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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

J Street, Progressive Alternative to AIPAC, Backs Area Congressional Candidates

The Tribune reported last week that Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic challenger in the race for the 8th District, outraised the tea party-backed freshman, Joe Walsh, in the second quarter. Duckworth’s $888,790 total take included almost $50,000 “steered” to her by J Street, a D.C.-based PAC that is finding a stronghold here in Chicago…

The Tribune’s Rick Pearson reported last week that Tammy Duckworth, the Democratic challenger in the race for the 8th Congressional District, outraised the tea party-backed freshman, Joe Walsh, in the second quarter. Duckworth’s $888,790 total take included almost $50,000 “steered” to her by J Street, a D.C.-based PAC that is finding a stronghold here in Chicago as it strives to be the alternative to AIPAC, the powerful, sometimes hawkish granddaddy of lobbyists for Israel.

A relatively new (circa 2008) group whose purpose is to promote the two-state path to a Middle East peace, J Street “steered” $47,733 to Duckworth, who is  on the record favoring  “a two-state solution”—while Walsh wrote in a Washington Times op-ed piece that “…everyone who continues to cling to the delusion of a two-state solution is insane.”  

PR woman Marilyn Katz, a founding J.Street member, told me by telephone on Friday that she ranks Chicago as “close to New York in strength, with about 5,000 members,” and says that once the idea of having a pro-Israel, pro-peace, two-state voice was proposed,  “Chicago and North Shore progressives flocked to it.”

That number is minute compared to lobbying giant AIPAC, which, although it has PAC in its acronym—the letters stand for American Israel Public Affairs Committee—does not have a political action committee and does not give money directly to individual candidates.

But J Street does, and it is inserting itself in congressional races—60 nationwide—where, in this volatile political season, its support could make a difference. 

Locally, the group has endorsed five candidates, all Democrats: Duckworth, Danny Davis, Jan Schakowsky, Bill Foster, and Cheri Bustos (running in the 17th District against “Tea Party Republican Bobby Schilling”). In fact, every J Street-endorsed candidate nationwide is a Democrat; not a single Republican, although the PAC calls itself “non-partisan.”

Katz said every one of the five in Illinois has declared support for a two-state solution. Davis and Schakowsky will do just fine without J Street, but the National Journal, which has named 75 House districts most likely to change hands in November, six of them in Illinois, ranks the Walsh-Duckworth slugfest as the third most likely to flip parties (and the most likely statewide).  

J Street has made no endorsement in the 10th District, which includes parts of the North Shore and pits Republican incumbent Bob Dold against Democrat Brad Schneider. Katz said that Schneider “does not hold a two-state position.” She said he wasn’t offered an endorsement, and she does not know if he’d take one if offered, although she notes that there are J Streeters working in his campaign. (National Journal ranks the 10th District as the eighth most likely nationally to flip parties.)

I spoke to Schneider’s press secretary Friday on the question of a J Street endorsement; he promised a call back, but no word yet as of post time.

J Street has some big Chicago names on its official leadership roster—its three local founders are Marge Benton, Ruth Rothstein, and Bernice Weissbourd. Other supporters here include Bill Singer, Jim Klutznick, Leon Lederman, Bill Marovitz, Abner Mikva, Judson Miner, Newt Minow, Lew and Susan Manilow. J Street also lists some 35 Chicago-area rabbis and cantors as belonging to its “Rabbinic Cabinet.”  Some of them are prominent leaders, former and current, of local synagogues—Temple Sholom, Temple Emanuel, Chicago Sinai Congregation, and Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation among them.

In the wake of the suicide bombing Wednesday in Burgas, Bulgaria, that claimed the lives of five Israelis and gravely injured many more, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly blamed “Hezbollah, the long arm of Iran” for the carnage.  AIPAC supporters would tend to be open to taking steps to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons—and that would include an Israeli raid on Iran’s nuclear sites; J Streeters would tend to urge caution and continue sanctions and negotiation. I asked Katz if the current political landscape in Israel bodes well or poorly for J Street’s mission. She argued that the Bulgarian tragedy makes J Street all the more relevant: “Until we come to a two-state solution, the continuing, festering issue will exacerbate tensions. Radical Islamists and dictators will use Israel as an excuse to fuel the flames….Israel will only be safe with a two-state solution.”

In an op-ed piece Katz wrote, published in the Tribune on Wednesday, hours before news of Bulgaria hit, she blasted Israel’s West Bank settlements,  “…some…built on private Palestinian land, all built on lands that have been owned and farmed by Palestinians for hundreds, if not thousands of years.” She described the Israeli settlement of Ariel in a village called Kefr Al Dik, and reported that waste from Arial  “flows untreated into the streams upon which Kefr Al Dik traditionally relied for water for its homes and olive groves…. One can imagine from looking at the map of settlements that what… Netanyahu has in mind for his `unilateral Palestinian state’ is a fragmented set of Palestinian settlements connected by underground roads and all bordered by the state of Israel. Kind of like what we in the U.S. did to the Native Americans.”

“Would you have changed any of your words in your op-ed if you knew what lay ahead in Bulgaria?” I asked Katz. She responded via email, “I would have written the same. It was also two days after the ‘settlement watch’ leader Hagit Ofran came home to death threats grafittied all over her apartment, and two weeks [after] a series of horrific anti-Palestinian rallies…. In other words, there is never a great time.”

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