Saturday, April 26, 2008

The J Street Lobby-- How Big Is Their Tent?

The newly formed (and long-planned) J Street Lobby describes itself as "the political arm of the pro-Israel pro-peace movement", and has a distinguished list of scholars, policy experts and political activists on its advisory council, as well as many prominent and respected Israelis who have signed a letter of support. Not surprisingly, most of those Israelis are affiliated with the Labor Party, since the specific positions described in that letter are indistinguishable from the platform on which Labor ran in the last election. I suspect that they will also be extremely close to the Democratic Party's platform this year, with notable exception of the language on settlements--J Street straightforwardly calls them an "obstacle to peace" and calls for more vocal US opposition to them.

I don't have a problem with the specifics of their policy proposals, since they very specifically support the existence of Israel as a Jewish state within secure borders, and their positions regarding settlements and borders certainly reflect current US policy as well. They support the status of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and specifically do not call for re-division of the city along the 1949 armistice line, but rather call in advance for American endorsement of any agreement arrived at by Israelis and Palestinians regarding the capital city. Their major point is that US diplomatic involvement needs to be vigorous and ongoing, including engagement with Syria and Iran; they don't address the question of how to deal with Hamas or Hezbollah except by reference to Iran.

J Street's founders intend it to be a counterweight to AIPAC, which they see as being too conservative and too uncritical of Israel. However, while they strive to make this distinction, some of the organizations and individuals that have organized this effort are going to find themselves in a precarious position, because their supporters straddle the line between those who support Israel as a Jewish state and those whose definition of "peace" doesn't necessarily require that. A few are worthy of note:

---Marcia Freedman, founder of B'rit Tzedek v'Shalom and Steve Masters, President of BTvS: In the San Francisco Bay Area, BTvS has worked with the anti-Zionist groups Jewish Voice for Peace, Bay Area Women in Black and the International Solidarity Movement. BTvS was even noted in a newsletter from Amienu (another founding organization of J Street) to refuse to consider themselves Zionists and they would not support even singing Hatikvah at a rally to support last year's Annapolis conference. (Exactly how, then, are they "pro-Israel"?)

---Ricken Patel, Co-founder and Executive Director, Avaaz: Avaaz had a petition on its website several months ago which hysterically proclaimed that "The people of Gaza are being squeezed to death. This week's blackouts have finally reached the attention of the world -- and the international community could help end the blockade. Our obligation is clear. This isn't about Israel vs Palestine or Hamas vs Fatah: this is about 1.5 million human beings locked up in the biggest prison on earth.....The humanitarian crisis of sealed-off Gaza is only getting worse, and a rain of missiles is falling. " Sure makes it sound like a rain of missiles was falling ON Gaza, rather than originating FROM Gaza. Not a mention of the genocidal jihadist ideology of Hamas, not a word about Hamas firing on the crossing points with Israel to prevent the flow of humanitarian supplies. (Good thing that Patel supports Israel; I'd hate to see what opposition would look like).

---Peter Edelman, Board Chair, Larry Garber, Chief Executive Officer, and Norman Rosenberg, Former Chief Executive Officer, New Israel Fund: The New Israel Fund has come under criticism for its funding of Adalah, an Arab rights organization that has called for Israel to allow an unlimited Arab "right of return" that would end Israel's existence as a Jewish state and turn it into yet another Arab country.

J Street also links to many organizations and websites, all of whom state that they are promoting "peace". Many of them are indeed promoting peace while supporting Israel's existence as a Jewish state. Some of them claim to, but suffer from the same problem of finding it too easy to ally with organizations that don't share their support of Israel. For example, the Churches for Middle East Peace include the Protestant churches that have been calling for a one-sided divestment from Israel, and one member organization, the United Methodist Church, recently developed a study guide on the Middle East that claims that Israel's founding constitutes "original sin", the suggestion that Israel's "hysteria" and "paranoiac sense of isolation" have prevented it from making peace, and the assertion that Israel's "denial of the word Palestinian reveals a racism that considers Arabs less than human." (there certainly is voluminous evidence of racism and dehumanization of the other side in the Middle East media-- on the Palestinian side). There's even a link to Richard Silverstein's blog--Silverstein is known for his ad hominem attacks on anyone who dares to question his views, and his site links prominently to Jewish Voice for Peace and promotes Jimmy Carter's "Peace Not Apartheid" book as well as Walt and Mearshimer's "Israel Lobby".

