J Street, the Washington lobby with strong connections to the Obama administration, held an event at the University of Pennsylvania on Thursday evening, February 4th, amidst local and nation-wide controversy over the group’s “pro-Israel” credentials. The organization, which advocates strong American pressure to force an Israeli surrender of Judea and Samaria as well as the forced expulsion of all Jewish residents from these lands, created a stir in the Jewish media and blogsphere for two weeks with the planned visit of director Jeremy Ben-Ami to the University’s Hillel building.
Z Street, a local pro-Israel organization initially attempted to pressure the University to withdraw its invitation to J Street’s Ben-Ami but when Hillel responded with claims that it was merely renting space to the powerful Washington lobby, Z Street settled for a room in the Hillel building to hold a simultaneous pro-Israel event. The group brought Mitchell Bard, who attracted most of the students concerned with events in the Middle East, and left J Street an audience comprised mainly of elderly Jews from the Philadelphia area.
Roz Rothstein of the California based pro-Israel StandWithUs organization, traveled to Pennsylvania to attend the J Street event and confronted Ben-Ami with her concerns about his activities. “For me, there were several unanswered questions,” she told Israel National News following the event. “First, how does J Street justify pressuring the democratically elected government of another country to change its policies through lobbying elected officials in the United States? Second, how can people living in the safety of the United States make policy decisions for another country, possibly endangering its citizens? I tried to find out what Ben-Ami thought. I asked him the questions that were on my mind but did not get answers.”
Brian Finkel, founding president of the University of Pennsylvania’s Zionist Freedom Alliance chapter, organized student activists to stand by the entrance to J Street’s event handing out flyers revealing information about the influential Washington lobby, including the massive donations it accepts from people with clear and public anti-Israel agendas. In an interview with Israel National News, Finkel said that for two weeks he and fellow Zionist students coordinated with other organizations – including Z Street, Americans For a Safe Israel and the Zionist Organization of America – to plan an appropriate response to J Street’s visit to their campus.
“J Street asked Hillel staff for permission to use the main auditorium in the Penn Hillel building for a local launch and national webcast to its followers. Permission was granted, but without any consultation with Hillel students. This unilateral action by Hillel staff was met with tremendous anger and frustration from students, whose voices and opinions were entirely ignored in the process. ZFA decided to give those students a voice.”
Finkel, who previously served as Hillel’s Israel chair, described J Street as “an extremist Washington group that lobbies the United States government to impose policies on Israel.” On Wednesday evening, Finkel brought Dan Pollak, Director of Government Relations for the ZOA in Washington, to speak about why J Street poses a danger to the State of Israel. The event drew students and Philadelphia community members alike, prompting a lively debate about J Street’s true motives.
During the period that the Z Street sponsored Mitchell Bard event attracted students away from Ben-Ami’s presentation, the ZFA distributed flyers explaining why the school’s pro-Israel students were opposed to – and ashamed of – J Street’s presence at their Hillel. The flyers included many anti-Israel statements made by J Street leaders and showcased how J Street seeks to undermine Israel’s sovereignty and security by imposing its political agenda on an independent state. Several members of J Street unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the distribution of the ZFA flyers. After handing out all of their material and speaking to the local media, the Zionist students entered the event but were prevented from asking questions.
ZFA told Israel National News that their protest was not only directed at J Street but also at the Hillel staff who, in their view, pushes an extremist political agenda. In recent years the Penn Hillel has brought fringe groups to campus such as Rabbis for Human Rights and Breaking the Silence, each of whom receive generous funding from European governments hostile to the Jewish state.
“Its time for us to take back our Hillel and give students a voice again,” Finkel said. “Hillel exists so that Jewish students can have a safe haven on campus. It is hard enough to advocate for Israel on campus without your own Hillel giving space to dangerous and manipulative anti-Israel groups like J Street. Israel is an independent state with its own government and leaders. The people of Israel can and do make their own choices. What right do American extremists like J Street have to impose their will on a foreign country?”
Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador the United States, refused J Street's invitation to speak at their annual conference several months ago, arguing that the organization's activities are harmful to the Jewish state.