Not since the days of the Communist Party — the quarter century that began about 1930 — has there been a comparable spectacle of methodical disingenuousness in American political life. The communists, smack in the days of Stalin and the Moscow Trials, proclaimed to one at all: Communism is the most American doctrine of them all; it is, in fact, “twentieth Century Americanism.” The American communist contingent to the Spanish Civil War was dubbed the “Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” The Communist night school on 16th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York, where the works of Marx and Stalin were taught, was called the “Jefferson School.” And certain secret members of the Party, like Paul Robeson, denied to the end of their lives that they even were communists. Robeson was corrected on this after his death by the comrades themselves. (I have told this story here and here).
But all the time that the communists were explicit in their lip-service to democratic values, they strictly averted their eyes from the Gulag. Their facade of being gentle democrats (“peace” was a major slogan, until the Soviet Union was attacked in 1941) hid an ugly engagement for Stalinism.
As was the case of the Daily Worker, circa 1940, you can read the “policy statements” of JStreet and find little on the surface that is amiss; things are, by and large, American as apple pie, Jewish as chicken soup. There is talk of being “pro-Israel, pro peace,” and, indeed, much of what is said seems unexceptional. Yes, Israel has a right to defend itself. Yes, Hamas is violent, and must be criticized. What is really bad, so JStreet, are the “occupation” and the “settlements.” Even here there is no hateful language, and the sentiments, by themselves, are not far from mine. Nobody likes the occupation, and there is general Israeli and Jewish consensus that much of the Jewish settlement in the West Bank is dispensable. We do not need JStreet to tell us that. What is exceptional, and exceptionable, is JStreet’s essential one-sidedness, portraying Israel as the major barrier to peace. JStreet’s scattershot agitation — relentless but not always explicit — goes as follows: 1) failure to achieve peace has been the fault of Israel, essentially only of Israel; 2) dismantling all West Bank settlements will bring lasting peace. (I will not here dwell on what happened each time that Israel unilaterally did withdraw its army and its settlements, in Gaza, for instance). It is in these unilateral demands by JStreet on Israel — radical, mindless — that the facade of cheerful peacefulness becomes pierced.
Take the punitive campaign for boycotting Israel that we hear from left and right-wing fringe groups. What does JStreet say ? There is an official answer: we do not participate in that. But there is also an unofficial answer, expressed more in action than in explicit words. At the last JStreet conference in Washington, one session was devoted to the question: shall we participate in boycotts of Israel ? The session was off record, but according to bloggers who attended ( see here and here), it seems that much of the membership is in favor; one observation was that the membership is to the “left” of the leadership. At the very least, the punitive boycott of Israel is an option very much alive in the corridors of JStreet. Moreover, five rabbinic supporters of the boycott organization are members of JStreet’s “Rabbinic Cabinet”: Rebecca Alpert, Michael David, Lynn Gottlieb, David Mivasair, and Bryan Wall. In short, the boycott movement is in fact supported, or at least partly supported, or at least supported by many who are active in JStreet. And this does not even take account of Michael Lerner, another adornment of JStreet’s Rabbinic Cabinet.
Speaking of this Cabinet: what exactly is it ? The term suggests a leadership or policy-making or “spiritual guidance” function. None of this seems applicable. As I read the invitation to join, it would appear that anyone who says he or she is a rabbi or a cantor can sign up and be in the “cabinet.” In at least several instances in what is claimed to be a membership of 600, individuals appear to be self-ordained. In any case, the “cabinet” is far from being representative of American rabbis. Of the first ten names in the list, seven are women, only three are men; eight appear to be graduates of a Reform seminary, one is Reconstructionist, and one, well, let us say she is “other.” There are no Orthodox rabbis in this small sample of the “cabinet,” although there may well be a sprinkling in the whole group.
In a word, the “Rabbinic Cabinet” is a piece of puffery. It seems to be almost exclusively Reform and Reconstructionist, largely female, in an American rabbinate that is overwhelmingly Conservative and Orthodox and male. Like the old-time functionaries of the Communist International, JStreet here presents a facade of benign normalcy, seeking to hide a reality that is much more marginal.
The financing of JStreet seems to flow largely from a number of billionaires, not all of whom are Jewish. The secret contributions from George Soros were at first denied by the group but were then shamefacedly admitted when a leaked document surfaced. The story has been widely-reported; one article about it can be found in the Washington Post. It does not seem likely that JStreet could at all exist — certainly not in its present lavish form — without these millions pumped into it by wealthy “angels.” It is a glaring example of how the ultra-wealthy in this country, if possessed with enough will to impose their views, can distort ordinary democratic process.
One of the most striking aspects of JStreet’s propaganda is its regular and repeated dismissal of criticism as “right wing.” Here are some instances, from its website:
Since our founding, accusations about J Street and our leadership have morphed from whispered lies to stated fact in attacks on J Street in various right-leaning publications, organizations, and blogs. Right-wing bloggers continue to assert J Street is somehow “tied” to Saudi Arabia…
Some right-wing bloggers and opposition researchers engaged in a fear-and-smear campaign attempt to tarnish J Street because – among its thousands of donors are a small handful who have worked in some capacity with Arab countries or are themselves Arab Americans….
Far right-wing blogs have accused “J Street co-founder” of saying Israel’s creation was an “act that was wrong”…
Right-wing blog claims that Daniel said that “Israel really ain’t a very good idea” are debunked here by Jonathan Chait…
Despite a false report in the right-wing Washington Times, J Street did not set up meetings for Judge Goldstone on Capitol Hill, as JTA reports….
