Critics have argued that AIPAC should speak as the sole American pro-Israel lobby in Washington, and that J Street, which offers a different perspective on what it means to be “pro-Israel,” leads to a dead end. I expect we can all agree that there is no ready-made unobstructed path to a safe, secure and democratic Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people, living in peace with its neighbors. But the contention that AIPAC’s road points the way, while J Street goes nowhere, bears further scrutiny.
AIPAC’s standard-bearers dismiss J Street as an alternative lobby promoted by Jews who can’t recognize success when they see it. Needless to say, this perspective depends on how one defines “success.”
For those of us who view success as I’ve described it above – as a safe, secure and democratic Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people, living in peace with its neighbors (which includes a viable Palestinian state as a homeland for its people) – we can’t say “yes to success” because, alas, success has hardly been achieved.
AIPAC, in its 60 years of existence, during which it’s advocated for countless US policies and positions on Israel, has not delivered success, as so defined. Can those of us deeply concerned about achievement of that objective – before “facts on the ground” render it impossible – be faulted for seeking a different way forward? AIPAC’s supporters also claim that its role is to promote the bilateral relationship regardless of the governments in office in the United States or Israel, and that in doing so it doesn’t endorse any specific policy, in contrast with J Street, whose reason for existing as an alternative to AIPAC, they claim, is to promote its articulated approach to resolving the conflict.
As to the first assertion, the observations of Haaretz journalist Chemi Shalev, having just returned from AIPAC’s conference last week, are instructive: “By Israeli standards, AIPAC is a right-wing organization, almost by definition. While its leadership has steadfastly tried to hang on to its bipartisan appeal in America, the core message of the group is one that corresponds completely to the worldview advanced by Israel’s Right.”
Shalev describes the Israeli Right as focused “exclusively on the sinister nature and designs of Israel’s rivals and enemies,” downplaying the consequences and often the very existence of the occupation; it is a faction “that portrays most criticism of Israel from the outside as tantamount to anti-Semitism and from the inside as a manifestation of self-hatred or worse.”
Noting the significant presence at the conference of groups like the resolutely pro-conservative and anti-Obama Christians United For Israel (CUFI), Shalev also observes that “despite its protestations that it follows the lead of whatever government is in power in Jerusalem, AIPAC has historically operated more comfortably with right-wing governments... to the point that in the ’80s and ’90s it was accused of promoting the Right’s agenda even when the leftist governments of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin were in power.”
Implicitly or explicitly, AIPAC has taken and does take policy positions, and so does J Street. In that regard, a Zogby poll from November 2012 is revealing: when American Jews think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 28 percent say they “support whatever policies are advocated by the Israeli government”; 42% say they “have their own views of what the Israeli government should do and support policies that agree with their own beliefs”; and 29% say they “do not believe my views should play a role.”
When asked to identify which organization they most support, 23% say the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); 33% identify with American Jewish groups that side with Israel’s peace camp; and 32% say that “this is not a matter of great concern to me.”
These results lead to the conclusion that substantially more American Jews support policies they believe in as contrasted with supporting, simply, policies advocated by the Israeli government. They also indicate that significantly more American Jews tend to support the J Street-type approach instead of the AIPAC approach.
J Street’s critics also accuse it of naive and simplistic thinking. But any fair reading of J Street’s positions, as posted on its website, shows them to be nuanced and measured – the products of careful strategic analysis focused on how the US can most effectively move forward in facilitating Israeli- Palestinian peace. No one harbors any illusions that it’s going to be a cakewalk.
This much we know: AIPAC’s approach has not delivered “success,” and success is needed urgently. American Jews can’t make the tough decisions for Israelis – or for Palestinians. They need to determine the path their governments will take. But as Americans and as Jews, we can, and should, play a part. That means working to influence our government to take the steps we believe are most likely to achieve two states and peace – for the benefit of the US as well as the Israelis and the Palestinians. J Street offers a path intended to help all parties seize that elusive prize. The way is strewn with roadblocks, and even landmines. They need to be removed, deftly. But the path is surely no more – and many of us believe, markedly less – a dead end than the one AIPAC is navigating.
The author is an attorney and is president of Boston Workmen’s Circle, a 110-year-old communal organization dedicated to Jewish education, culture and social justice.