Z Street: A Pro-Jewish Pride Organization in the Spirit of the Bergson Boys

by Jerry Gordon (April 2011)


Z Street
 was founded in 2009 by a veteran Philadelphia Jewish activist and former Zionist Organization of America (ZoA) official, Lori Lowenthal Marcus. Marcus is a Brandeis University, Bryn Mawer College and Harvard Law school graduate and legal educator, who also practiced as a First Amendment Rights lawyer and knew something about Constitutional rights of free speech.

Z Street was founded to counteract the vast machinery of funds, staffing and professional promotion of J Street, which was founded by leftists in the American Jewish community and uses the misleading slogan, “Pro-Israel and Pro Peace.” Z Street has endeavored to expose the Orwellian duplicity of J Street, whose actual agenda is the establishment of a unilateral Palestinian State encroaching on a unified City of Jerusalem and requiring a roll back of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, possibly leading to the Jewish State’s destruction.

Z Street takes as its model the exploits and spirit of six Palestinian Jews and Revisionist Zionists, heavily influenced by Zeev Jabotinsky and led by Peter Bergson, in reality Hillel Kook, who came to the United States during WWII to raise a Jewish Army to fight fascism, only to remain and awaken American Jewish pride and convince the US Congress, the Jewish Agency and  FDR’s White House, over the objections of mainstream Jewish groups, to fight for the rescue of the remnant of the six million European Jewish men, women and children murdered in unspeakable ways in the Shoah - the Holocaust. These Palestinian Jewish Zionists were known as the Bergson Boys. The story of their remarkable exploits has been chronicled in books like  David S. Wyman and Rafael Medoff’s “A Race Against Death: Peter Bergson, America and The Holocaust” and both PBS and Simon Wiesenthal Center Moriah Film production, “Against The Tide.”

Watch this brief trailer of the Moriah Film, “Against the Tide” featuring the late Peter Bergson:

One of the  Bergson Boys is ironically the father of J Street founder, Jeremy Ben Ami, Yitshaq Ben-Ami, an Irgunist. That irony is not lost on Marcus and her international membership and 13 member board of Z Street, of which I am one. Z Street is committed to activism in the spirit of the Bergson Boys.

Z Street has emerged as a membership, research and educational think tank organization on Israel-connected issues. By necessity, that has placed it in conflict with  the IRS over viewpoint discrimination on its 501c3 application for tax exempt status and the US Treasury over use of taxpayer TARP funds for Shariah compliant financing in the bailout of AIG, the international insurance giant.

Marcus had just attended her second J Street Conference so she is well versed in that organization’s real agenda, its supporters in the Arab and Muslim ummah, and its financial support from anti-Israel  billionaire hedge fund investor, George Soros. Former AIPAC official, Lenny Ben David recently appeared at an Israeli Knesset  Committee investigation and gave good account of his abilities to reveal the real agenda of J Street.

Z Street will hold its first annual conference in Washington, DC on May 4th “Rethinking the End Game; Improving Lives in the Middle East” to explore the economic, political and demographic alternatives to demands by J Street, and some in the Obama Administration for an immediate, unilateral declaration of a Palestinian State. A declaration with little regard for secure and defensible borders for Israel and also little regard for the economic and socio-political viability of the Palestinian entity.

With that background we held this interview with Lori Lowenthal Marcus, President of Z Street.

 

Gordon:  Lori, thank you for consenting to this timely interview.

Marcus:  Thank you for having me. It is my pleasure.

Gordon:  Is Z Street the anti- J Street organization of choice for American Zionists?

Marcus:  Z Street is the pro-Israel organization of choice for American Zionists. J Street doesn’t enter into the equation because J Street is neither a pro-Israel nor a Zionist organization. 

Gordon:  What is the mission and objective of Z Street?

