- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2010

J Street, the liberal Middle East policy advocacy organization, on Sunday issued a statement acknowledging what the group had earlier denied: J Street received financial support from billionaire George Soros.

“I accept responsibility personally for being less than clear about Mr. Soros’ support once he did become a donor,” Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street’s executive director, said in a note to supporters on the group’s website.

The Washington Times first disclosed Friday that J Street, a group that portrays itself as a progressive alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), had received $750,000 from Mr. Soros and his family, despite previous denials from the organization that it accepted funds from the Hungarian-born financier and political activist.

The story set off a wave of reaction on the Internet and in the U.S. Jewish press. James Besser, Washington correspondent for New York Jewish Week, wrote Sunday that J Street deceived him about receiving support from Mr. Soros.

“I was one of the many journalists who asked the question and received in return something significantly less than the truth,” Mr. Besser wrote. “Okay, it was a lie.”

Tax forms obtained by The Times show that Mr. Soros and his two children, Jonathan and Andrea Soros, contributed a total $245,000 to J Street from one Manhattan address in New York during the fiscal year from July 1, 2008, to June 30, 2009.

The contributions represent a third of the group’s revenue from U.S. sources during the period, which also covered the election season that brought Barack Obama to the White House. Nearly half of J Street’s revenue during the time frame — a total of $811,697 — however, came from a single donor in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, named Consolacion Esdicul.

Mr. Soros made billions of dollars as a hedge-fund manager and currency speculator. He founded the Quantum hedge fund, which, until the early 1980s, was based in an offshore tax haven in the Dutch Antilles Islands.

One of the world’s wealthiest philanthropists, Mr. Soros initially gave money to support Eastern European dissidents at the end of the Cold War, particularly in his native Hungary, through the Open Society Institute.

But during the George W. Bush administration, Mr. Soros stepped up his funding of more partisan, liberal organizations in the United States, including MoveOn.org. He also has criticized U.S. policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Bush administration’s decision in 2007 not to recognize a Palestinian unity government that included Hamas, an organization listed by the U.S. State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. President Obama has continued Mr. Bush’s policies of no official recognition for Hamas and excluding the group from U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Soros specifically criticized AIPAC at the time in a New York Review of Books article, saying the group had “overreached itself” in trying to ensure a hawkish, pro-Israeli policy in the U.S. government.

Mr. Ben Ami in past interviews has described J Street as Mr. Obama’s “blocking back” in Congress and denied getting any funding from Mr. Soros.

J Street has also clashed with AIPAC and other long-standing Jewish-American groups over U.S.-Israeli policy, coming out in 2009 against Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

More recently, J Street has changed some of its positions. The group now supports U.S. sanctions against Iran, but opposes the use of force against Tehran’s nuclear infrastructure.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said in an interview, “I can only assume [J Street officials] have concluded that associating George Soros with an allegedly quote-unquote ‘pro-Israel organization’ may not be convincing to many who have followed George Soros and his views on the Middle East.”

Mr. Ben Ami said in an interview Thursday that his group had no qualms about getting money from Mr. Soros.

“I am very, very proud that our movement and what we are trying to do is aligned with the values and principles of George Soros, and we are proud to have his support,” he said.

Mr. Ben Ami said Mr. Soros “made the public decision not to support us once we launched. Once we got started, he provided us with some money.”

Those comments Thursday contrasted sharply with statements posted on the J Street website concerning the group’s receipt of funding from Mr. Soros.

In a section of the website called “myths and facts,” the group includes a section that reads: “George Soros very publicly stated his decision not to be engaged in J Street when it was launched — precisely out of fear that his involvement would be used against the organization.”

After Mr. Ben Ami spoke with The Times, the website was abruptly amended Thursday night with a new entry on the “Myths and Facts” section to address The Times’ article.

Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Mr. Soros, said the billionaire “has made no secret of his support for” J Street and that Mr. Soros plays no operational role in the organization.

The J Street website says Mr. Ben Ami “has stated many times that he would in fact be very pleased to have funding from Mr. Soros and the offer remains open to him to be a funder should he wish to support the effort.”

When asked about Ms. Esdicul, the Hong Kong-based donor, Mr. Ben Ami said she gave J Street the money in multiple wire transfers at the urging of William Benter, a Pittsburgh-based philanthropist and the chief executive officer of Acusis, a medical-services firm.

“She is trying to make the Middle East a Happy Valley,” Mr. Ben Ami said. “She is a business associate of Bill Benter, and Bill solicited her for the contribution.” Happy Valley is a Hong Kong suburb.

Mr. Obama and the White House have expressed concerns about untraced foreign influence on the U.S. political system through donations to tax-exempt “501(c)(4)” nonprofit organizations in recent months.

J Street is a 501(c)(4) organization that is allowed to remain tax-exempt as long its political activities are not the primary purpose of the group. J Street also has established a political action committee, or PAC, the standard way for interest groups, corporations and labor unions to contribute directly to political candidates and parties.

Mr. Ben Ami said he agreed with Mr. Obama “about the need for overall reform of the influence of money in our system. But 501(c)(4)s are allowed to accept money from foreign nationals.”

For now, J Street may come under scrutiny in the Jewish community for its connections to Mr. Soros, whose sharp criticisms of certain Israeli policies and of U.S. foreign policy under Mr. Bush have led even some groups and candidates he supports to distance themselves from his activities.

When Mr. Obama, then a senator from Illinois, was running for president in 2008, his campaign was quick to disown some of Mr. Soros’ suggestions that the Democratic Party “liberate” itself from the influence of the pro-Israel lobby.

“Mr. Soros is entitled to his opinions,” Jen Psaki, a campaign spokeswoman, told the New York Sun at the time. “But on this issue, he and Sen. Obama disagree.”

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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