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Can J Street coherently fight both boycott and occupation?

After J Street U students were attacked at an anti-BDS conference this week, the lobby might want to reconsider the effectiveness of seeking common ground with extremists.

J Street U students take part in an anti-BDS summit at the United Nations, March 29, 2017. (Gili Getz)

J Street U students take part in an anti-BDS summit at the United Nations, March 29, 2017. (Gili Getz)

Things got ugly at an anti-BDS conference at the United Nations this week when participants turned on a group of liberal university students in attendance.

The conference, organized by the Israeli mission to the U.N., brought together many of the usual suspects working to counter the effects of the growing boycott movement. Students representing the university arm of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby,” attracted the ire of the conference when they rose to ask how to counter BDS to fellow students who oppose Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

When they identified their organizational affiliation, they were met with hisses from the audience, according to a report in Haaretz. Alan Clemmons, a state legislator from South Carolina, proceeded to accuse the students of representing an anti-Semitic organization and declared, to a standing ovation, that “there is no illegal occupation.” Mort Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, echoed Clemmons when he announced the “occupation is a lie.” Others called the students pigs and worse.

It’s upsetting to think of these young activists facing such hate from their community elders, and I sincerely hope someone there came to their defense, at least in private. (I’ve asked J Street whether anyone at the conference expressed support for the beleaguered students, but I haven’t heard back.) But notwithstanding its after-the-fact criticism of what transpired, I remain a bit confused as to why anyone thought it would be a good idea to send those students into what was always certain to be a lion’s den.

J Street is one of a number of American Jewish organizations that formally oppose the occupation but are not affiliated with the BDS movement. There’s nothing wrong with that – BDS detractors, the state of Israel most prominent among them, have been effective at maligning the movement as an anti-Semitic front bent on the destruction of Israel with assistance from treasonous Jews inside and outside Israel. Some groups on the left have sought distance from the movement so as not to alienate growing numbers of Jews hesitantly exploring alternatives to the establishment’s blind support for Israeli policies.

But at what point does a cautious, big tent approach reach the limits of coherence? There’s a significant difference between refraining from taking a position on BDS – the approach, for example, adopted by the young activists of IfNotNow – and joining with the Israeli government and its minions who employ increasingly authoritarian efforts to suppress it.

IfNotNow activists form a human chain outside the Washington Convention Center to protest the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, Washington D.C., March 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

IfNotNow activists form a human chain outside the Washington Convention Center to protest the annual AIPAC Policy Conference, Washington D.C., March 26, 2017. (Gili Getz)

In the last few weeks alone, the same government that organized the New York conference passed a law barring entry to non-citizen boycott advocates, detained the head of the BDS movement (on allegations of “tax evasion”), and proposed an official database to track groups and individuals who support the movement. Yesterday, as Jewish Voice for Peace’s national conference began in Chicago, the Israeli minister tasked with intimidating boycott supporters out of existence issued a statement attacking the organization, which supports BDS, as anti-Semitic and “filled with hatred for Israel.”

As Israel’s tolerance for dissent plummets, J Street tries to articulate a constructive approach, but emerges muddled. On the day of the anti-BDS conference – no doubt anticipating scrutiny around its participation from both the right and the left – it released a statement that simultaneously opposed BDS, criticized Israel’s approach to its critics, and called for “renewed major investment in Israel’s economy and civil society without legitimizing or defending the settlements in the West Bank.” (For more on J Street’s approach, read Dahlia Scheindlin’s excellent interview with its director, Jeremy Ben-Ami.)

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks to J Street U protesters at a protest outside the White House.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks to J Street U protesters at a protest outside the White House.

J Street will never succeed if it tries to be everything to everyone. The group has been excluded from a number of establishment meetings in the past, including anti-BDS events. Why does it so badly want to be at a table where it’s so clearly unwelcome?

Granted, the lobby is more concerned with being an alternative to AIPAC than an activist movement. It no doubt believes that, given the dozens of anti-BDS bills snaking through legislatures around the country, its access to political power will be blocked if it’s not on record fighting the movement. But in these polarizing times, people expect their representatives to pick a side and adhere to some ideological consistency. That doesn’t mean everyone needs to have a formal position on BDS. But seeking common ground with groups like the ZOA, who have aligned with the most extreme elements of the Trump administration, demonstrates a fundamental misreading of a political lesson we all should have learned in November.