Marcus:  The goal of Z Street is to allow people to recognize the pride they have in Israel, which is Zionism. It is something to be proud of, not something to be ashamed of. We need to be proud that Israel is a Jewish state.  We don’t have to say that quietly. We don’t have to say it apologetically. By providing the facts, we hope to provide a way that will allow people to understand the truth. The objective and the goal of Z Street are love and support for Israel as the Jewish state. A huge part of that pride is the recognition that we must not apologize for refusing to live with, and be killed by, terrorists. What other country in the world would be forced to welcome a militarized sovereign terrorist entity living next door?  That's what countries go to war against. That is not the way to achieve peace.  No appeasement of, no concessions to, and no negotiationa with terrorists.  Period.  Anything else is suicide, and suicide is a hopeless act committed by those with no self-worth.

Gordon:  Is Z Street an advocacy group rather than a membership organization or is it both?

Marcus:  Well I need to be careful because the legal definition according to the IRS of advocacy for purposes of non-profit tax exempt status is specific. So what we are is an educational group which provides information and the truth about Israel, the Middle East and Zionism. In common parlance that is advocacy, but the categories are different for IRS purposes. We don't campaign for candidates and we don't lobby. There are lots of people all across the world who are members of Z Street because they understand the message. They want more information and they want to support Israel through this entity.

Gordon:  How international is the composition of the membership of the board of Z Street?

Marcus:  I would say the membership is about two-thirds American and the rest of members are spread out all over the world. We have large contingents from Israel, South America and Australia. We also have members from Germany, Gibraltar, and even Hong Kong. It is quite extensive. In the United States the members come from many states.   

We have 13 members on the board, three of whom are Israelis. The rest are Americans from seven different states. Z Street is a broad membership organization.

Gordon:  Is Z Street an attempt to resurrect the spirit of the Bergson Boys?

Marcus:  It is definitely an attempt to get at the strength, image and vitality of the Bergson Boys. The Bergson Boys really set the stage for Jewish pride at a time when most American Jews were trying to say that they were Jewish softly. They didn’t want to make a big deal about being Jewish or protecting Jews because that was both an embarrassment and something that might make people angry at them. The Bergson Boys said it loud and proud and that’s what we are doing too so it would be fantastic to be compared to them. Our goal is to have some of the strength and the neshumeh (Spirit in Hebrew) that they had. Like the Bergson Boys, we see ourselves as making the general main stream Jewish organizations uncomfortable which is just fine with us.

Gordon:  Do you view J Street's slogan which advertises itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace” a contradiction in terms?

Marcus:  You know Jerry, I used to but now I finally understand what they mean by it. What they mean is they want peace even if it means there is no Israel. They are doing it out of a very disingenuous sense of what is right for Israel. In their mind they are confusing Jews with the Christian theology of turning the other cheek and dying on the cross for others’ sins. Now that is not what the Jews do. The J Street goal is to prevent Israel from using any form of self defense. If Israel’s Arab Muslim neighbors are still unhappy with Israel, J Street wouldn’t cease requesting that Israel concedes territory until it no longer exists. Then in their view there would be peace.

Gordon:  What are your principal concerns about J Street, its leadership and major donors?

Marcus:  We see J Street as being very similar to the Arab leadership. This means that they are very happy to say one thing in English and something completely different in Arabic. J Street says something for general consumption; they say that they are pro-Israel. They say that they are Jewish. However, in fact Judaism seems to play almost no role. They talk about Jewish values but they use a scalpel and remove any of the Judaism part of Jewish values. What is left are simply "social justice" issues. That’s a huge concern. It is appealing to lots of people if you say the word Jewish but remove the Jewish content. I think that is very dangerous because you are allowing people to think that they are acting on Jewish impulses when in fact they are taking actions that are anti-Israel and actually contrary to Judaism. We believe in defending the Jewish state as a pro-Israel Jewish viewpoint and value. J Street is sending the opposite message. I think that is very dangerous. The reason they are still around, the reason they burst on the scene in such a huge way and at such a high level is because of the millions of dollars behind them. J Street had the backing of people with enormous amounts of money. By that I mean George Soros. He gave money later but he did provide his reputation early on. That is why they have staying power. It is very hard to compete with millions of dollars, fancy parties and lots of attractive glossy advertising, mailing and promotional material. All of that is very seductive. J Street is a very seductive organization that is devoid of Jewish values and pro-Israel sentiment.

