In the Diaspora: Kishke check

What emotional trigger will lead liberal American Jews to support the new AIPAC alternative?

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit:)
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
Amid the list of supporters of J Street, among the novelists and rabbis and diplomats formally aligned with the nascent liberal alternative to AIPAC, there appears the most significant name of all. It belongs to a warrior, and I don't mean a dissident Israeli general. This combatant is Eli Pariser, the youthful founder of the American political organization MoveOn.org. I have no idea to what degree Pariser is involved in J Street, or whether his affiliation connotes anything deeper than symbolism and branding. But I would bet that MoveOn offers the model to which J Street aspires, a mixture of high technology and left-wing populism. Within the past two weeks, J Street has broken cover, endorsing seven candidates for Congress, including an Arab-American Republican from Louisiana, and taking out a full-page ad in The New York Times. "When Israel goes to war, supporters rally," its provocative headline announced. "When Israel negotiates, why the deafening silence?" But if J Street means to fill that vacuum with public support for the truce with Hamas and negotiations with Syria, then it is impossible to imagine it doing so by going mano a mano with AIPAC. The new lobby has an annual budget of $1.5 million to AIPAC's $60 million. It has a staff of four to AIPAC's 200. And to AIPAC's 100,000 members, J Street has, well, we don't really know. For all the whining and moaning in liberal circles that AIPAC doesn't represent the American Jewish consensus, that it skews markedly to the right, a venerable political axiom says that an organized minority defeats a disorganized majority every time. The peace camp within American Jewry, if it is indeed a majority, has been not only disorganized but latent, not only latent but silent. For supporters of AIPAC, especially those on the right, Israel advocacy is the animating passion of their lives, 24/7/365. The same could be said, for that matter, about the American Jews of the anti-Zionist left who populate groups like Jews Against the Occupation and Jewish Voice for Peace. It is the American Jews in-between - those deeply ill-at-ease with the settlement enterprise, fearful of an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran, eager for an American withdrawal from Iraq, yet supportive of a Jewish state - who are J Street's passive, though potential, demographic. WHICH IS where the MoveOn.org model looks intriguing. Starting as the channel for revulsion at the Republican attempt to impeach Bill Clinton, MoveOn.org grew into a general-purpose lobby for the Democratic Party's left wing. (Interestingly, that faction of the party most abhors the centrist policies of Bill and now Hillary Clinton.) In place of the door-knocking, phone banks and precinct captains that traditionally mobilized voters, MoveOn.org used the Internet. Within just a few years, it became a force any Democratic candidate had to either win, placate or calculate a way to do without. Barack Obama's unexpected success at raising money online would have been unimaginable without MoveOn.org's example, or Howard Dean's derivative version of it during the 2004 Democratic primaries. Notwithstanding its gigantic misstep - a prominent ad labeling David Petraeus, the leading American commander in Iraq, as "General Betray Us" - MoveOn.org's blood-sport approach to electoral politics has proven a necessary counterweight to the Republican right's dominance on talk radio and in the Murdoch media empire. If J Street is going to be anything more than noble intentions and idealistic rhetoric, then it will have to follow MoveOn.org's approach of circumventing the traditional type of political machine rather than trying to frontally compete against it and inevitably failing in the process. The groups from which J Street draws some of its prominent backers - the New Israel Fund, Americans for Peace Now - never came close to matching the organized money and organized people of nonprofits with a pro-settlement, no-compromise agenda. The gigantic unknown for J Street is just how much this amorphous, muddled middle of American Jewry cares. A very wise political consultant of my acquaintance says that for any candidate to turn out the vote, he or she has to find the "emotional trigger" for the electorate. The Clinton impeachment and the Iraq invasion were such triggers for MoveOn.org. In the aftermath of the second intifada and the rocket attacks by Hizbullah and Hamas, is a negotiated two-state solution along the geographical lines proposed by President Clinton in 2000 going to be that emotional trigger for J Street? Or is the interior life of the typical American Jewish liberal more like a fatalistic mixture of yearning for peace, believing it will never come, and wishing the whole mess would go away? There are plenty of good reasons for an alternative to AIPAC. American Jewish opinion is indeed too variegated to be represented by one and only one voice on Israel issues. A lobby that gave its podium to the bigoted pastor John Hagee and has had several of its officials implicated in an espionage scandal needs a competitor to help keep it honest. J Street proclaims that it offers a "new address," and that address is more an URL than a building. The question is who is going to click. Criticizing AIPAC is easy; it demands nothing. Saying you feel unrepresented by the Israel lobby is easy; it requires only breath. Now we will all find out if there's more than talk. Call it the kishke check. www.samuelfreedman.com