Counterpoint: J Street must not go in the wrong direction

A Zionist organization with a peace agenda would demonstrate unconditional support for Israel.

By DAVID FORMAN
May 7, 2009 12:29
Counterpoint: J Street must not go in the wrong direction

david forman 88. (photo credit: )

 
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In Washington DC, cross streets are ordered alphabetically, with the exception of "J" street. There is no J street. Yet this did not prevent a new Jewish organization that has heralded itself as a progressive voice representing the "true" opinions of the American Jewish community on matters related to Israel from cleverly calling itself J Street. I suspect the reason that this was done was to create something that does not exist within the American Jewish community: A serious Jewish organization that will break through the one-dimensional approach to Israel represented by the American Jewish establishment, like the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations or AIPAC. Israelis sitting around the table speak with one voice. It is the voice of everyone speaking at once. The diverse dialogue that takes place here is testimony to the vibrancy and strength of the country's democratic character. For example, the war in Gaza, while universally supported by Israelis, nevertheless unleashed a plethora of public criticism and condemnation, even from some soldiers who fought in it. However, among the American Jewish establishment, there is virtually unanimity of opinion that blunts any washing of Jewish dirty laundry in public. Even the indefensible is defended. This is quite ironic because the American Jewish community prides itself on being pluralistic. J Street hopes to alter this parochialism, fashioning an alternative voice that it feels speaks for the vast majority of American Jews whose opinions are in sharp variance with the Jewish elders who allegedly speak for them. J Street is also concerned about a potential clash between the US and Israel, and therefore strives to push a political agenda that would reconcile any differences that might arise - primarily by leaning on Israel to "get in line" with what it considers America's (and Israel's) strategic interests in the Middle East. The founding of J Street is a welcome development in the American Jewish world. In a very short time, it has built itself up as a force to be reckoned with. It has established two arms: 1) a PAC (political action committee that raises funds to support political leaders in the States); and 2) a public advocacy group. J Street defines itself as a Zionist organization with a peace agenda. The best way for it to prove that it is pro-Israel is to demonstrate unconditional support for the Jewish state, which does not mean uncritical support. This is an important distinction. If J Street cannot make this distinction, then it will find itself criticizing Israel in ways that put its Zionist credentials in doubt. THE CHALLENGE that J Street faces is the same that many Israeli human rights groups encounter; and that is not being labeled - unfairly - as an organization comprised of self-loathing Jews. For J Street, the situation is most vexing because it is a Diaspora creation whose supporters' everyday life is not on the chopping block, as it is for those of us in Israel who identify with the liberal community here. J Street has to walk a very delicate line, making certain that it is not perceived as being willing to sacrifice Israel's interests on the altar of America's interests. A case in point was its opposition to the war in Gaza. In an address that I attended, J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami said the war could have been avoided had Israel kept the border crossings open for humanitarian shipments to get through to Gaza. He also claimed that the war gained nothing strategically, and the public relations fallout has done great damage to the state. When asked to explain why the West Bank remained quiet during the war, and why there was no response by Hizbullah, his answer was that Hizbullah was trying to enter the political process in Lebanon and did not want to endanger that possibility. His categorical certainty was disturbing. One could argue that his reasoning defies all logic and contradicts his own thought-process. If, as he claims, the war in Gaza left Hamas in a stronger position than before, it would make perfect sense that a retaliatory assault on Hizbullah, had it fired rockets on the North, would have strengthened the fundamentalists. The war in Gaza served as a clear deterrent to Palestinians in the West Bank and to Hizbullah, both of whom fear a devastating response. Even if quiet is maintained on the borders only for the short term, Israelis can breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. More to the point, because the American Jewish community has taken such a beating over the war in Gaza - out of all proportion to far more dreadful events in other parts of the world - J Street should have taken into account these virtually anti-Semitic attacks on the Jewish state. It must avoid uncompromising ideological stances that could blur a broader picture. It cannot get so far ahead of those it purports to represent that it loses them along the way. In that same presentation, Ben-Ami asserted that Israel's policies were distancing American Jews not only from it, but from Jewish life. This is to say that J Street has set as one of its goals to save American Jewry because Israel is undermining it. To blame Israel for the lack of involvement of American Jews in Jewish life is the height of chutzpa. Israel has virtually nothing to do with the apathy of the American Jewish community. Assimilation, mixed and interfaith marriages, among other social phenomena, are the major contributors to the absence of Jewish identity among most American Jews. To make the disingenuous argument that Israel is responsible for the ills of American Jewish life contradicts J Street's stated aim that it has Israel's basic interests at heart. At its early stages of development, J Street has made two errors. Regarding Gaza, it misread both the American Jewish community and Israel's genuine security needs, and it sorely miscalculates Israel's influence on a much disenfranchised American Jewish community, which is primarily shaped by the sociological realities of being a minority. If J Street wants to play an influential role on the American Jewish scene, it must not embrace a knee-jerk liberal response just to carve out a different path from the American Jewish establishment; otherwise, J Street will find itself simply mimicking those American Jewish organizations it criticizes with its own singular and unbending worldview of what Israel should or should not do vis-a-vis American foreign policy and the Jewish world. Should this become the case, J Street will go the way of the DC cross street it was not named after.

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