J Street considers itself to be “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans fighting for the future of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.” The group posits that for Israel to simultaneously be both Jewish and democratic in character, it must relinquish a portion of the land it currently occupies to create a Palestinian state. To reach this two-state resolution, J Street maintains that outside assistance, specifically US diplomatic leadership is necessary.
J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, drafted a position paper in the mid- 2000s outlining how American Jews who advocate for a two-state solution could work together more effectively to secure diplomatic leadership on the issue. He believed that an advocacy and educational organization would be most successful if coupled with a political action arm through a Political Action Committee (PAC) that endorses and raises funding for sympathetic candidates for federal elected office. This was an innovation among pro Israel pro-peace activists; nearly all of the dovish pro-Israel groups had heretofore been 501(c)(3) nonprofits. That status allowed them to accept tax-deductible donations and conduct a limited amount of advocacy, but not to endorse candidates.
After securing significant financial backing and other support, J Street was officially launched in April 2008, not long before President Barack Obama was elected. His election inspired great hope among Israel-Palestinian peace advocates, many of whom had supported his campaign. Initial activity by the Obama administration appeared to confirm his commitment to making the issue a top priority. He called both Israeli PM Netanyahu and PA president Mahmoud Abbas on his first day of office and appointed George Mitchell as Special Envoy for Middle East Peace on his second day. However, the re-election of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party in February, 2009 made this great promise very difficult to fulfill.
J Street launched with a sophisticated new media strategy and regular commentary in both the Jewish and the mainstream press. The concept of promoting progressive Jewish values by supporting the two-state solution appealed to a broad range of liberal Jews, some of whom had not previously engaged in Israel advocacy work, and by those who were uncomfortable with the mainstream policy of supporting every action of the standing government of Israel.
J Street built on the work of its predecessors — in some cases, quite literally. The Union of Progressive Zionists, a dovish national network of student activists founded by Ameinu, Partners for Progressive Israel, Habonim Dror North America and Hashomer Hatzair North America, was integrated into J Street in May 2009 to become J Street U, its campus arm. In January 2010, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom joined J Street; its 50,000 members became the core of J Street’s grassroots activism (J Street Local) and its hundreds of rabbinic supporters helped form the core of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet.
J Street grounds its mission and approach in Jewish values; integral to J Street’s work is the promotion of respectful debate about Israel/Palestine within the Jewish community. Since its founding, the organization’s budget ($8 million in 2015) has grown substantially for two major reasons. Longtime donors have increased their giving and J Street has expanded its appeal to many liberal political donors who had not been engaged on the issue previously.
J Street’s work includes lobbying, securing political endorsements through its PAC, education, campus organizing and outreach through J Street U, and rabbinic engagement. J Street regularly issues policy positions on a variety of issues related to Israel and Middle East, and has a strong presence in both the Jewish and mainstream media.
J Street’s team of professional lobbyists garners support for pro-Israel pro-peace legislation and works to defeat harmful initiatives, coordinating with grassroots activists and supporters.
On the educational front, J Street has holds an annual conference in Washington, DC, collaborating with dozens of participating organizations. In 2015, over 3000 were in attendance – the single largest national gathering of two-state advocates.
J Street grew the Rabbinic Cabinet initiated by BTvS to over 750 and has attracted many nationally prominent rabbinic leaders and added a Rabbinic Cabinet Executive Council.
J Street’s media presence includes print media, television spots, and new media where many of its graphics and videos have been shared widely.
J Street’s campus arm, J Street U, has 7,000 members and 1000 student leaders, with chapters on 50 campuses. The organization has successfully engaged young people in a degree of Israel advocacy not seen since the 1980s.
J Street’s pro-peace PAC has brought a new tool to pro-Israel/pro-peace advocacy During the summer of 2015 as Congress members considered the final nuclear agreement with Iran, J Street worked to persuade Members of Congress and groups that influence them that nothing will lead to a nuclear-armed Iran faster than the breakdown of diplomacy, Congressional rejection of the current deal or a premature war with Iran.
J Street has significantly expanded the reach of pro-Israel pro-peace advocacy, reaching more Jewish Americans than any previous effort through the effective use of the Internet, traditional and social media, grassroots and grass-tops outreach.
J Street has engaged every level of the Jewish communal structure with its message that support for Israel need not equal wholesale support of Israeli policies.