J Street owns up to funding from George Soros

J Street has acknowledged substantial donations from George Soros, reversing years of claims by the group that it had nothing to do with the liberal financier. J Street also apologized for making misleading statements about his role.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of the dovish pro-Israel lobby, confirmed a report that first appeared in the Washington Times last week, that J Street had received $245,000 from Soros and his children in 2008. He added that it had received another $500,000 in subsequent years — altogether about 7 percent of the $11 million that J Street says it has taken in since its 2008 founding.

Soros, a Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor and hedge fund billionaire, sparked controversy in Jewish circles for saying in a 1995 New Yorker profile that he doesn’t “want to be part of pro-Israel activity,” although he did not deny “the Jews their right to a national existence.”

George Soros attends the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in January 2010. photo/jta/courtesy of world economic forum

Ben-Ami for years denied the “myth” (which was included in the “Myths and Facts” section of the J Street website) that Soros “founded and is the primary funder of J Street.”

“It was his view that the attacks against him from certain parts of the community would undercut support for us,” Ben-Ami said this week. “He was concerned that his involvement would be used by others to attack the effort.”

Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Soros, confirmed that outlook, adding that Soros would not have objected to making his role public once he and his family started funneling money to J Street six months after its founding.

“He knew that had he given the money at the beginning, media outlets would have tried to claim that the organization is a Soros-funded organization,” Vachon said.

Such concern might have made sense in 2006, said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, when Soros was associated with MoveOn.org, the organization at the forefront of the opposition to the Bush administration and the Iraq war.

But now, insiders say, J Street has mainstreamed the very beliefs that had once occasioned anger against Soros. Such views are now part of the mix, said Shai Franklin, a veteran of an array of mainstream Jewish groups, including the World Jewish Congress.

Keeping Soros’ involvement under wraps “was unnecessary,” Franklin said, “and that’s what makes it a tragedy.”

In an interview with Moment magazine in March, Ben-Ami flatly denied Soros was involved in J Street: “We got tagged as having his support without the benefit of actually getting funded!”

But on Sept. 26, two days after the Washington Times story appeared, Ben-Ami on the J Street blog released a statement. “I accept responsibility personally for being less than clear about Mr. Soros’ support once he did become a donor,” he wrote.

 “I said Mr. Soros did not help launch J Street or provide its initial funding, and that is true. I also said we would be happy to take his support. But I did not go the extra step to add that he did in fact start providing support in the fall of 2008, six months after our launch.”

As a corporation that does not have tax-exempt status, Ben-Ami noted, J Street was under no obligation to reveal its donors.

“Nevertheless, my answers regarding Mr. Soros were misleading,” he wrote. “I deeply and genuinely apologize for that and for any distraction from J Street’s important work created by my actions and decisions.”

Vachon said that Soros “doesn’t control the day-to-day operations, nor does he have a role in setting the organization’s policy.

“Mr. Soros never made any secret about his contributions to J Street,” he added. “Mr. Soros believes that J Street makes an important contribution to the policy debate in the United States in the Middle East.”

A senior staffer for a Democratic congressman who has accepted J Street’s endorsement said that Soros’ support for J Street would not have been “a major factor” in deciding whether to accept the organization’s endorsement.

“People have to know first who George Soros is and, second, why it would be bad for a pro-Israel group — in some circles — to be associated with him,” the staffer said. “There are a lot of people like that in the Jewish ‘macherocracy’ — but not in our district.”

In addition to his 1995 statement about wanting to avoid being part of ”pro-Israel activity,” Soros said in 2003 that U.S., Israeli and Jewish policies “contribute” to manifestations of anti-Semitism. Jewish organizational leaders accused him of “blaming the victim.”

Then, in a 2007 article for the New York Review of Books, Soros noted what he said was the organized Jewish community’s tendency to lump critics of Israel with anti-Semites.

“Anybody who dares to dissent may be subjected to a campaign of personal vilification,” he wrote. “I speak from personal experience.”

In the same article, which argued for mitigating the influence of the AIPAC — a key rationale for J Street’s establishment — he wrote that “I am not a Zionist, nor am I am a practicing Jew, but I have a great deal of sympathy for my fellow Jews and a deep concern for the survival of Israel.”

He concluded: “I should like to emphasize that I do not subscribe to the myths propagated by enemies of Israel and I am not blaming Jews for anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism predates the birth of Israel. Neither Israel’s policies nor the critics of those policies should be held responsible for anti-Semitism. At the same time, I do believe that attitudes toward Israel are influenced by Israel’s policies, and attitudes toward the Jewish community are influenced by the pro-Israel lobby’s success in suppressing divergent views.”

Rabbi Steve Gutow, who directs the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella body for Jewish public policy groups has defended J Street on many occasions. He noted that many local community relations councils have praised J Street for helping to suck the wind out of anti-Israel divestment efforts by presenting a credible left-wing, pro-Israel alternative.

The potential loss of that voice is worrisome, Gutow said. “I am not happy that the Soros money was not explicitly admitted to all along by J Street,” he said.

Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is the D.C. bureau chief at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.