Gordon:  Why do you believe that the Obama White House views J Street as the “go-to American Jewish Organization” and not AIPAC?

Marcus:  Because J Street reflects the views of the Obama Administration and not what is best for Israel.   AIPAC is all about promoting a strong Israel- U.S. relationship. J Street is all about promoting a strong Barack Obama.

Gordon:  Why does J Street’s message resonate with the main stream liberal media?

Marcus:  Because it is the same message that the Arab Palestinians are the victims and Israel is the occupier.  Israel is the one that needs to make concessions. The Arab Palestinians are to be pitied. The Arab Palestinians have been dispossessed from their homes. All of these claims are fraudulent. Thus the J Street and liberal media narrative is the same. So it is no surprise that we have an entity calling itself Jewish and calling itself pro-Israel and using the same narrative as the main stream media.

Gordon:  How opaque are the finances of J Street?

Marcus:  It’s very complicated. On one level for non-profit purposes you need to have the finances be completely transparent. J Street has several different arms It is both a tax exempt organization and a lobbying entity. It has money specifically for political candidates. All of those different arms have very different rules about what needs to be made public and what does not. The reason it is such a huge issue is because J Street promotes itself as one thing and as the veil slips we find out very different pieces of information about what it is really is and who is backing it. So, they have created the issue about their financing. They would say that for the profit sector, advocacy center, lobbying sector, they are not required to tell anyone who is funding them. However, because they have really entangled the messages so completely and misrepresented who backed them, everyone is asking questions. Getting the information is challenging; however, we are finding out what the truth is. Their financial picture is a nightmare of their own making.

Gordon:  Jeremy Ben-Ami is the descendant of pioneering Zionists who founded Tel Aviv and the son of an Irgunist. What in your view has caused him to abandon this Zionist legacy?

Marcus:  That is for a psychiatrist to answer. I can only speculate and I think that it is unwise for me to do. I pity him.

Gordon:  Z Street had a run in with the Internal Revenue Service over the clearance of its 501c3 application for a tax exempt organization. Could you tell us what the problems were and how they were resolved?

Marcus:  The problem was Z Street filed for tax exempt status. Months later our corporate counsel started to inquire as to what was happening with our application and was finally told by the agent assigned to Z Street’s file that the IRS had to give special scrutiny to any organization’s application when that organization has any connection to Israel. The agent also said that some applications are sent toa apecial unit in Washington D.C. to see whether the policies of the organization contradict those of the Administration. That is patently unconstitutional. That is viewpoint discrimination. The government shouldn’t treat the views of an entity differently whether or not it agrees with them so long as the entity is not violating the law. We have contemporaneous notes taken by our attorney from that conversation. We have evidence of immediate action taken based on what our attorneys were told and we filed a complaint in Federal Court. Z Street filed in August, 2010, the court has not yet acted. The IRS has still not acted on our application so we are now at a year and a half after the original tax exemption filing. The government, with each subsequent filing, discloses even more alarming information about the kinds of policies they are operating under. So we are still in litigation. We are waiting for a ruling from the court. One of the bizarre IRS defenses for their actions is that Israel is treated like a terrorist country because “terrorism happens there.” Therefore, given this twisted IRS view there is a possibility that Z Street might be funding terrorism. Z Street doesn’t fund anything in Israel, a seven minute review of our application makes that patently clear. In any event, it is outrageous to say that someone who is funding anything in Israel is treated as if they might be funding terrorism. That is confusing terrorists with those who are being terrorized. That is really bizarre and balagan (Hebrew for a screwed up). We have found that other organizations have also encountered the same issues with the IRS. It is really important to find out what the policy is and why are they treating Israel-connected organizations differently than they treat other organizations. That is why Z Street is pursuing this legally. We may not be putting on a pageant as the Bergson Boys did, but we are taking on the government. We are doing something that everybody really shudders about. You don’t take on the IRS because you are going to be audited forever. We are saying to the government that you can’t treat Israel-connected organizations differently. I’m sorry we’re not just going to say give us our exemption and we’ll go on our merry way. That is one way that Z Street is different. We are an educational and membership organization with a blog on our website. We are also a think tank with members actively writing articles for people to learn the truth about the Middle East. 

Gordon:  You attended the recent J Street Annual Conference in Washington D.C. Could you tell us who spoke there and whether their views were consistent with J Street’s mission statement?

Marcus:  I went and it was the second J Street conference I attended. There was great consistency in many ways with their first conference. They are all about creating a Palestinian State immediately. That is their number one goal. The effect on Israel is not part of their equation. Almost everybody who spoke there shares that view.  The occupation must end is how they put it. That’s really their goal and you can hear it in how people in the audience responded. For example, Knesset Member Nahman Shai spoke. He was one of the five members of the Knesset who came to this conference and spoke. Nahman Shai at one point responded to a question about the blockade of Gaza and his response was, when Gilad Shalit is released we can talk about easing all restrictions.  He paused when he said those words and I am positive that he expected applause. No applause, nothing. No one responded. There was no one in that room that saw that as a positive goal that Israel should be working for at least in terms of their response. There were 2,000 people in that room and the release of Gilad Shalit was not even on their radar screen. They couldn’t even applaud when they heard that. What did they applaud?  Always in terms of the occupation, the status quo is unsustainable. They had Roger Cohen of the New York Times insulting Ambassador Dennis Ross and his boss, President Barack Obama for not creating a Palestinian state immediately and allowing this to go on has been the case in so many different Administrations. Cohen said that Ross had been involved in politics and in Middle East negotiations and yet what a failure because there is still no Palestinian State. We had Marwan Beshara from Al-Jazeera. He was also arguing for creating the Palestinian State immediately. Ron Pundak, who is the director of the Shimon Peres Center for Peace, called for a revolution by the Israeli people against the Israeli government because there is no Palestinian State. It is the constant and only J Street refrain. 

Gordon:  Why in your view did J Street invite and give members of the Muslim Brotherhood front groups in America a platform to present their views?

Marcus:  J Street is a very big tent organization. They believe in hearing the opinions of everyone from their end of the political spectrum and further out in the same direction. They believe that Hamas has to be part of peace negotiations. Now Hamas is an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. So J Street had to have Muslim Brotherhood Groups in attendance, there. That is part of their understanding of including everybody except for the far right or even center right to participate in their ideological discussions. No surprise.

Gordon:  J Street leaders headed by Jeremy Ben-Ami recently appeared before an investigative committee of the Israeli Knesset. Could you tell us why they were invited and what transpired?

Marcus:  It was a very odd situation. You had a Kadima member of the Knesset who called the hearing, Otniel Schneller.  He is someone who lives in a settlement who thinks that the settlements should be completely dismantled as long as you can come to peace. It was a really odd hearing. I think that there are a lot of politics that we’re not privy to regarding their thinking. There was a schism in the Kadima party about whether people attend the J Street Conference or not. I think this was an effort to embarrass the members of Kadima who went to the J Street Conference. My understanding is that a much better job could have been done had there been extensive preparation. Thank goodness Lenny Ben-David was there and able to present pretty thoroughly information about the lack of transparency and truthfulness of J Street’s public statements. I don’t know what the result will be. Frankly, I think it gave J Street an opportunity to look like a victim and that’s never a good thing for people who don’t like J Street. I wish that if there was going to be an investigation it had broader support and was more methodical. The truth is the more people in the Netanyahu government who recognize that J Street’s real positions; they will not be won over. J Street complained that Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon did not meet with them when they came to Israel.  Most organizations would wait until they’ve been around for a decade or so before they would expect to meet with the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. At least there were some people in the Israeli government who are looking carefully and closely at what J Street does versus what they say.

Gordon:  What do you believe will be the outcome of the Knesset J Street hearings?

Marcus:  I really don’t know what the outcome is going to be. Frankly, I think the way J Street will be dealt is thought the continued vigilance on the part of Z Street and many others thoroughly examining everything J Street says and does. By exposing J Street’s agenda to the light and getting the facts, perhaps, its lack of credibility can be revealed. So far they are wounded, but they are still walking.

Gordon:  Z Street will be holding its first annual conference in May. Could you tell us who will be among the principal speakers and some of the issues that will be discussed?

Marcus:  The event is called, “Rethinking the End Game; Improving Lives in the Middle East.” Everybody has been talking about the Middle East peace process for so long that the words seem not to have meaning any longer. It seems that most people think the goal is to create a Palestinian state and then we are done with the peace process. At Z Street we are quite confident that that is not the end. That will not bring peace. However, we want to give people the opportunity to say, “hey, wait a minute, let’s look at what the end game should be.”  What is it? It’s peace. Ok, how are we going to get there? The most likely way to achieve peace is to improve people’s lives. By that we mean all the people who live in the region. So we want to explore how we are going to achieve that. What is it that will make people have greater access to various freedoms that we all take for granted: Freedom of peace, freedom of religion, freedom to marry whomever they want and to have access to economic growth. If you take most people they want to have toasters, send their kids to medical school, have immunizations and date the people they want. Let’s start with looking at what is going to improve people’s lives. Working from that premise we may be able  to figure out what system will achieve that goal rather than starting at the end with the creation of the Palestinian state. We have people like Mordechai Kedar, Professor of Arabic Studies at Bar Ilan University, who is going to talk about what the lives of the Arabs in the region are like and what it is that will most suit their needs. Would it be a single unified state? Would that work with the tribal clan system that they have now? Is that what is going to be most conducive to their way of life?  We have Khaled Abu Toameh who is an Arab Israeli Journalist who was a reporter for the Palestinian Authority Press for years until he realized, “wait a minute, I’m really not getting to write the truth but instead I’m being told what to write.”  Abu Toameh now writes for Western media outlets and has great access to much information and freedom to write what he wants. He has chosen to live within Israel and sends his children  to school there. We have Nonie Darwish was Egyptian-born, grew up in Egypt and then in Gaza. She will discuss what system will offer the greatest freedoms and where she believes people she knows and loves want to live and under what kind of regime. We have Benny Morris the Israeli historian who was very much on the left. He was one of the new revisionist historians, a leading star in that group. He had a change of heart and saw that actually Israel is a very positive force in the entire region. He will talk about the history of the two state process and where his thinking has  now evolved. We have George Gilder, the economist, who will be talking about the economic growth in the Middle East,  what has driven it and  how the Arabs in the region have benefitted and how the Israelis have benefitted as a result of the cross-fertilization. We have Fred Gottheil, another economist who will also be talking along economic lines and explaining how people’s lives will be best off under alternative economic and political structures. We have Harold Rhode who was a Foreign Affairs specialist in the Office of Net Assessment, in the Office of the Secretary of  Defense in the Pentagon for 25 years. He is fluent in Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, Hebrew and English and is a student of the Middle East. He will be addressing the uprisings in the Arab world and what kind of impact that will have on the stability of the Arab Palestinian leadership and on Israel and how best to protect the lives of the people who live in that region under various political and economic frameworks. We will be looking at these issues from a number of different perspectives. We hope the conference will offer an opportunity to examine how people  in the region could prosper and live under alternatives to the immediate creation of the Palestinian state which could worsen their lives. We hope this first conference will provide information to evaluate what could be more productive and enduring solutions. This is the Z Street mission to educate people about the truth. Let’s step away from what sounds nice, what looks right on the pages of the New York Times and let’s talk about what the reality is and deal with that information.

