Liberal advocacy group J Street almost doubled its spending in the first quarter of the year as the Israel-focused group looks to President Joe Biden and the Democratic Congress to limit Israeli settlement expansions, restart talks with the Palestinians and re-enter the nuclear deal with Iran.
J Street disclosed spending $190,000 in the first three months of the new administration, up from the $100,000 it has spent in every quarter going back to 2011. The spending is still dwarved by the older and larger American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which spent $723,000 in the first quarter, up from $688,000 in the fourth quarter of 2020.
J Street also added a fifth lobbyist to the account in the first quarter: senior government affairs associate Benjamin Schwartz, a former legislative aide to Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.). Malinowski is the vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and is close to Biden’s team, having served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor under President Barack Obama.
And most tellingly, the liberal group is once again reaching out to the executive branch after giving up on the Donald Trump administration entirely last year, according to a Foreign Lobby Report review of lobbying filings under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), which regulates domestic lobbying. After focusing only on Congress in 2020, the group reached out to the White House, the National Security Council, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security, and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) since Biden was sworn in.
“We’re on an ambitious growth path as an organization. Hopefully it’s not just our lobbying expenditures but everything that we do over the course of coming years that’s going to grow,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said in a recent interview on The Influencers, the weekly podcast hosted by Foreign Lobby Report and crisis communications firm LEVICK.
“It certainly is true that we’ve spent more time in conversation with executive branch officials in the past 112 days, certainly than we did in the entirety of the Trump years,” Ben-Ami said. “In fact, anything is greater than zero. So I think that’s an absolutely easy calculation. But we’re also growing the staff, and we’re going to grow our investment in all of our work.”
In addition to its foreign policy lobbying, the group is also lobbying on a slew of domestic Democratic priorities. These include the voting reform-focused For the People Act, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act as well as hate crimes legislation and the NO BAN Act that would limit the president’s ability to restrict aliens from entering the country in response to Trump’s so-called Muslim ban.
“It was a very significant decision for J Street,” Ben-Ami said. “In the wake of (Trump’s election) we felt that the concerns about the future of America, the future of our society, of our democracy, of the ability of populations to get along here, was of such importance to the Jewish community that (we should put our political power) behind our partners’ efforts on those kinds of issues.”
He added that focusing on domestic issues also helps make the point that “Jewish-Americans are not single-issue voters” solely concerned about Israel. “By lobbying on some of these issues, we actually get the chance to make the point that we’re not a single-issue constituency, which is one of the myths about American Jews that I think happens to still have a lot of sway in American politics.”
With violence in the region surging in recent days, the group’s lobbying has included pressing the Biden administration to speak up against efforts to evict hundreds of Palestinians from their East Jerusalem homes even as J Street “unequivocally” condemned the “indiscriminate” rocket fire from Gaza. In a conference call with reporters on May 12, Ben-Ami called on the administration to make resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority and appoint a full-time point person to handle the issue.
“A lack of engagement, the inattention to the issue is part of what creates the environment in which a conflict like this can spiral out of control,” he said.
Ben-Ami told a staff meeting the day after the group’s virtual conference last month that he wanted to “go on offense” on the controversial issue of tightening conditions on how the United States’ annual $3.8 billion military aid package can be used, according to notes obtained by Jewish Currents.
“I feel like we’re making progress on our core arguments,” Ben-Ami reportedly told J Street’s senior staffers. “Our goal has been to mainstream this conversation and draw a distinction between condition and restriction. What if we go on offense, and challenge [people], ‘Why would you oppose this? Do you actually want your tax dollars paying for demolitions?’ “
On that front, J Street is lobbying for legislation from Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), the chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee’s defense subcommittee. The bill would explicitly bar the use of US aid for detaining Palestinian youth, destroying Palestinian homes or property or annexing Palestinian-owned land and has the support of 17 other House liberals.
The bill has sparked intense pushback from several pro-Israel groups including AIPAC, which denounced McCollum’s effort as “anti-Israel.” Last month, 330 lawmakers of both parties signed on to a letter from senior House Foreign Affairs Committee members Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) to leaders of the Appropriations Committee that opposes “reducing funding or adding conditions on security assistance” to Israel and is widely seen as an indirect rebuke of McCollum’s bill despite never mentioning it.
Other J Street priorities in Congress include support for legislation from Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) affirming that it is US policy to return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which Trump exited in 2018. J Street endorsed Biden for president in April 2020, the first time it formally endorsed a candidate, in part because of his support for the nuclear deal.
On the administration side, J Street is lobbying on “US executive Branch policy related to the US-Palestinian bilateral relationship, US policy toward the occupied Palestinian territories and Israeli settlements, and US policy toward the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its associated issues.” The group is notably calling for a resumption of stalled peace talks on a two-state solution.
The group also lobbied in the first quarter on a Dec. 23, 2020 general notice published by the US Customs and Border Protection agency in the closing days of the Trump administration that requires products from Israeli settlements to be labeled as “Made in Israel” rather than being from the West Bank. J Street was one of six liberal groups that signed on to a Feb. 23 letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas urging him to revoke the notice.
“By inaccurately and misleadingly treating settlement and other products from Area C of the West Bank as if they were made in Israel, the General Notice attempts to reverse decades of US policy that makes a firm distinction between Israel and the West Bank,” the letter states. “It runs counter to the Biden administration’s policy of opposing settlement activity and unilateral annexation of territory as harmful to the prospects for the peaceful, just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
This story has been updated with comments from J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami.