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J Street, turn your focus homeward

Notes from the J Street conference. 

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks at the 5th J Street Conference, March 21, 2015. (Photo courtesy of J Street)

J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks at the 5th J Street Conference, March 21, 2015. (Photo courtesy of J Street)

Since Netanyahu’s resounding election win last week, there’s been a deluge of coverage in the American media of a deepening disillusionment among U.S. Jews over Israel. Whether in the New York Times, the Associated Press, or Bloomberg, the thesis is more or less what you’d expect: Netanyahu rode to victory on a wave of racism, a rejection of peace with the Palestinians, and unprecedented disrespect for his number one patron, Barack Obama. These tactics fly in the face of a largely liberal community comprised of reliably Democratic voters.

That rift was represented this weekend in Washington, where the J Street lobby wrapped up its fifth national conference. Contempt for Netanyahu was prevalent and unapologetic. To the activists and supporters of the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby, the Israeli prime minister is anathema to peace and the main obstacle to the two-state solution. They are shocked and they are angry.

To a first-time observer like me, the discourse characterizing the conference was a fascinating representation of both the evolution and stagnation that seems to characterize much of the U.S. Jewish community lately. Judging by applause levels at various sessions and plenaries, the professed commitment to universalism seemed real. Language of equal rights and dignity for all was met with enthusiasm. In one particularly satisfying moment, the crowd erupted on behalf of Hadash activist Nabila Espanioly, who accused incoming Zionist Union MK Yoel Hasson of paternalism when he smugly told her what he thinks the Joint List needs to do (lose Balad). Other speakers given the main stage also departed from J Street orthodoxy, declaring the two-state solution dead (Marcia Freedman) and even calling out the lobby’s support for the Gaza war (our very own Noam Sheizaf).

But there’s some dissonance accompanying these moments and all the hand-wringing over Netanyahu’s win. Old ideas and regressive sentimentality still take center stage. Say “two states” and you’ll get a round of applause. Say it in the same sentence as “Zionism” and you might get a standing ovation.

I heard a number of strong voices in several breakout panels, offering sharp analysis and new thinking. Many of J Street U’s young activists are similarly impressive, and some have graduated to activism far more critical of Israel. Unfortunately, that freshness of thought doesn’t extend to some of the conference’s headliners. One particularly shameful keynote address was delivered by Yesh Atid MK Yaakov Peri. Just out of the last Netanyahu government, Peri – also the former head of the bastion of human rights and dignity known as the Shin Bet – spoke with a straight face on his prescription for a two-state solution.

J Street operates in a hawkish playing field where it must compete with groups well to its right, whose approach to dissent on Israel are more McCarthy than First Amendment. It has paid a price for its more moderate positions, most notably the rejection of its bid to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an important national coalition of Jewish groups. The rules of that playing field may account for its misplaced antagonism toward BDS, along with its support for last summer’s war (and the one before that) and uninterrupted American aid, the primary enabler of Israeli policy in the occupied territories. The lobby moves within the borders of consensus, even when that consensus is stale or harmful.

It seems to me that J Street might be more impactful by focusing on cultural change within the American Jewish community rather than incessantly championing the two-state line as though it were ordained from on high. On Monday, hundreds of J Street U activists marched to Hillel’s headquarters to protest the president of Hillel International’s decision to cancel his address to the conference. That’s a healthy way to challenge the right-wing Israel thought police that prevails in institutions on and off university campuses.

At the end of one of yesterday’s plenaries, Daniel Levy noted that “Netanyahu is a gateway drug for a more honest conversation on Israel.” That is definitely true. Liberal American Jews are angry over Netanyahu’s win because they don’t see themselves in the Israel they think he represents. J Street should seize this moment by expanding that conversation, instead of aligning with positions and parties that don’t challenge the status quo. If it does, maybe the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby could also be a gateway to something better.

Read this article in Hebrew on Local Call.

