2014-07-09 / Editorial

‘J Street Challenge’ film sparks debate among Israel supporters


An animated crowd of 100 supporters of Israel attended a recent filming of a movie that calls into question left-leaning advocacy group J Street’s “propeace” and “pro-Israel” stance.

The film, “The Seductive Allure of Peace in our Time: The J Street Challenge,” has had a controversial run in Jewish communities across the nation. Perhaps not surprisingly, it sparked lively debate in the social hall at the Jewish Community Campus, which was rented out privately by Marv and Eva Schlanger for the airing and conversation that ensued.

J Street, a non-profit advocacy group, calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, propeace Americans.” Founded just six years ago, the Washington DC-based group’s promotion of a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians has resonated strongly on college campuses and has helped shape opinions in U.S. government and in the larger Jewish community.

But the upstart organization’s growing influence is dangerous and divisive, according to the film, which was released in February by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based group set up to counter “Islamic extremism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism.” While some local Jewish groups were not eager to sponsor the viewing, the Schlangers decided to bring it to the community.

“Eva and I are committed to doing everything we possibly can to create a safe and secure Israel,” said Marv Schlanger. “It’s one of our missions in life, and one of our obligations.”

The hour-long video asserts that J Street ignores historical and modern threats to Israel’s existence, which it depicts with black-and-white photographs and footage of anti-Jewish violence. Maps and graphics are used to show how Israel is surrounded on all sides by Arab and other Muslim nations--most of which are committed to its destruction. Noted academics and experts interviewed to bolster the argument include Harvard University law professor

Alan Dershowitz; Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens; Jerusalem Post columnist and editor Caroline Glick; Daniel Gordis, senior vice president and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem; and Ruth Wisse, a Yiddish literature professor at Harvard.

Moreover, the film calls into question the financial backers of J Street, including George Soros, a Jewish billionaire critical of many Israeli policies. According to the J Street website, Soros has contributed seven percent of the $35-million the group has raised from 20,000 donors.

The film’s critics maintain that it is one-sided as no member of J Street is interviewed defending or contextualizing the group’s positions. In the film, J Street’s views are represented by excerpted speeches and interviews from founder Jeremy Ben Ami and other supporters.

At the local viewing, no group representing J Street was invited to speak. Marv Schlanger said the event was not meant as a debate but a chance to educate the community about J Street.

On its website, J Street has called the movie “a smear campaign,” and addresses the accusations under the header “myths and facts.”

During a question- andanswer period, local resident Dr. Robert Benedon said the value of the movie was getting across the message that the definition of pro-Israel is narrow by necessity.

“The most important take away for me is that we correctly identify what being pro-Israel is in America and what it is to promote the pro-Israel and pro- America agenda so that we can keep Israel strong,” said Benedon. “What’s so important is to realize there is not a partner right now for peace, and what J Street promotes is making it more difficult for those who want us to have a strong Israel- America relationship going forward.”

But Oberlin College student Sarah Minion, 20, who was the lone voice in the audience who spoke up supporting J Street, found the movie and subsequent dialogue troubling. As one of the few younger people in the room, she said she worries that the mainstream pro-Israel groups coming down hard on J Street are misreading how younger generations and the rest of the world view Israel.

“I have such a strong identity with Israel, which is why I’m in J Street,” said Minion, 20, a Cherry Hill resident.

“I’m not saying that I don’t think a future state of Palestine can be dangerous,” she said. “Israel needs to hold it to nonviolent standards and the entire world needs to back Israel up. But every day I see the entire world condemning Israel more and more, and that really worries me.” .

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