There was something slightly frustrating about the J Street conference. At times, participants seemed to be discussing the same old problems, wondering why the same old solutions haven’t worked, while talking about them in the same old terms.
Meanwhile, the Middle East is undergoing enormous changes with every new minute. Old policies have become slogans, drained of meaning by failure. We need an arsenal of new ideas; empty rhetoric is a liability that must be exposed. You can’t take aim at the future with a cartridge full of blanks.
Take one example: “the peace process.” At the conference, the columnist Roger Cohen said: “When I hear that word ‘process,’ I just die somewhere inside.” He’s right. The two-state solution is still alive and urgent, but the negotiations are dead (they have not “stalled” as the media likes to say). As a result, “peace process” now equals “status quo,” and this needs to be said until it’s clear to all. There are many other examples.
When old Middle East terminology is increasingly removed from reality, when it distracts or deceives the audience, that’s called doublespeak. The J Street conference was at its best when new terms and ideas arose, or when speakers exposed the vacuity of the old ones.
Below are a few suggestions, beginning with big concepts and moving to specific policies – some are mine, some were inspired by the conference. I’d love for readers to add more.
1. Today, support for current Israeli government policies is mistakenly described as “pro-Israel.” Such support is hereby renamed “Pro-occupation,” the only accurate, factual description. Whatever the Netanyahu government says about wanting peace and accepting a Palestinian state is doublespeak – all it has done is entrench the occupation.
2. The new meaning of the term “pro-Israel” is: active support for a mutually acceptable resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (I personally prefer the two-state solution), and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state within the 1967 borders – not to mention strengthening democracy and full equality of all citizens inside of Israel. People who support those developments are “Pro-Israel.” Do not confuse the new “pro-Israel” with the old, dead meaning of “pro-Israel” (see #1). Anyone not actively working for such a resolution is against Israel, because the conflict is killing us.
At the conference, Daniel Levy of New America expressed quite beautifully why believing in and striving for a peaceful resolution among two equal partners is the positive, life-affirming approach to Israel: “We are the real community of people who believe in Israel’s existence in the Middle East.” The other community believes that Israel’s critics hate Israel’s existence, not just its policies (“they hate us not for what we do, but for who we are”). That community must naturally conclude that “Israel ain’t a very good idea,” he said, because it can never live in peace in the Middle East. This narrative is used “year after year” to justify the occupation. Since this narrative involves either annihilation by permanent enemies, or the occupation of those enemies which destroys Israeli society from within, there’s a good word for people who think that way: Nihilists.
After all, if the entire world is made up of bloodthirsty anti-Israel fanatics, the only logical conclusion is that of Philip Roth’s bizarre impostor in Operation Shylock: Diasporism.We may as well pack up and go home – thanks but no thanks.
3. On J Street, some confused people seem to believe that J Street carries out “Delegitimization.” I have a new name for them: “Right-wing nut-jobs,” or just shamefully, embarrassingly ignorant. (I’ve also heard the following lately: BEI – Brilliant except [when it comes to] Israel.)
Those people don’t have to remain out in the cold: they are invited to return to planet earth, by listening to what J Street actually says. Here is founder Jeremy Ben Ami’s opening speech of the conference:
We re-affirm our commitment to and support for the people and the state of Israel. We believe that the Jewish people, like all other people in the world, have the right to a home of their own and we celebrate its rebirth …We marvel at Israel’s accomplishments …We value and share the democratic principles on which Israel was founded…We understand that Israel does have real enemies and we defend its right to live in security and peace … We are passionately, unapologetically pro-Israel.”
4. Finally, let’s update Zionism. The term “Jewish and democratic state” served us well in the last century, but now nobody knows what it means. In 2011, I’d like to propose that Zionism means a democratic home for the Jewish people and all other citizens, such as the native-born 20% Palestinian minority.
People can be Jewish, not the state, if they want, any way they want. Want to talk about anti-Zionism? Imposing religion on citizens is anti-democratic and that’s anti-Zionist. Infecting politics with religion corrupts Judaism and is therefore anti-Zionist. Religious parties, exclusive religious authority over personal status law, legislation against those who are not of the right religion – these are anti-Zionist concepts. By the way, this true anti-Zionism is also usually chauvinist, racist, xenophobic and ethnocentric.
Now here are some here-and-now policy terms:
5. Rejectionist ideological settlers. Author Bernard Avishai proposes calling them: “The Judeans.” I find this appropriate. “Settlers” makes them sound neutral. “Judeans” doesn’t take settlers out of the fold – they are still part of the Jewish people. But the term recalls the ancient time when the Jewish people were rent asunder, torn into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah, leading to destruction and exile. Let the Judeans prevent such destruction, by coming home to Israel.
6. The “one-state solution,” should be renamed. On this point, sharp-tongued Lara Friedman, Director of Policy and Government Relations for Americans for Peace Now, was characteristically incisive:
“One state is not a solution, it’s an outcome. Neither side aspires to share a state. I defy you to tell me how one state actually works.” After thunderous applause, members of the audience observed that the one-state outcome will probably resemble an apartheid state.
7. “Israeli-Palestinian peace” should be used synonymously with “American security interests.” The occupation is synonymous with “American security liability.” That was the overwhelming agreement of a panel with Brian Katulis, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson and Lara Friedman.
8. Supporters of a two state-solution/the creation of a Palestinian state are not necessarily left (although they may also be that). Once and for all: Supporters of a Palestinian and an Israeli state are pragmatic.
9. The basic parameters of a two-state solution: Consensus. Call it Clinton, call it Geneva; call it Taba, Saudi or Olmert, conference speakers (including Dennis Ross) reminded audiences time and again that we all know the basic outlines of the plan. Israelis, Palestinians, American Jews and all the leaders know the basic plan. We don’t have to love it – we have to get on with it.
10. Status quo. Daniel Levy nails this one with the truest possible term: “suicidal comfort zone.”
11. Iran. It’s time to remember that Israel’s big “existential threat” doubles as “an existential excuse” not to make life-saving advances in Israel’s foreign policy. Kadima MK Orit Zuaretz should know – she sits on Israel’s Security and Foreign Affairs Committee. She said: “They always run to the Iranian threat and it gives them legitimization not to deal with other issues.” My own survey from November 2010 shows that no less than a 69% majority of Jewish Israelis agree that “a deal with the Palestinians will improve Israel’s relations with other countries, which will help the world unite against Iran.” Iran = a reason to make peace, not an excuse to avoid it.
Old language perpetuates myths and blinds us to new realities. More accurate language can help expose myths. And developing new terminology or meanings can help drive new ideas – which are desperately needed.