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    1. Pedro X

      Some American Liberals belonging to Jstreet may have problems understanding Israel and its leader. Tough luck. Israel is not another America. Israel is its own national state with its own culture, customs, political system and people. The people of Israel self determined as Nation state of Jewish people. As a result its culture, customs and political systems are a reflection of the national will of the majority of the people of Israel. The majority of the one Jewish state in the world desire to remain a Jewish state.

      Israel as a nation state of Jews has faced challenges which the neither liberal Jews or the United States of America faces. Israel and its people were faced with destruction in 1948. In 1967 leaders of the Arab world and the leader of the PLO threatened to destroy Israel. The leader of the PLO proclaimed that every Jew would be killed and Israel wiped off the face of the earth. Hamas and Islamic Jihad carry on this tradition seeking the destruction of Israel. Hamas’ charter calls for a genocide of Jews. Since 1979 Iran has become an implacable enemy of the Jewish state. It arms Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah and actively assists Syria, with Iranian generals located near the Israeli border. Iran seeks to arm militants in the West Bank. Iran seeks nuclear weapons which its leaders have indicated they would willing use against Israel despite the cost to Iran.

      Some American liberals have a tough time understanding Israel’s policies in relation to Gaza or the West Bank or Judea and Samaria. When Israel surrendered territory in Lebanon and Gaza those areas were taken up by terrorist entities who attacked Israel. Areas surrendered to the Palestinians in the West Bank were used to wage terrorism against Israeli civilians in both Judea and Samaria and the remainder of Israel. After the Gaza war a PSR poll by Palestinians of Palestinians found that 80% of Palestinians approved of Hamas’ handling of the war and 72% wanted Hamas arms and tactics imported into the West Bank. Another PSR poll found that 80% of Palestinians approved of terrorist attacks of running over Jewish infants and hacking to death Jews in synagogues.

      Just this past weekend a Hamas cell of 11 terrorists were arrested. They had been recruited in Jordan, trained in Gaza and smuggled into the West Bank. They were found in possession of arms and explosive materials for the purpose of carrying out terrorism against the Jewish people.

      Providing security to Jewish Israelis is part of the Jewish Israeli experience from Israel’s inception. Arab society has not accepted the presence of a Jewish state in the middle east. Neither have the Palestinians who since 1948 have sought to tear down the Israeli state instead of building their own. This is why the Arab states refused Israel’s offer to return most of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967 to Arab control. This is the reasons that Palestinian Arabs turned down Israel’s and Egypt’s offer to join peace negotiations at Camp David in 1978 and waged war on Israel from Lebanon. This is the reason that Arafat and Abbas rejected Israeli peace proposals in 2000, 2001 and 2008.

      If American liberals can not understand Israel it is their problem.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        Founding a “Jewish state” in the midst of a sea of non-Jews who have to be endlessly controlled, manipulated and driven into smaller and smaller ghettos is an inherently crazy enterprise, and the chickens are coming home to roost.

        Reply to Comment
        • Alexi

          The Middle East with it’s 22 Arab States is a ghetto?

          Tell me, how does that work?

          Reply to Comment
      • Brian

        Pedro X I rather think the problem is that American liberals are understanding Israel much better than they used to. And so are are American centrists. And with Bibi and his public dropping any pretense in his latest visit to America’s shores followed by the election with his clarifying statements, what’s not to understand?

        This process will accelerate. The time of a meek Jewish American Amen chorus singing in unison is clearly over. And as Peter Beinart has explained, time is not on your side: America grows ever younger, less white, more Democratic-leaning, and less mindful of Israel’s early history versus its recent history, and less admiring. 2015 is not 1948. The hard right here seems to be stuck in this way.

        The other thing that strikes me is how mindlessly anti-Obama the Israeli right is, fused with American Republican operators like Adelson. When the truth is that GHWB and James Baker and all the Republican administrations before GHWB’s son’s one were far less lenient with and mollycoddling of Israel. Obama gets a totally bum rap. The fusing of right wing politics in both countries is an ill wind blowing.