The Israel supporters who attacked those students understand very well that the center the lobby clings to has already fallen. If it wishes to be relevant, it’s going to need an exit strategy.

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    1. Firentis

      The conflation between dissent and economic warfare is expected but nonetheless mendacious. BDS in its goals and tactics is not about “dissent”. It is about promoting a strategy of economic warfare against Israel and its advocates are not shy about defining it as such. They are also not shy about declaring that their goal is the elimination of Israel. One can not insist that BDS is a mighty juggernaut that will pummel Israel into submission and expect that Israel take no action to deal with it.

      “There’s a significant difference between refraining from taking a position on BDS..”

      No, there isn’t. Either you support the tactics and goals of BDS or you are opposed to them. Either you support the existence of the State of Israel or you are for destroying it. There is no middle ground. This is like someone on another thread here commenting that it is up to people to determine whether the Jewish residents of the West Bank are human or not. Not taking a position on such issues is a fundamental moral failure.

      JStreet wants to stay relevant in an era where it has minimal access to the halls of power. If it doesn’t have access to those, and it is outside of the communal tent, then as a political lobby it is irrelevant, deprived of both the supply (access to Jewish community resources and support) and of demand (access to the halls of power). The “Israel supporters” (JStreetU are not?) that attacked these students are idiots, but at the same time they fundamentally understand that the people present in this conference are the mainstream center while JStreet is an attempt by the far-left to infiltrate and subvert. Rather than focusing on countering BDS (the goal of the conference) JStreet apparently showed up with an agenda of demanding to have a conversation about the occupation. Nonetheless, it would have been smarter for the organizations present in the conference to have a big-tent mentality when dealing with such organizations.

      Also, the idea that the center on Israel has fallen is not borne out by any facts. The center is what showed up at the AIPAC conference. Feel free to go through the names. The marginal left is who was protesting outside.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        “Either you support the tactics and goals of BDS or you are opposed to them. Either you support the existence of the State of Israel or you are for destroying it. There is no middle ground.”

        This is nonsense. In Larry Derfners new book “No Place For Jewish Liberals” he spends pages explaining the reasons why he loves Israel and plans to stay there, and he also explains how disturbed he is that Israel is running a colonial enterprise/military dictatorship in the West Bank. There are middle grounds all over the place.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          There is a difference between on the one hand being disturbed by the occupation and opposing it and on the other supporting a movement dedicated to destroying the state of Israel like BDS. Conflating the two is misleading. There is no middle ground on BDS. It is entirely a binary choice – either one supports Israel existing or one wants to eliminate it.

          Reply to Comment
          • Mark

            Nicely put, Ferentis. It’s wholly disingenuous to hide the aim of BDS to end the existence of a Jewish State of Israel by pretending it only wants to end the occupation of WB and Gaza.

            The only reasonable response is to meet like with like until a more sensible option emerges.

            Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Firentis

        Don’t know who you are but I like you. Good comment. Mostly these boards focus on disagreement and insult so figure I’ll take this opportunity to complement.

        Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          Thank you Jeff. It is nice to get a compliment once in a while. 🙂

          Reply to Comment
    2. JeffB

      OK I’m going to assume the author is an Israeli since this article seems to lack any understanding of what J-Street is. Also I should mention I was at the UN conference and talked to about 5 of the JStreetU kids at several different times while there.

      OK so first off lets just define the terms. America has many many institutions that acted as intermediaries between voters, donors, activists and politicians. These intermediaries help average voters to formulate their vague and often contradictory desires into politically actionable policies so that politicians can act on them. They then reward or punish politicians. The primary type of political intermediaries in the USA are the political parties themselves. The ones focused on particular narrow interests are called “lobbies”. There are also other intermediaries you have heard of like “super PACs (political action committee)” which help bundle large donors and PIRGs (public interest groups) which bundle researchers with political activists and smaller donors.

      The primary lobby regarding Israel policy is a group called AIPAC. AIPAC is finding it increasingly difficult to both represent American Jewish opinion on Israel, to represent the largest donors (who are often to the right of the Israeli government and strongly affiliated with the Republican party) and Jewish public opinion (which centers on mainstream Democratic opinion and is much less hawkish than Israel). As a consequence of this another lobby called JStreet has emerged which essentially wants to be AIPAC for Democrats while allowing AIPAC to become a mostly Republican lobby. JStreet isn’t muddled in its mission at all. It wants to represent Jewish Democrats who find AIPAC too hawkish and too rightwing, its a center left organization. JSteet’s position regarding the occupation / Palestinian is pretty much the same as the Zionist Union: pro-Israel, pro a strong USA alliance, a two state solution based on 1967 borders with adjustments and thus anti-settlement.

      JStreet is firmly opposed to BDS, it most certainly does have a formal position. JStreet is not opposed to BDS for some cynical motives based on it a big tent approach. JStreet is opposed to BDS because it is a pro-Israeli lobby and BDSers are Israel’s enemies. It may be a pro-Israeli group for Democrats rather than Republicans so the flavor is a bit different but being pro-Israeli is core to its entire reason for existence. JStreet is ideologically consistent they represent the American Democratic party and Zionist-Union / Meretz positions.

      JStreetU is the youth chapter of JStreet focusing on college and university organizing. Because they are anti-BDS yet far enough to the left to have contact with the further left groups that support BDS the JStreetU kids bring a lot of practical experience and knowledge to the table which many of the more rightwing participants lack. JStreetU kids were not sent into a lion’s den. Certainly the average participant was a solid Republican, and most of those people didn’t think highly of Democrats. But no one was really questioning what JStreetU was, its a youth group for politically active Jewish Democrats. They almost all understood that JSteetU is opposed to BDS and belongs at that conference.

      Yes there were some rude comments. Yes JStreet gets treated worse than it should be rightwing organizations. But there was nothing like what you describe going on. There was no evidence of a dramatic crossroads and a broad rejection. There is a center left in America and JStreet sits comfortably in it.

      Reply to Comment
      • Firentis

        I have a somewhat more negative view of JStreet than you, but that is mostly because I think they acted as Obama’s Jewish stooges for the past 8 years, caring more about providing support to Obama than about providing support to Israel. So, to me it looks like it is strong on support for left-wing Democrats and lukewarm in its support for Israel. Also, I think their work is harmful by providing a Jewish human shield to many Democrats with somewhat hostile views on Israel and in doing so pushing the Overton window in a direction where groups like JVP no longer feel/look as marginal.

        Also, I would like to say that I am amazed by your Sisyphean participation at MW. I don’t have the stomach to deal with that den of borderline anti-Semites and “As a Jews” anti-Zionists.

        Reply to Comment
        • JeffB

          @Firentis

          Yes Mondoweiss is really bad. I can’t do it for long since the tone is so incredibly hostile. As for the antisemites there they aren’t borderline. You have everything: denial of Jewish history, holding Jews to different standards, crazy conspiracy theories….

          As for moving the Overton window… let’s not forget there are Arabists, anti-colonialists… as part of the Democratic coalition. I’d say what JStreet does is help border off the limit of acceptable dissent as much as move the window. Its a compromise that keeps Washington in line with Jewish Democrats. JStreet is a Democratic lobby has to be somewhat in line with Democratic politicians, its a compromise. It allowed Obama to get very mad at Netanyahu and mostly not at Israel. The Democratic party standing strongly for a non nuclear Iran, not putting much pressure on Saudi Arabia, not worrying about the Egyptian coup, hostility towards BDS (especially among black democrats) isn’t coming from their deep heartfelt love for Israel. Give some credit to JStreet and AIPAC where it is due. 🙂 They help.

          Reply to Comment
    3. R5

      Author is right, the center isn’t there anymore. But its because of BDS. ZOA and the right wing have been around since Begin. This article is basically just a victory lap for BDS Jews. The message to liberal Jews is: “Yea, now you have to choose between us and Mort Klein bitches.” Guess what? Liberals Jews don’t really have to choose, because mainstream Jewish organizations haven’t changed their politics very much, and neither ZOA or JVP are powerful enough to make us. So nice try, but really we resent your fanaticism and the fact that you’ve made it poisonous to debate anything without SJWs doxxing and shouting people down. Also good job ruining the SPLC, ACLU and other liberal organizations. These places are going to suffer a lot because of your stupidity. The fact that ACLU even hired the person writing this is seriously fucking stupid. ACLU depends heavily on the pro-bono work of thousands of rich corporate lawyers as well as their $$$, and none of these people are Keith Ellison Democrats. At best they’re Hilary Clinton Democrats, and many are moderate republicans.

      Reply to Comment
    4. i_like_ike52

      I must say I am surprised that J-Street decided to participate in this. At their conferences and meetings up until now one only hears harsh criticism of Israel, which one would not expect from people that claim they are “pro-Israel and pro-peace”. Maybe their donor base is drying up since their chosen candidate lost the election for President. This is clearly what happened to the ADL under its new leader who replace Abe Foxman. He first claims that they are now going to focus on “Islamophobia” and other favorite “progressive” causes, but then he flips around and says that Keith Ellison is an antisemite, even though Jewish politicians like Chuck Shumer supported him. This can only be explained by old donors who gave money to fight for Jewish causes not seeing it as a priority for them to support Muslims who are frequently antisemitic themselves.

      With the election of Trump, it seems that the radical Left is now taking over all the old liberal, Democratic agenda, which used to revolve around “bread and butter” issues. The anti-Trump “resistance” is now ranting endlessly about intersectionality, white privilege, identity politics, BLM, Islamophobia, LG… issues and Bernie-style anti-capitalism…basically calling for revolution. It is not clear most old-fashioned liberals and Democratic voters want this (hard to say because Bernie did get a lot of votes in the primaries). If J-Street is viewing things this way, they may feel that completely alienating themselves from the Israeli and non-Israeli pro-Zionist public will cause a falling away from “progressive” Jewish Left that still has some sort of attachment to Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @I_like_ike52

        You don’t hear harsh criticism of Israel at J-Street conferences, you hear a genuinely sympathetic portrayal of Israel. There is an understanding of the complexities and a genuine attempt to try and see things from the Israeli point of view. At the very least from the point of view of the Zionist Israeli mainstream left to which J-Street is aligned.

        Let’s not conflate friends who are Democrats with enemies like JVP.

        Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @I_like_ike52

        I’d also mention that as an attendee: there were many speakers who are about where J-StreetU kids were on the spectrum. While the audience and the speakers tilted heavily Republican, Democratic Jews were welcome. Moreover the more liberal Jews had vastly more experience in actually countering BDS and dealing with BDS. The conservative speakers could denounce it, and presented fairly effective strategies to disempower it, but had very little first hand knowledge in how to effectively change hearts and minds. The Liberal speakers were able to give good specific examples for models of successful engagement with BDS proponents.

        Reply to Comment
    5. Ben

      Bruce Gould is entirely correct. As is Larry Derfner. There is plenty of middle ground, and the demonizing of all supporters of economic boycott—economic boycott being a time honored democratic form of free speech—is of a piece with the ridiculous Alan Clemmons calling J Street “anti-Semitic.” And with calling Yossi Gurvitz “anti-Semitic” and someone who is “accusing Jews again of poisoning the wells” because he spoke up about settlers pumping their raw sewage on to utterly defenseless Palestinians. How ridiculous can you get? This is propagandistic, tactical anti-Semitizing at its most ridiculous and transparent. Israel thinks it has the right to create apartheid, to meticulously frustrate violent and non-violent means of resistance, thumb its nose at the entire world, and be immune from boycott. It might find it is mistaken.

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Ben

        Alan Clemmons is a Mormon. His position is that Jews have permanent rights to all of Judaea (which he conflates with mandate Palestine). He hates J-Street because in his opinion they conspire with antisemites like Obama to rob the good Jews of their country.

        The BYU campus in Jerusalem has a great relationship with the government (not shockingly a Christian church that essentially recognizes Israel’s exclusive claim to the city). Mormons themselves experienced religious persecution in the 19th century and so relate to the Jewish stories. Joseph Smith taught a imminent Jewish return… American Jews are uniquely friendly to Mormons. Mormons view themselves as belonging to the tribe of Ephraim (Ephraim communicated to the Angel Moroni who assisted Mormon is authoring their scriptures)…

        The Mormons are allies. They are awesome allies whom we should be grateful for. Alan Clemmons has been a true friend. But I don’t think you can blame Israel for his attitude towards J-Street. He has his own reasons.

        Reply to Comment
        • Ben

          If you think anything you are telling me about Alan Clemmons makes him seem less ridiculous, think again. His private religious motives for making ridiculous public statements calling J Street “anti-Semitic do not interest me too much. But in my view you place yourself in similar territory when you call president Obama an anti-Semite. This is terribly false and highly offensive.

