A year ago J Street — the putatively progressive fledgling counter to the Israel lobbying group AIPAC — was riding high. They had just received a write up in the New York Times Magazine that was somewhere between a press release and a love poem and, with a complaisant Obama in the White House, the tiny organization seemed poised to be a significant player in the Middle East discussion.
My, as grandma said, have times changed.
For starters, J Street’s director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has shown himself to be a Junior Beltway Pinocchio, serially denying his organization had the financial backing of George Soros (to the tune of $245,000) until, when confronted with the facts by the Washington Times‘ Eli Lake, finally acknowledging it with this risible entry on his organization’s website: “J Street has said it doesn’t receive money from George Soros, but now news reports indicate that he has in fact contributed.”
News reports? I guess in Washington no one admits they lied, not even supposedly idealistic young men trying to tell other people how to live, maybe especially them. Why Ben-Ami continued to prevaricate about Soros is hard to say — possibly to separate him and his group from the more outlandish Soros-supported propagandists at MoveOn, etc. — but, besides being dishonest, it wasn’t a particularly bright thing to do. Forms 990 — the “Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax,” which document all donors to groups like his — are public record, as well they should be.
J Street’s 990, as Jeff Dunetz first made public apparently and many now know, revealed a great deal more. The finances of J Street are, to put it mildly, mighty strange — and the strangest element is a woman named Consolacion “Connie” Esdicul, a Filipina living in Happy Valley, Hong Kong, who, for reasons unknown, took such an active interest in the Middle East she donated more than triple the sum of George Soros to J Street — to wit, exactly $811,697. Where this odd figure comes from is baffling. China? $811,697 converts to 5430577.6088 yuan renminbi, not exactly a round number either. (It does come out as something closer to 600,000 euros, depending on the day, but even that is imperfect.)
J Street informs us that Ms. Esdicul was introduced to them by Bill Benter. Benter, a businessman/math whiz, is apparently known as one of the most successful sports bettors in the world, having invented a sophisticated form of computerized parimutuel betting that allows him to outwit competing gamblers at Happy Valley, which turns out to be a racetrack as well as a Hong Kong neighborhood known by some for money laundering. Benter is from Pittsburgh, is married to Vivian Fung (a Hong Kong native whom he married in a Tibetan Buddhist rite), and has his own foundation. More of him in a moment.