        If an Israeli PM pulled the stunt Bibi just did against Janes Baker the PM would have had his head handed to him, loan guarantees would disappear, and much more. There would be hell to pay. Bibi is a very short sighted (self-absorbed) PM to stake Israel’s security on who happens to currently be in the Senate Majority Leader’s office versus the Oval Office at the moment. This is an ill wind blowing.

        Reply to Comment
        • Brian

          A few hours after writing the above , I read the following. So is James Baker an Obama Democrat? Hardly. But according to the hard right it’s all about eeeevil Obama:

          On Monday night, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker harshly criticizedNetanyahu at the J Street conference in Washington. Baker acknowledged his disappointment with “the lack of progress regarding a lasting peace,” saying that the chances for a two-state solution diminished since Netanyahu’s reelection last week. Baker further slammed Netanyahu’s “diplomatic missteps and political gamesmanship,” saying that the prime minister’s “actions have not matched his rhetoric,” according to Politico

          Reply to Comment
    2. Bruce Gould

      The mainstream press simply doesn’t cover some topics. For example, I have yet to see a simple description of the Likud charter in a mass circulation U.S. newspaper. Likewise, our press doesn’t report on the many statements by many Palestinian leaders that they are willing to live with Jews in their midst, they just don’t want to be colonized by them. “Method and Madness” by Norman Finkelstein is a good source on this – the book isn’t very polemical, it just has a lot of quotes whose sources can be verified.

      Reply to Comment
    3. I agree that J-Street has many problems. chief among them is top-down dictatorship of political opinions, such as demand for 2 states. surely it is up to the players to decide what the solution is, and J-street is not a player. Israel and PLO are players (PLO, sort of). USA or UNSC could be players if they wanted to barge in. Even EU. But so far they’ve held their hands off and Israel has preserved the status quo, its apartheid-style single-state.

      When I sound off on I/P I call for international action (ratchetted sanctions) to compel Israel to comply with international law, ignored all these years in favor of (call it as you see it) racism or a bargaining-chip theory of the settlements. compliance wout would be removal over a stated time period of a year or two of all settlers, the wall (demolition), and all settlement buildings (demolition); and lifting the siege on Gaza (one month).

      See: http://123pab.com/blog/2015/03/after-the-netanyahu-reelection-what-is-to-be-done.php

      Reply to Comment
    4. Richard Witty

      I like Eric Alterman’s description of liberals in the Nation, that liberals are pragmatists in contrast to ideologs on the right and on the far left (he didn’t say that explicitly).

      The 60’s are past. The genuine participation in it and the fashion of it.

      I saw the video of the plenary that Noam Sheizaf spoke at. I was basically disappointed in all of the presenters said to say.

      Liberal values, perspectives (in contrast to ideological), deserve praise and support. They are the antithesis of rallying, of demonstration, of political action. They are thinking, listening, speaking, emphasizing, persuading, which if a norm makes political action irrelevant.

      That is what we should encourage, not a search for which is the correct “religious” political truth. (That’s how the discussion of what is the best political approach appeared to me, including Noam’s.)

      Further, Zionism is a good (not something to be ashamed of). More than a haven, more than an assimilated America in the middle east with a potential Jewish minority. Self-governance is a good.

      Stav Staffer referred to taking back the meaning of Zionism from the revisionists. I agree entirely. We are a body, not only a credo (and certainly not the absence of a credo). We cannot stop being a “we”. But, what we can do is be a humane we, our effect on others resulting from plural first person also subject to moral review.

      Zionism is NOT racism. Tension is not evil. Breath is the result of tension for example. The tension of cells maintaining a balance between differing contending needs (oxygen and elimination of carbon wastes in the of cell respiration).

      National and universalistic, BOTH is liberal Zionism. Not deserving condemnation at all, anywhere.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Joel Cantor

      The J Street Liberals are essentially on the road of terminal assimilation. More than 50% intermarry and the rest mostly don’t marry anyone. These mixed marriages result with kids who themselves will marry out with 95% certainty.

      No, the Future of American Jewry is with the ultra-orthodox.

      Reply to Comment