The dovish lobbying group J Street is setting up regional chapters in several dozen areas of the United States — including three to cover New Jersey.
The self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group announced its regional organizing campaign in a Jan. 7 press release.
It will launch its regional offices at a Feb. 4 kick-off event in Princeton.
J Street spokesperson Amy Spitalnick told NJ Jewish News the chapters will be “loosely divided along the lines of congressional districts.”
J Street, founded in April 2008, supports an active White House role in brokering a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Seen as being to the left of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, detractors say it is too critical of Israel’s leadership and that it undermines a unified pro-Israel voice in Washington.
Debbie Schlossberg of East Brunswick, a volunteer, will chair the Central New Jersey region that will span much of Monmouth, Mercer, and Middlesex counties and a part of Somerset County.
Leaders of the group’s Southern and Northern New Jersey chapters haven’t been named.
Schlossberg describes herself as “a lifelong ardent supporter of Israel” who grew up in West Orange, then made aliya in 1983. “I have always considered myself a Zionist. My children were born there, and I go back regularly,” she said. “My connection to Israel is long and strong.”
She returned to New Jersey in 1992 because of “family obligations” and joined Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, a peace group that merged last year with J Street.
The merger added an estimated 45,000 supporters to J Street’s 125,000 members.
Spitalnick said J Street anticipates opposition from AIPAC and others in the organized Jewish community who avoid criticizing Israel — at least in public.
“We are trying to shake up the status quo and give voice to a previously unrepresented part of the Jewish community,” she said. “We wouldn’t be doing our job if there wasn’t some controversy about what we’re doing. The real purpose of launching this on the local level is for people to get engaged who previously felt like they didn’t have a place to go.”
Officials of AIPAC, which has an extensive network of regional offices, had no comment on J Street’s expansion plans.
David Steiner of West Orange, a past president of AIPAC, said J Street’s policies — what J Street literature calls “robust and strong diplomatic engagement” — amount to an endorsement of “pressure” on Israel.
“Mainstream Jews have rejected any approach to put public pressure and confrontation on the Israelis.” J Street, Steiner said, has “a right to exist, but I think they should stop putting pressure on Israel.”
Among J Street’s NJ critics is Ben Chouake of Englewood, president of NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee.
“I have my opinion like everyone else, and I have my ideas about how to solve problems,” Chouake told NJJN. “But at the end of the debate — which we have internally all the time — we have to act in consensus.”
Because J Street is willing to air American-Jewish differences with Israel, Chouake calls it “an antagonistic group to Israel that says, ‘We have to bash Israel for their own good.’ I don’t think J Street is a pro-Israel group.”
One of J Street’s most significant local backers is developer Alan Sagner of Livingston, a member of its advisory committee.
In a letter in this week’s NJJN, he writes, “J Street’s objective is to bring together Americans who seek a new direction for American policy in the Middle East and a broader public and policy debate in the U.S. about ways to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East.
“That is why many of us who are, and have been, ardent supporters of Israel look to J Street as an additional, new voice for our community.”