The debate in Washington over the Jewish-American role in U.S.-Israel policy is at a fever pitch, as the new and controversial organization called J Street is reeling from the loss of support of several members of Congress who have backed away from the group under pressure from its detractors.
In recent days, eight congressmen have removed themselves from the list of "hosts" for J Street's gala dinner on Oct. 27, which is being headlined by Obama's National Security Advisor James L. Jones and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-MA.
Rep. Jane Harman isn't one of them. Earlier today, The Cable caught up with the California Democrat, who said she would not be attending but hadn't removed herself from the list.
"I believe that different voices should be heard and that was the impetus for my lending my name to the list," Harman told The Cable, quickly adding, "That's the extent of my involvement with J Street." (Harman has a storied history with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the most powerful Jewish lobbying group on Capitol Hill, and a strong Jewish-American constituency.)
All the 150-plus members on the list are being targeted by a campaign by right-wing bloggers, questioning their involvement with J Street and pressuring them to back out. More lawmakers are expected to drop their endorsements for the conference in the coming days.
J Street, which markets itself as "pro-Israel and pro-peace," responded today with an e-mail blast accusing the Weekly Standard, an influential neoconservative magazine, of using a "classic Swift Boat move" and "thuggish scare tactics" to undermine the conference.
In an interview, J Street head Jeremy Ben Ami pointed the finger directly at Weekly Standard blog editor and former John McCain staffer Michael Goldfarb as the instigator of the campaign.
"It is the modus operandi of some on the right in the Jewish community who will engage in scare tactics to enforce their message discipline and that is what J Street was created to change," he said.
Goldfarb says his campaign to disrupt the conference planning is far from over.
"J Street should stop whining," he told The Cable, "They got their 'pro-peace' buddies in the White House to help them stop the bleeding -- but it won't work."
The 18-month-old J Street is meant to be a counterweight to AIPAC, which has dominated the Israel discussion in Washington since its inception in the 1950s. Ben Ami deflected any contention that AIPAC is pressuring lawmakers to drop out of the event, as some are contending, and AIPAC has strenuously denied any involvement.
A spokesman for Israeli Amb. Michael Oren, who declined an invitation to attend the event, said this week that J Street's actions could "impair Israeli interests." J Street countered by publishing an open letter in the Jerusalem Post inviting Oren to speak at the conference, but he has not responded.
Those removing their names from the list include leading senators such as Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Kristin Gillibrand, D-NY, Thad Cochran, R-MS, and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-AK, and Reps. Mike Castle, R-DE (who is running for the Senate) Mike Rogers, R-MI, Michael McCaul, R-TX, and Leonard Boswell, D-IA.
Several of the lawmakers claim they were added without their knowledge, but Ben Ami said J Street had received assurances from every congressional office on its gala host list and it's not the group's fault if some staffers didn't communicate with their bosses.
Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator now with the Wilson Center, said that the whole J Street controversy is just "Jewish inside baseball" fueled by a lack of a coherent and comprehensive national policy toward Israel.
"In the end it does very little to serve the Jewish community in the United States and nothing to serve U.S. national interests," he said of the controversy.
But Ben Ami says the public spectacle over the conference is exactly what J Street wants.
"We are at the center of debate and controversy after only 18 months, and this is a real impact and a success," he said, adding, "We are winning."