No doubt I will be accused of defaming either J Street as a whole or many of the active, dedicated members of the Zionist community who have signed on to it. In no way do I suggest that the positions of Richard Silverstein or the United Methodist Church are supported by the majority of those whose names appear on the J Street website. But the fact that those extreme positions are represented raises concerns about the future direction of this group.

J Street thinks that the conflict will be between the principles that they support and those of AIPAC and other prominent American pro-Israel groups. They want to draw a distinction between their policies and those of AIPAC, yet many supporters of Israel won't see the two groups as mutually exclusive. It is hard to imagine political candidates that J Street will support who won't also be described by AIPAC as having a "pro-Israel" position. Obviously, not all AIPAC endorsed candidates will be seen as favorable by J Street since AIPAC also endorses candidates that won't meet J Street's more restrictive criteria. J Street clearly envisions itself as being able to provide political cover for elected officials who wish to be more publicly critical of Israel without being tarred as "anti-Semitic", although AIPAC and other prominent American pro-Israel organizations do not equate opposition to specific policies of an Israeli government with anti-Semitism. On occasion, one sided criticism that demonizes, that applies double standards only to Israel, or that delegitimizes Israel has been appropriately labeled as having anti-Semitic content (cf. Carter, Jimmy).

I think their bigger problem will be their own internal conflict. Those groups and individuals that truly do support Israel as a Jewish state will face opposition from within over being seen as too supportive, especially at times of crisis; after all, during the Second Lebanon War there was widespread support across the Zionist political spectrum in Israel for military action against Hezbollah (though there was a lot of disagreement on what form that action should have taken). At the same time, in this country, Jewish Voice for Peace stood prominently with radical anti-Israel and pro-terror groups-- and while they are not part of J Street, they do have sympathetic allies there. I expect that we will see ongoing friction between those who are true supporters of Jewish self-determination in the land of Israel and those for whom even the singing of Hatikvah is problematic.


  1. Divide and Conquer. We've seen it before

    "For Americans to be persuaded [to support the Palestinian cause]," says Hany Khalil, organizing coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, a national antiwar organization that opposes the Israeli occupation, "we have to build support across all sectors of the United States, and that will never happen without a significant and visible split within the Jewish community."

  2. Interesting thoughts. I personally find all national anthems problematic (and confess to generally being uncomfortable with overt displays of patriotism/nationalism, but that might just be because I did not grow up with any real exposure to them.

    While I can't disagree with your analysis that J-Street has some uphill battles to fight, I think (hope?) that its larger priority will not be to provide political cover for those critical of Israel but rather to encourage moderate to left-wing Jews who feel that they don't belong with the AIPAC crowd, who want peace for Israel but also the Palestinians, etc., a place they can be comfortable and a mechanism to be pro-Israel while not abandoning or ignoring their other values.

    I don't think J Street and AIPAC need to dovetail perfectly to achieve the goal of getting more American Jews involved in supporting Israel- and in fact, the more support both organizations can claim, the better Jews can underscore the common values and priorities of all.

  3. JStreet is led by an expat Israeli named Ben Ami who was an executive with Qorvis Communications in Washington DC, a PR firm funded by and ledby the Saudis. Qorvis was fined for running to full page ads in the washington Post and NY Tiems claiming to be run by Progressive Jews who wanted Israel to withdraw to 1949 border. The ads resulted in a fine for Qorvis not reporting themseles as foreign agents when it was revealed the Saudis paid for the ads.

    J Street, like JVP is an Arab front to try and separate JEwish support for Israel here in the United States from helping ISrael to survive. Its activists are wannabe communist revolutionaries and Jews by descent only who are now anti-Semites. They are in no way like AIPAC or jsut some alternate voice.