and not Birnbaum, who first raised the subject of Goldstone.

On one level, I understand what is happening here: J Street is made up of liberal Zionists, as well as non-Zionists, and even a few anti-Zionists, and it has been difficult for it to please its differing constituencies. This is why Ben-Ami, its president, might have felt the need to cover-up the involvement of George Soros, because liberal supporters of Israel know that Soros is unfriendly to the Jewish state, and some, presumably, would not want to be part of a group that counted Soros as a prominent supporter.  But on another level, what is going on here is inexplicable, and terribly dispiriting to people who thought that J Street was going to make a useful contribution to the debate over the future of Israel. 

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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