If and when critics are wrong about JStreet, of course they need to be answered. But why this persistent label of “right wing” ? How does JStreet, in its wisdom, determine who is right wing and who is not ? Or does disagreement with JStreet, by itself, make a critic right-wing ? And even if all the critics of JStreet were right-wingers in some sense, would that make their arguments wrong ? Here again, by its persistent use of argument by vilification, JStreet resembles the CP operatives of former years. And, if I may say so, it doesn’t sit well for a group whose constant complaint is that it is being “smeared” by nasties on the “right.”
Finally, there is an issue that I find particularly galling. JStreet publishes polls of American Jews, which, it says, prove that American Jews have opinions similar to those of itself. Briefly put, these polls are essentially fraudulent.
Noah Pollak of Commentary magazine has pointed out that the ostensible JStreet independent pollster, Jim Gerstein, is actually JStreet’s vice president, thus suggesting that the polling results are slanted to suit the organization. But since the technical sampling faults in these polls are so glaring, it hardly matters whether the questions were deliberately worded so as to yield a biased response.
In response to Pollak, JStreet has stated that, whatever Gerstein’s affiliation, his scholarship is exemplary and beyond criticism, and that, moreover, he has fully disclosed the methodology of his study. And indeed, there is a disclosure from Gerstein of sorts, which reads as follows:
Gerstein | Agne Strategic Communications designed the questionnaire for this survey of 803 self-identified adult American Jews, conducted March 17-19, 2010. The survey has a margin of error of +/- 3.5 percent; the margin of error in the split samples is +/- 4.9 percent. Gerstein | Agne contracted the research company Mountain West Research Center and Opinion Outpost to administer the survey by email invitation to its web-based panel, which is regularly updated and consists of nearly 900,000 Americans.
For anyone interested in polling, this disclosure is worse than useless. The problem of adequate sampling in polling research includes the following issues, at the least:
a) What is the operational definition of the universe, in this case the whole of the American Jewish community ? Ideally a universe is a list of names that can be sampled. Since there is not and cannot be a total list of all the Jews in America, some reasonable facsimile needs to be fashioned. This is not easy, and certainly not cheap. But responsible polling scholars, for instance the National Jewish Population Survey, have successfully grappled with this problem. A perusal of the NJPS methodological discussion makes it clear that JStreet-Gerstein is totally innocent of any scientific approach to the problem of the Jewish universe, at least insofar as Gerstein has deigned to disclose his methods.
b) Once we have defined the universe, we need to find a scientific, i.e. a random way of sampling it. Again, this is not easy, and certainly not cheap. Again, according to Gerstein’s descriptions, it is obvious that the JStreet surveys fall far short of scientific standards. Moreover, Gerstein’s talk about “margin of error” is worthless because no such statistic can be calculated for non-scientific samples.
Regarding a), the problem of universe, it appears that JStreet has employed some definition of the total American population, rather than of the Jewish population. As I have shown elsewhere, this procedure is much cheaper and is used by some news organizations, but it leads to gross distortions of Jewish opinion. In particular, it under-represents Jews who live in relatively dense Jewish population centers, and it over-represents Jews who live in relative isolation from other Jews. It cannot give a valid picture of American Jewish opinion as such.
Regarding b), the sampling problem, it appears that there were “email invitations to a web-based panel.” So those who accepted such “invitations” were asked questions by the good folks of JStreet. How were people chosen to be invited ? And of those invited to serve on these “panels,” how many accepted ? And how do we know that those who accepted are typical of all those who were invited, let alone of the universe from which they were ostensibly drawn ? We do not know, not from Gerstein’s explanations. What we end up with is a group of essentially self-chosen respondents, drawn from a list that is biased in favor of individuals who live outside of major Jewish population centers.
All this is a text-book example of polling malfeasance. It is an insult to an intelligent reader to be told that he is presented with a valid report on Jewish public opinion. The New York Times has published its own (useful) standards concerning public opinion polls. JS’s Mr. Gerstein violates just about every one of these.
To sum up. JStreet’s facade is one of a gentle, peace-loving, rational, honest, intelligent bunch that wishes to make the world a little better. Behind the facade there is a determined propaganda to endanger Israel, using techniques that include misrepresentation, secret money, vilification of opponents, puffery, and, in the case of its opinion polling, something akin to outright fraud.
Read also Ron Radosh, on how JStreet’s David Saperstein teaches his followers to speak with a forked tongue.
UPDATE June 5:
The closer one examines JS’s “Rabbinic Cabinet,” the more curious this body seems. The Rabbi David Mivasair who is listed as resident of State College, Pa., is listed in other online sites, many of them anti-Israel, as having a congregation in Vancouver, Canada, and another one in Seattle, Wash. But he also is pleased to list himself not only as a rabbi of these congregations but also as a clergyman of the (Christian) First United Church of Vancouver. Well, after all, why can’t this person be part of a Rabbinic Cabinet ? In the reign of Tammany Hall, lists of eligible voters included dogs, children, and the dead. As for State College, Pa., the congregation there tells us that Mivasair left them in 1996.
Concerning the opinion polling, so-called, conducted for JS by their vice president and ostensible polling expert Jim Gerstein — I sent him my analysis of what I consider his faulty polling methods (see above). Who knows — perhaps I was mistaken in my take on his work ? I wrote to him some days ago, requesting his comments. If I was in error, either of fact or interpretation, I would certainly like to make amends. Well, Mr. Gerstein has not responded at all. Does this mean that he is happy with what I had to say ?
Eli Lake on Soros funding for JStreet
Israel Matsav on off-shore, non-Jewish funding of JStreet