Israel's consul general in Philadelphia has told local J Street supporters that as engaged Diaspora Jews, they have a right to voice criticism of Israeli policies — but be careful what you say and how you say it.
"Jews around the world not only have the right to express opinions on Jewish and Israeli matters" but "Israel has the duty to be mindful of these voices from the Jewish world. This is the Zionist thing to do," Daniel Kutner told about 50 J Street activists at a May 10 meeting at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City.
But he added: "Remember that the struggle for Israel's legitimacy, regretfully, is not over, and what we say about Israel is being used against us in the court of law and public opinion.
"If you send conflicting messages on issues of critical importance, it may negatively affect Israel's standing. Please consider that."
Kutner went so far as to read from a new J Street vision statement voicing support for a two-state solution and a Jewish Democratic state, saying that Israel shares those positions. Some of the statements he pointedly didn't read, however, including one calling on "the U.S. government to invest all possible resources to help Israelis and Palestinians" reach a lasting agreement.
Kutner's address to the group was less confrontational in tone, if not substance, than the speech that Barukh Binah, the deputy chief of mission at Israel's Embassy in Washington, delivered at J Street's national policy conference in March.
"We need you to stand with us," Binah said at the time. "It is as simple as that, and someone ought to say it."
Prior to Binah's speech, an Israeli diplomat had never addressed a J Street event since the controversial organization was founded in 2008. Critics of the group contend that J Street is anything but pro-Israel.
Local J Street members said that Kutner's attendance, combined with the location of the meeting — the building owned by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — offered the best proof yet that J Street had achieved mainstream status in the local Jewish community.
But as testament to the controversy the organization still inevitably stirs, the meaning of Kutner's speech — whether it represented an overture or a rebuke — was debated in several Web forums. The Free Beacon, a right-leaning news website, ran an account of the event under the headline "J Street Hurts Israel: Israeli official lashes out at group for weakening Jewish state."
The author was not at the event but said he relied on information from other sources.
In an interview, Kutner himself denied that characterization of his talk.
The Philadelphia event was part of a nationwide launch of the group's "We are the Future of Pro-Israel" campaign, a grassroots effort that organizers hope will use the upcoming election as a means to talk about the need for a two-state solution. Critics contended that the group was using the campaign as a vehicle to push for certain candidates who back J Street's agenda.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus, president of the right-leaning Z Street, argued in an article posted on Z Street's site that J Street's "future" campaign was about advocacy for Democratic candidates.
"But J Street is succeeding in having it both ways," wrote Marcus, who also was not at the event, "by doing pure politics but cloaking itself with the hechsher of the official Jewish community — their buildings, their patina of charity and good works — in order to advance its purely partisan political goal."
At the outset of the Philadelphia program, Steve Masters, chair of J Street Philadelphia, asserted that the event was non-partisan. He said the group's future campaign is under the auspices of J Street's education fund, which because of its tax-exempt status can't endorse candidates but can educate voters on a particular issue. J Street operates two other entities, a political action committee, which endorses candidates and donates to their election efforts, as well as a lobbying organization.
Rebecca Kirzner, J Street's mid-Atlantic assistant regional director, said the group, "like any single-issue advocacy organization, would be watching their issue and how it plays out in the rhetoric of the election" and they will be going to political events and handing out information about Israel and the current climate in Washington, not the candidates themselves.
Kirzner said the group is trying to influence the perception of what it means to be a pro-Israel candidate. But, she said, "we are not taking a position on who is the most pro-Israel candidate," she said.
A national J Street email advertising the launch of the "We are the Future of Pro-Israel" campaign blasted several right-leaning Jews.
"We should all be deeply concerned that a handful of far-right funders and groups like Bill Kristol's Emergency Campaign for Israel are turning Israel into a partisan wedge issue," the email stated.
In the opening lines of his speech, Kutner expressed "disappointment" with this particular email. "Attacks on major Jewish philanthropists, people that help Israel in many ways, that doesn't make Israel stronger or the Jewish community stronger or help the future of pro-Israel."
Kirzner said Kutner's critique of the letter didn't dampen the occasion. "It meant a lot to be able to feel like our viewpoints are completely legitimate within the pro-Israel tent. He was careful to say that the enemy of Israel is not criticism."
Reached the day after the program, Kutner said his talk did not represent a new, gentler Israeli government approach to dealing with J Street.
"My message was also quite clear," he said "while I welcome diversity of opinion within the Jewish and Zionist world, I warned against the consequences of advocating for positions that are not compatible with the elected leadership of Israel."