November 04, 2009

Report on the J-Street conference

Max Ajl, The Electronic Intifada, 4 November 2009

Was the recently held J Street conference the herald of an incipient peace treaty in Israel-Palestine? The supporters of the new lobby group hope so.

For decades, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has had a cloaked but powerful grip on American discussion of Israel. If politicians were to criticize its policies, or to discuss trimming aid or re-evaluating American support for Israel, they would likely incur a cost that few were willing to pay: the use of AIPAC's influence to destroy any hope for re-election.

AIPAC was recently shoved unceremoniously out of the closet by scholars Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, with their broadside against the role of the "Israel Lobby" in distorting the functioning of US foreign policy.

Enter J Street, its name is a riff on K Street, the real Washington, DC address of many powerful lobbying firms. With a staff of 30 and a budget of millions, it has set itself up as the liberal alternative to AIPAC.

Last month, J Street held its inaugural conference in Washington, attracting more than 1,500 individuals who gathered to listen to such liberal Zionist luminaries as Katrina vanden Heuvel, Bernard Avishai, J.J. Goldberg and Akiva Eldar, and a keynote address by Obama Administration National Security Advisor General James Jones. Several members of Congress attended and spoke, and more than 100 were listed as honorary hosts.

The attendees were an eclectic bunch -- Brit Tzedek-ers, college students, aging hippies, rabbis, ambivalent Zionists, human rights activists, organizers -- among them many supporters of Judge Richard Goldstone's landmark fact-finding report on war crimes in Gaza.

Any organization to the left of AIPAC that could in turn marginalize the latter is a good thing and a good start. Bravo. But being merely more progressive than AIPAC is not enough, because to be more progressive than AIPAC is to be drier than the sea.

Looking more closely at the nature of J Street on its own terms, in its own words, reveals many problems. According to its mission statement, the organization is a group for people "who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own." It supports sanctions on Iran, although it prefers a diplomatic process, and it supports the maintenance of Israeli settlements in the West Bank in the context of mutual land-swaps. On aid, J Street claims that "American assistance to Israel, including maintaining Israel's qualitative military edge," will be maintained.

J Street's executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, in a widely-circulated interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, argued against using the threat of reducing US military aid as a means to pressure Israel.

J Street's view of Israel, at its core, is fundamentally sympathetic. It is a "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby, not a "pro-peace, pro-justice" lobby. It is, then, not at all shocking that J Street supported a modified version of House Resolution 867, which condemns the Goldstone report, referring to it as a "one-sided and biased action in the United Nations when it comes to Israel." From J Street's perspective Israel's attack on Gaza last winter was understandable, even "justified," as Ben-Ami put it.

At the conference, J Street's general tenor was for critical support for Israel, with minor harmonics here and there -- for example, serious and frequently-voiced concerns that soon, a two-state solution would be no longer viable because of Israeli settlement policy. In turn, there was much introspection about Israel's future as a democracy if it continued ruling over Palestinians. At the outer limits, journalist Michelle Goldberg observed that it is currently possible to be a liberal Zionist. From this perspective, Israel has not yet crossed the threshold that would make that position problematic, if not untenable, but it's close. Many statements were prefaced by pronouncements of the speakers' "great love" for Israel, "support for Israel" and the need for a "strong Israel," all purportedly compatible with the desire for a safe and secure Palestine.

Israeli irredentism and the nature of Israeli society were taboo topics amongst the vast majority of the officially-sanctioned panelists and speakers. The overwhelming support for the Gaza attacks amongst the Israeli populace, even among doves like David Grossman, went unmentioned. It is not for nothing that Israeli dissident Michel Warchawski refers to Israeli society as heading towards an "open tomb," or that sniper units wore t-shirts depicting two-for-the-price-of-one -- a pregnant Palestinian woman and her unborn baby for one bullet. Israel may have many of the formal procedural mechanisms that connote "democracy," but it has an array of mechanisms that prevent it from being a democracy for those who aren't Jewish. This, too, went unmentioned, but is at the core of what makes Israel a Jewish state, and an ethnically stratified democracy.

This brings us to the crux of the issue. J Street's policy positions reflect the assumption that the correct amount of strategically-targeted pressure, consisting of the right mix of harsh words and blandishments, can compel Israel to change its policies. The trump card of aid-cessation has been ruled out. American diplomats and statesmen are fond of the language of carrots and sticks, but there is to be no carrot for Israel and no stick, just the vague threat of the inevitable end of the two-state solution if a negotiated settlement is not arrived at by the end of Obama's term in office, and the accompanying end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

This vision is based upon a fantastical vision of Israel: a flawed democracy, not a scarily aggressive state harboring dangerously genocidal sentiments, with a messianic military believing in its divine right to sovereignty over another people's land. J Street does not recognize these facts. It's attempting to walk a path that's unwalkable, and when one wishes to trod a path that can't be trod upon, it helps to be able to dream. The dream is that Israel is a beleaguered democracy, struggling to defend itself. Emphasis on defense: the Zionist warrior ethos, manifested as security through the gun, may be somewhat beguiling to segments of an American Jewish population swearing that we never again will be helplessly slaughtered. There's no doubt about that.

But another segment of American Jewry was at that conference, too. Maybe we were a large plurality of the attendees, perhaps not -- certainly the participants at the conference were far to the left of the speakers. That segment knows far too much to any more countenance Israeli policy, and increasingly sees little reason to call itself "pro-Israel," when Israel has become a stand-in for unspeakable crimes. Perhaps most importantly, that segment trends young. The J Street University Student Board has stated "To us being pro-Israel is intertwined with being pro-Palestine," and is letting individual university chapters decide whether or not to include the "pro-Israel" slogan on its individual messaging. Otherwise, they worry, no one would join.

Whether that segment can exercise discernible influence on J Street in the next six months or one or two years, enough to make the lobby something better than it is now, enough to change its unacceptable policy positions, is not clear, and I'm betting against it. But it's possible. Furthermore, that segment will not be shushed by accusations of anti-Semitism, not anymore, never again. That segment may not be able to save Israel as a Jewish democratic state, and for many, that's fine too, and makes it that much easier to unite with other dissident sectors that don't see Israel as a Jewish issue but the conflict as a human issue, and see a Jewish democratic state not as a dream, but as an impossibility, the product of feverish fantasy.

Modern Zionism is an addiction for American Jewry, and withdrawal goes in stages. J Street was step one. Let's take it for what it is, and keep working.

Max Ajl blogs on Israel-Palestine at, and is an organizer with the Gaza Freedom March.

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