J Street, AIPAC, Palestine and Israel: Fighting the Wrong Battle and Losing the Real War

March 14, 2011





As I entered the Washington Convention Center exhibit area, I saw many tables that appeared to be staffed by what Jewish organizations worry is an endangered species: interested and engaged young pro-Israel supporters.

Of course, as I get older my perspective on ”youth” has changed. However, since several were discussing an upcoming  “Jewish Young Adults” Happy Hour listed in their schedules and my schedule only mentioned where I could find the nearest restroom, I was reasonably sure I had at least migrated outside my own demographic.

However, discussing interesting beverages to imbibe was definitely the smallest part of what they were doing. Their primary role was to advocate for a two state solution and peace between Israel and the Palestinians. They were passing out various brochures that discussed, among other issues, Palestinian rights, protecting Israel’s democracy, leveraging new technologies for peace, engaging in progressive Zionism by not seeing support for the Palestinians as a zero sum game that Israel loses, fostering understanding by bringing Palestinians, Jews and Arabs together through cross-cultural interaction, and using educational tours and films to raise public awareness of the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem and why it has been so difficult to resolve.

I even picked up a congressional directory that J Street provided to help the 500 young adults, and (as I overheard one of them say) the  ”alta cockers,”  lobby their elected representatives on why supporting peace and a two state solution is so important. (She must  have been banking on my having either a Yiddish or hearing deficit.)

The two day convention included sessions on Israeli politics, the implications of democracy movements in Arab countries, working together with Muslim communities to advance Israel’s strategic goals, working with Christian communities towards a two state solution, American policy options toward Iran, using the synagogue as a laboratory for conversations on Israel and Palestine, the implications of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the Palestinian view of statehood. All in all it was an interesting and well rounded program and group of speakers from American, Palestinian and Israeli organizations, media and politics. Ruth Bader Ginsburg even made an appearance at the concluding dinner.

This did not seem like the same convention that some journalists, AIPAC supporters and other pro-Israel lobbying groups have called anti-Israel or not pro-Israel enough. It certainly did not seem like a gathering that Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was wise to have skipped.  (Maybe Israel has so many other potentially better friends on their U.N. waiting list he was busy taking all of their calls.)

Presuming Oren understands Israel’s strategy or that there is a strategy, he should explain how it as beneficial to American Jews, Palestinians and Israel for Israel  to continue to dismiss J Street, and its 170,000 supporters and 11,000 contributors, as ”significantly out of the mainstream.” The only “mainstream” Israel regularly deals with is one where it is usually Israel against the world. Sometimes that world even includes America. So how can Israel truly believe that it is a good idea to dismiss its friends, its family members, because they aren’t as friendly as Israel wants them to be?

And now it’s reported that a  Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Public Diplomacy Committee, headed by Likud Party member Danny Danon, plans to hold a hearing next week on J Street’s bona fides. Kadima member, Othniel Schneller, says a “code was broken” because J Street “fought against the sanctions that the U.S. wants to place against Iran” and acted against the “American veto” of a U.N. resolution that condemned Israel’s settlement policy. (A veto that was then followed by such a strong American statement against the settlement policy that it appeared America was vetoing its own statement.)

I can save this committee some time. Do an Internet search for the terms “J Street + Iran sanctions” and “J Street + U.N. settlement resolution.” Or just review J Street’s own website. None of this is true.

Yes, it’s sometimes harder to fact check before emoting and it’s more tempting to fight  political battles to divide and weaken Kadima than to unite and strengthen the Jewish Diaspora and help the fragile Palestinian peace efforts, but lies do not become truths because we are lazy or want to win more Knesset seats. If this type of misguided gamesmanship continues to serve as a substitute for the visionary leadership Israel so desperately needs, then the risk to Israelis is that they will wake up one day not too far in the future and discover the only things broken are the bond between Israel and world Jewry and the very real opportunity to  reach peace with Israel’s most enlightened Palestinian negotiating partners in five decades.

