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By Eli Lake | Washington Times | Sept. 25, 2010
The Jewish-American advocacy group J Street, which bills itself as the dovish alternative to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) lobby, has secretly received funding from billionaire George Soros despite previous denials that it accepted funds from the Hungarian-born financier and liberal political activist.
Tax forms obtained by The Washington Times reveal 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. Nearly half of J Street's revenue during the timeframe — a total of $811,697 — however, came from a single donor in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, named Consolacion Esdicul.
Jeremy Ben Ami, J Street's executive director, said in an interview that the $245,000 was part of a $750,000 gift from the Soros family to his organization made over three years. Mr. Ben Ami also said that in this same period he had raised $11 million for J Street and its political action committee.
Mr. Soros made billions as a hedge fund manager and currency speculator, founding the Quantum hedge fund that, until the early 1980s, was based in an offshore tax haven in the Dutch Antilles Islands. Both his business success and his subsequent charitable giving in support of favored political and social causes have made him a figure of immense controversy both in the United States and around the world.
One of the world's wealthiest philanthropists, Mr. Soros gave 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 and Media Matters for America. He has also strongly criticized U.S. policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the Bush administration' decision in 2007 not to recognize a Palestinian unity government that included the militant Islamist Hamas movement.
He 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.
AIPAC "became closely allied with the neocons and was an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion of Iraq," Mr. Soros wrote.
Mr. Ben Ami in past interviews has described J Street as President Obama's "blocking back" in Congress, with the group billing itself as the lead Jewish-American group supporting elements in the Israeli political spectrum who favor negotiating a lasting two-state peace deal with the Palestinians.
J Street has clashed repeatedly with AIPAC and other longstanding 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 earlier 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 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."
Mr. Ben Ami's words on Thursday contrasted sharply with statements 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 passage 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 an addition that stated: "J Street has said it doesn’t receive money from George Soros, but now news reports indicate that he has in fact contributed."
Michael Vachon, a spokesman for Mr. Soros, said the billionaire "has made no secret of his support for" J Street.
"Mr. Soros believes that J Street makes an important contribution to the debate on Mideast policy. While he is a financial supporter, he does not play an operational role in the organization nor influence its policy positions," Mr. Vachon said.
The J Street website also 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 Happy Valley, Hong Kong based donor of nearly half the group's revenue for the 2008 to 2009 fiscal year, 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.
President 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 President 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' more outspoken criticisms of the Israeli government.
"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."