Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio is running for reelection on a record that voters who care about Israel are likely to find ambivalent. The Democrat's campaign sounds all the right notes on the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship, but his list of backers raises questions about how reliable his support for Israel will be if Ohioans return him to the Senate for a second term.
Brown has received more in campaign contributions from the lobbying group J Street and some of its top people than from any other source. J Street purports to be dedicated to a "pro-peace, pro-Israel" agenda, but its many critics regard it as fundamentally opposed to Israel's security interests.
"There are individuals within J Street who have been critical of Israel to the point of being a liability," says Asaf Romirowsky, a fellow at the Middle East Forum. "They have been very careless in the way they have treated Israeli policies, and it is endangering Israel."
J Street has opposed sanctions against Iran, lobbied against U.S. vetoes of U.N. Security Council resolutions denouncing Israel, and engaged with groups promoting BDS campaigns — boycotts, divestment, sanctions — against Israel. In addition, J Street has demanded American intervention to prevent Israeli counter-terror operations and has endorsed the U.N.-sponsored Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of committing atrocities during the Gaza War of December 2008–January 2009.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's president, lent support to accusations against "Israel Firsters" when he argued that "if the charge is that you're putting the interests of another country before the interests of the United States . . . , it's a legitimate question." Although he later backed off from the term "Israel Firster," that he gets tangled up in defending some of the ideas underpinning it suggests that he's guided by a view of the U.S.-Israel relationship as more adversarial than complementary.
Meanwhile, Brown's opponent in the Senate race, Ohio treasurer Josh Mandel, is an unequivocal supporter of Israel. "I believe there is one Jerusalem that is the capital of Israel," Mandel has stated. "Jews should be able to build, live, and conduct commerce wherever they are in Jerusalem and in the state of Israel."
In an effort to compromise Mandel's clear support for Israel and his identity as the grandson of a Holocaust survivor, American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal super PAC, has accused him of "taking cash from Nazis." For evidence, it points to a campaign contribution from Richard Iott, a former House candidate who has played an SS officer in World War II reenactments.
American Bridge — founded by David Brock, the formerly conservative journalist turned left-wing activist — focuses most of its attention on preparing "research" reports on conservative and Republican candidates. But Brock's other brainchild, Media Matters, has had plenty to say about Israel. For example, M. J. Rosenberg, the senior foreign-policy fellow for Media Matters, tweeted: "Saying AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] is guilty of dual loyalty is giving it credit for one more loyalty than it holds." The Simon Wiesenthal Center has described Rosenberg as "guilty of dangerous political libels resonating with historic and toxic anti-Jewish prejudices." Even Alan Dershowitz has repudiated Media Matters, charging that it has "crossed the line into anti-Semitism." In an interview on Fox News in March, Dershowitz objected that "they have accused any supporters of Israel of being 'Israel Firsters.' They have accused us essentially of treason."
According to the Brown campaign, the senator "is working every day in the Senate to strengthen our nation's relationship with Israel, one of our closest allies. He has consistently supported Israel's right to defend itself, and he has worked tirelessly to protect Israel from the threat of Iran, believing that no option should be left off the table."
But such words obviously clash with some of Brown's behavior. In January 2011, after J Street urged President Obama not to veto a Palestinian-backed U.N. resolution attacking Israeli settlements, some of Brown's Democratic colleagues publicly broke with the organization. J Street's "brains have fallen out," said Representative Gary Ackerman of New York.
Brown, though, stood by his loyal donor. He was one of the few senators to attend J Street's annual conference one month later. He has attended multiple J Street conferences since then and has hosted events for the group at his offices in both Ohio and Washington, D.C.
J Street and Brock's American Bridge, then, are two Brown backers who are doubly invested in his reelection bid. If Mandel defeats him in November — and Mandel has caught up with Brown in some polls — they not only lose an ally in the Senate but are suddenly faced with a senator whose eloquent support for Israel threatens to thwart their dubious agendas.
— Nathaniel Botwinick is an Agostinelli Fellow at National Review Online.