          By the way, didn’t followers of Clemmon’s religion also engage in posthumously baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims? And didn’t stop doing it until this was exposed and they caught considerable heat for it?

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @Ben

            — But in my view you place yourself in similar territory when you call president Obama an anti-Semite. This is terribly false and highly offensive.

            I never did that nor do I think that. The fact that I state someone else’s views doesn’t mean I agree with those views, it simply an assertion that such views exist.

            — By the way, didn’t followers of Clemmon’s religion also engage in posthumously baptizing Jewish Holocaust victims? And didn’t stop doing it until this was exposed and they caught considerable heat for it?

            Yes they do. They reduced it quite a bit but the LDS church hasn’t been able to completely stop their membership from doing it. And FWIW I think the Jews are in the wrong on asking this of Mormons. I don’t think there is Terrestrial Kingdom or anyplace else dead people go but worm’s digestive tracks, but Mormons do. And I see no reason that the LDS church should refuse to baptize dead Jews who contact Mormons for help anymore than they refuse to baptize other dead people who are contacting Mormons for help. What harm does it do us for them to engage in a ritual we don’t even believe is possible and that comes out of their generosity and love towards all the dead not in the Celestial Kingdom? That was an area we were the ones being culturally insensitive.

            Reply to Comment
          • R5

            @JeffB: “Ben” is a wacko and apologist for the worst anti-Semitism you’ll see on this website. I wouldn’t engage him.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            R5, when you crudely mouth off like this I know I have rattled you and unnerved you because you can’t handle the truth. It does not intimidate me but does the opposite: it confirms me in my argument. So carry on all you like.

            Reply to Comment
    6. Average American

      So these un-elected guys Eugene Kontorovich and Joseph Sabag wrote the legislation, both guys pro-Israel pro-settler one-issue Zionists, and it was never submitted to the voters of South Carolina, and Clemmons thought he was really important because he got fawned over for a little while by The Right People instead of the voters he represents. Clemmons strikes a blow against American businesses in favor of Israeli businesses, mainly one Israeli business AL Solutions, with which Clemmons happened to meet while he and Kontorovich happened to be visiting Israel together. That’s the way the machine works, folks. No need to ask the South Carolina voters if they wanted to be governed by it, it’s good for Israel.

      Reply to Comment
      • JeffB

        @Average American

        What evidence do you have that the average voter in South Carolina is not pro-Israel? Heck what polling do you have that shows the percentage of South Carolinians that dislike Israel and don’t dislike leftists more even crosses into double digits? South Carolina has a lot of evangelicals who love Israel. It has quite a few people who love the idea of Jews moving there. If has very few people who like leftist causes. This wasn’t a swing state yet Jill Stein got only: 13,034 votes out of 2.1m cast, 0.6%.

        I don’t see a conspiracy here.

        Reply to Comment
        • Average American

          Who knows if the voters would have passed it. They were never asked. If you are supposing they would have passed it, so why ask them, that’s no better. Do you think representative government in the United States is a leftist cause?

          Reply to Comment
          • JeffB

            @American

            –Who knows if the voters would have passed it.

            The elected Representatives votes 95-9 in the house, 97-1 in the senate and then ratified by the governor at the first opportunity (first day). This wasn’t a nail biter. There has been zero backlash or much controversy in South Carolina. As much as we can tell on any legislation, this legislation was extremely popular. You were presenting a case that this was some sort of secret bill that a few guys snuck in. That’s just not remotely true.

            — If you are supposing they would have passed it, so why ask them, that’s no better. Do you think representative government in the United States is a leftist cause?

            This bill was passed via. representative government. The representatives overwhelmingly approved it. What you seem to be arguing for is direct democracy not representative government. And in this particular case in a situation where we know the outcome based on demographics of anti-Israeli sentiment.

            Reply to Comment
    7. Susan

      Will BDS end the occupation one day sooner? I don’t think so. That is the most important question.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Discrimination of nonjews in Israel is combatted by both (jStreet, BDS)

      AIPAC and cpmajo-members defend this discrimination of nonjews, naming this ethnocratic discrimination ‘Israel’. Thats the main difference.

      If 1 or 2 states are the right goal is secondary. Primary is always the question, if discrimination of nonjews is supported or combatted.

      Reply to Comment
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