Some 75 supporters of Israel cheered and applauded a screening in Scotch Plains of a film accusing the left-of-center J Street of being — despite its motto — neither “pro-Israel” nor “pro-peace.”
The May 27 screening of The J Street Challenge was sponsored by the Israel Support Committee of Central New Jersey, a group whose members come from seven synagogues, mostly in Union County.
The documentary, called revealing by some and “McCarthyite” by others, has engendered controversy since it was released in February by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based group set up to counter “Islamic extremism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism.”
Sponsors of the local screening rented a meeting room for the screening at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains.
“The fact they are here doesn’t represent the JCC in any way,” said Jennifer Mamlet, executive director of the JCC of Central New Jersey, told NJ Jewish News. “We are not taking a stand on the film or J Street one way or another.”
The hour-long video argues that J Street ignores perennial threats to Israel’s existence, which it depicts with vintage black-and-white photographs and newsreel footage of anti-Jewish violence dating back to the 1929 massacre of 67 Jews in Hebron and continuing through the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
Using maps and graphics it emphasizes that Israel is surrounded on all sides by Arab and other Muslim nations — some of which are committed to its destruction.
The film features frequent excerpts from speeches and interviews by J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, followed by commentaries from the group’s opponents.
Among them are Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, Jerusalem Post columnist and editor Caroline Glick, and Daniel Gordis, senior vice president and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.
They attack J Street for what they call unfairly criticizing Israeli policies without placing equally tough blame on Palestinians and their allies.
Although J Street opposes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, its critics in the film say it has shared forums with such BDS supporters as Jewish Voice for Peace.
It repeats previous reports that Ben-Ami lied about accepting funds from George Soros, the Jewish billionaire who has been critical of Israeli policies. (Ben-Ami has apologized for not publicizing the decision by Soros to fund J Street.)
And it expressed deep and frequent concern that its “pro-Israel, pro-peace” rhetoric is being accepted without question by many gullible college students.
Sarit Catz, international letter-writing director for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA, took part in a lively question-and-answer period after the screening. One member of the audience urged “every Hillel in the country to show this DVD” to immunize Jewish college students against what another called “J Street’s lies.”
“It is one of the fallacies of J Street that there are many ways to criticize Israel without giving comfort to your enemies, which is what they are doing,” said one man in the audience.
“How do critics of J Street indicate that we want peace, too? It is very tricky,” asked another audience member.
“Nobody wants peace more that Israelis,” Catz responded. “Remember, J Street was founded by a PR professional. What they do is put out excellent ads. But it’s not real. You can be pro-peace and pro-Israel and not blame Israel for everything.”
But a dissenter in the audience called the film “a very one-sided presentation…I don’t think J Street is as omnipotent as this film portrays it to be. I think a lot of things in the film were way over the top,” she said.
No representative of J Street was present in the audience. But Debbie Schlossberg of East Brunswick, an organizer and member of the J Street steering committee for Central New Jersey, told NJJN, “I have not seen the film but our understanding is that it is deceptive and full of lies and we don’t want to give credence it by appearing at a screening of it. Instead we have offered to come and address [the Israel Support Committee] at a different time in a balanced forum. We plan to do that in the fall.”
The Israel Support Committee has also agreed to the debate. As he introduced the film, the committee’s chair, Conrad Nadell of Scotch Plains, said “our goal is to provide a format to hear both sides of the issue.”
In a Feb. 19 statement on its website, J Street said the film “contains numerous inaccuracies, distortions, and outright lies. Most of these false charges are years old and have been debunked long ago.”
In The Times of Israel news site on May 13, Ben-Ami wrote: “Generally speaking, those attacking J Street either support the goal of creating a ‘Greater Israel’ stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea — or they have no answer to the question of what happens to the Israel they love” if Israel’s expanding West Bank settlement and occupation of millions of Palestinian people is not reversed.
Asked by NJJN at the end of the meeting whether they would be interested in hearing J Street’s message directly, more than half of the audience raised their hands in agreement. The date of the forum has not been announced.