In fact, a little over a year ago, Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston may have expressed it best when he referred to the Israeli government’s response to J Street as “ignorant and disrespectful to the United States and the American Jewish community.”   He added that the Foreign Ministry considered J Street “guilty of the crime of explicitly calling itself pro-Israel, while not agreeing  wholeheartedly with everything the Israeli government says and does.”  Indeed, under the Foreign Ministry’s theory, the majority of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans would regularly be considered disloyal.

Maybe it’s my fault. Maybe I just missed the Hamas and Hezbollah tables at J Street’s convention. Perhaps they were behind the Iranian and Syrian support tables over in the “Self-Hating Jew” wing that too many other (ostensibly) pro-Israel supporters feel J Street belongs in.

What a misguided focus.  So much could be gained by pro-Israel organizations finding more ways to work together instead of working even harder to fuel mistrust and disagreement.  Why work so hard to create our own intra-communal separation barriers instead of working to tear down the walls?  Where is the balanced perspective that recognizes that no pro-Israel group, even AIPAC, can be all things to even all Jewish people or that being pro-Israel also means being pro-Palestinian?

Isn’t it possible, even likely, that J Street could help spread the love to the other 98% of American Jews who don’t contribute to AIPAC? Do we really want this to be an exclusive (and shrinking) pro-Israel fraternity where to gain entrance requires fealty to everything Israel says or does? (Oren would likely say this is an overstatement. In a closed meeting with J Street leaders several months ago, he contended that while Israel would prefer that J Street follow the AIPAC model, the Israeli government could accept disagreement, as long as the disagreement did not involve existential threats. However, the list of existential threats that Oren defined was fairly expansive, making this distinction largely meaningless.)

But it’s not a one-sided battle with all fault on the anti-J Street side, a side that has been largely led by AIPAC supporters and “right-wing” Israeli politicians. J Street’s leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami, may be, as he answered one journalist, the pole in the middle of the J Street tent — one side far left and the other side just left — but there are those in the tent who probably should just be left out. It isn’t hard to analyze Jewish Voice For Peace’s positions and highly questionable support of a two state solution to conclude that they are not within the same mainstream J Street needs to be if it wants to truly make a meaningful difference in its “pro Israel” efforts.

But forgive J Street its stumbles, whether it is over their issue choices, position statements, poor disclosure of George Soros’ financial involvement, or just J Street’s choice to include some unpopular individuals or organizations at their convention.  Concentrate on the  potential “value add.”  Yes, J Street takes a different approach. After 43 years, why not consider that new ideas may be exactly what’s needed?

This is only J Street’s third year and it has had incredible growth. That has led to some “ready, fire, aim” decision making.  But new, rapidly growing organizations do frequently make mistakes that more mature organizations don’t. New organizations can also be perceived as a threat to the “establishment.”  But what problem is solved by working to keep J Street out instead of working to figure out how to bring J Street and its pro-Israel supporters in?

Professional skeptics and naysayers also seem to have a conveniently short memory. How quickly they forget (or ignore) AIPAC’s early “foreign agent issues,” the forced resignation of its President, David Steiner, in the early 1990′s over influence-peddling issues, and the more recent (dismissed)  espionage allegations against its political director, Steven Rosen and Iran analyst, Keith Weissman, and subsequent messy battle with Rosen over employment-related issues.

Communal discord hurts the Jewish community, Palestinians and Israel. It does nothing to help sustain and grow support for a near-term  two state solution.  And that’s the highest objective Israel and the pro-Israel community needs to be sure is fulfilled.

In my next installment on this subject, I’ll  offer a list of ways J Street and AIPAC can capitalize on each of their strengths to work together to better help Israel and the Palestinians. If you have any of your own ideas please free to email me and I’ll include them.   We are all on the same team, but some of us like to bunt and others like to swing for the fences. Each tactic has its own merits depending on the game situation. Neither tactic can work in all situations. It’s all about finding the right balance and remembering the ultimate goals are to remain focused on preserving Israel as a democratic state that can continue to serve as the Jewish homeland and helping create a viable Palestinian state living in peace with Israel.

J Street, AIPAC, Palestine and Israel: Fighting the Wrong Battle and Losing the Real War – Blog Post.

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