Gordon:  Why did Z Street file an amicus brief in the appeal of an Eastern Michigan Federal District Court decision on the AIG Sharia TARP Funding matter brought by David Yerushalmi, Esq. and the Thomas Moore Law Center?

Marcus:  We haven’t filed the brief yet. We are asking the court permission to do so. The reason we are doing that is because having the United States government invested and deeply involved in an entity that promotes Sharia law is not something our government should be doing.  That is not something that we as taxpayers should be funding. AIG is one of the largest promoters of Sharia compliant insurance products in the world. Because the government has bailed out AIG using taxpayer TARP funds and has invested billions of dollars in the company, it is now in the business of promoting Sharia. The American Jewish Committee is apparently filing an amicus brief contesting the claim that Sharia financing is not something our government should be involved in. Religious tolerance is not the issue. We are talking about whether the U.S. government should be promoting a particular religion and that the U.S. government's actions with respect to AIG constitute promoting Islam with U.S. tax dollars, not just allowing Muslims to practice their own religion. We are not talking about whether particular people can practice their own religion. That’s the difference and that is why Z Street is entering this case and plans to file an amicus brief.

Gordon:  Why are some American Jews embarrassed about Israel as J Street and others contend and what could be done to overcome this?

Marcus:  Some American Jews are embarrassed about Israel and being Jewish because there are organizations like  J Street telling them they shouldn’t be proud of  Israel. What they should do is support organizations that are proud of their Zionism and Jewish heritage. It’s all about self worth and valuing yourself. It is getting back to the spirit of the Bergson Boys. Peter Bergson and his compatriots took the American Jewish mainstream and shook them by the shoulders and said stop it. You don’t have to hide your Jewishness because of concerns about life and death of Jews. Jews have got to get over the idea that if they are just quiet, people will ignore them and stop hating them. People who hate Jews are going to hate them whether or not Jewish people self-identify and will probably dislike them less if they show some spine and pride. Many American Jews are still involved with trying to be quiet and trying to make distinctions between the good Jews, that is the Jews who pretend not to be too Jewish, and those who are overtly Jewish. We’ve got to end that distinction. We have to educate people about why they should be proud of Israel as a Jewish state and Jews as members of the Jewish faith.

Gordon:  What are the future prospects and plans for Z Street as it enters its second year?

Marcus:  Well, as you know we have this event coming up in May and it’s our goal is to change the way the public discussion right now is being held about the future of the Middle East. It would be fantastic for us to have an impact on that public discussion. We also have Yaakov Kirschen, the Israeli Dry Bones cartoonist, coming to the United States. He is very excited about Z Street. He thinks it’s absolutely fantastic that there is an organization like Z Street. He will be presenting a study that he did for Yale University. The study is about the transformation of antisemitism through certain cartoons, images and how antisemitism spread virally as those same images are now applied to Israel. These images are a conduit for hatred of the Jewish state. One of his answers to this viral hatred is Z Street. People should have pride in what they are, what they do and what they care about. We are pursuing our lawsuit with the IRS. We will be involved in this anti-Sharia finance lawsuit against the Treasury department. We are also involved in additional  events around the country. For example,  during Purim we participated in the reading of the Megillat Esther in front of the Iranian U.N. Mission in New York. We were there with our groggers (noisemakers) drowning out the name of Haman every time it was said in the Megillah sending a message to Ahmadinejad who is the modern day Haman. We continue working with other organizations land we continue writing articles. We are moving forward on a lot of different fronts. You know, through this conversation Jerry, I realize so much of what Z Street is about is pride. It’s about time we had a pro-Jewish, pro-Israel pride organization.

Gordon:  Lori, I want to thank you for this comprehensive and stimulating interview. 

Marcus:  Glad to have done this.

 

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