Last week, while heads of state from Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority were gathering in Washington to talk once more about peace, war was breaking out among American Jews over the midterm elections—with the lone Quaker member of the House of Representatives caught in the crossfire.
The first shot came in the form of a TV ad by a group called the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) that attacked New Jersey congressman Rush Holt, who, like most Democrats this year, is facing a tough campaign. According to the 30-second spot, the Quaker Holt had demonstrated his seething hatred of the Jewish state by signing “a letter criticizing Israel for defending itself against the terrorist group Hamas”; receiving a “100 percent rating” from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR); and serving “on the host committee for an anti-Israel conference featuring a speaker who blamed Israel for 9/11.”
The CAIR charge was essentially bogus. As Salon.com later pointed out, the rating—which wasn’t even issued by CAIR but by Project Vote Smart—was based on a single House vote that had nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But ECI’s ad was certainly correct that Holt had signed that letter and served on the host committee of that conference.
What was debatable, however, was whether either could be fairly characterized as anti-Israel—especially since the group responsible for both the letter (which was sent to President Obama by 54 members of Congress and asked him to pressure Israel to allow food, medicine, fuel, and sanitation supplies through its blockade of the Gaza Strip) and the conference (which was titled “Driving Change, Securing Peace” and featured a keynote address by National Security Adviser James Jones) was J Street, the self-described “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”
J Street fired back, defending Holt as “an outspoken supporter of efforts to achieve peace and security in the Middle East” and blasting ECI as “little more than a group of ideologues who support settlements over security and are wildly out of step with the mainstream of Jewish Americans.”
J Street was founded two years ago by a group of liberal American Jews as a counterweight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which, in their minds, was too absolutist in its defense of Israel’s Likud government. ECI was founded two months ago by a group of conservative American Jews, including Bill Kristol, who wanted a counterweight to J Street. ECI has performed that role by running attack ads against five congressmen who had the temerity to line up with J Street. More attacks are coming. “The one tie that binds all these races we’ve gotten into so far is this letter with the 54 signatures,” Michael Goldfarb, an ECI spokesman, told me. “For us this is a really critical document.”
Granted, with unemployment now at 9.6 percent, Israel isn’t exactly of paramount concern to the average voter. But ECI hopes that the attacks will hurt the fund-raising of politicians like Holt, as Jewish donors hold back. J Street will lose influence.
But then, destroying J Street in the name of protecting Israel is just one of ECI’s goals. Its larger mission is to destroy Obama—or, at the very least, destroy his ability to push Israel into agreeing to the sort of peace deal he was trying to craft last week. In that sense, ECI’s war against J Street and its Democratic allies in Congress is just a skirmish. The real big guns aren’t likely to come out for another two years.