J Street popping up in a role traditionally played by NJDC

J Street popping up in a role traditionally played by NJDC

J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, addresses his group’s 2013 national conference in Washington. 
Photo courtesy of J Street
J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, addresses his group’s 2013 national conference in Washington. Photo courtesy of J Street

WASHINGTON — When Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks takes the stage in Las Vegas next week to debate foreign affairs, his opponent will not be a heavyweight from the National Jewish Democratic Council, the RJC’s opposite number.

Mounting the stage at Temple Beth Shalom will be Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel J Street.

The NJDC, known as the main Democratic lobbying group in the Jewish community, closed its Washington headquarters in December, dismissed its staff and contracted its business to a public relations firm.

The organization has been without an executive director since Rabbi Jack Moline stepped down in 2014. Since then the NJDC has been led by its chairman, Greg Rosenbaum.

This smaller public footprint leaves some wondering who will speak for Jewish Democrats, although on Tuesday, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, announced that Aaron Weinberg, who was previously active in J Street U — the collegiate arm of J Street — had been appointed the DNC’s director of Jewish Engagement. His job will entail working in battleground states to engage Jewish leaders, along with reaching out to youth, seniors and community leaders in an effort to increase voter turnout.

“The Jewish community understands what’s at stake for our economy, cares deeply about protecting health care access for all and unfettered women’s and civil rights, values having a fully functioning democracy with a full Supreme Court, and strongly supports the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Wasserman Schultz said in a press release. “I’m looking forward to working with Aaron in this endeavor to help keep our country moving forward.”

Republican Jewish Coalition spokesman Mark McNulty said that when it comes to an opposing Jewish political organization, the RJC’s attention has shifted elsewhere.

“The NJDC has basically closed up shop, so to have a forum like [the Las Vegas debate], the RJC has to engage with groups like J Street,” he said.

Rosenbaum said that the NJDC is focusing on “fewer states, where our efforts can make a major impact, both because the state is ‘in play’ and because of a meaningful Jewish population.” To be sure, the battle NJDC faces is different from the RJC’s, owing in large part to the fact that the majority of American Jews either identify with the Democratic Party or vote for Democratic candidates.

Rosenbaum added, “When you consider that only 10 states did not vote for the same party in each of the past four presidential elections and only five of those voted for the winner each time, the field sorts itself out. If only Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Virginia and Nevada, in fact, were really swing states, it is clear where our advocacy and efforts should focus as the election approaches.”

Ben-Ami said that while J Street has endorsed both Democrats and Republicans for elected office in the past, its positions on Israel and support for the Iran nuclear deal make his organization well positioned to debate Brooks and the RJC.

“J Street’s approach lines up more with the Democratic Party at this moment,” he said.

The debate, which will be televised on March 9 and moderated by Nevada political reporter Jon Ralston, is the first in a series of discussions about Israel being hosted by the Board of Rabbis of Southern Nevada.

Las Vegas Rabbi Yocheved Mintz said the board chose the RJC and J Street because they wanted a group from the left and one from the right.

“They were the first people that they thought of,” she said.

“We are not political,” she added. “We are community-minded. This is to get the community to sit down and talk in a calm and cool manner. And we’re hoping to provide an atmosphere that will be conducive to a civil discourse.”

Daniel Schere writes for Mid-Atlantic Media. He can be reached at dschere@midatlanticmedia.com.