Down these mean streets

"We – the State of Israel and the Jewish people – deserve better. There really is a movement out there that is trying to delegitimize the very existence of the State of Israel."

J street (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
J street (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
I CERTAINLY DON’T AGREE WITH everything that I heard and read at J Street’s second conference, held in Washington DC in late February. But contrary to J Street’s fervent detractors, I also certainly didn’t see or hear anything that would bring me to doubt the loyalty of the organization, or most of its members, to the State of Israel.
Since its inception almost three years ago, J Street has made more than its share of mistakes – strategic, tactical, and, perhaps most worryingly, ethical. J Street’s appeal to the US administration to avoid vetoing the UN resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity (even though such a veto would have been consistent with American’s long-standing opposition to settlements) was politically, morally, and strategically misguided and cost the organization the support of Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman. At times, J Street’s confusion over whether they are, or should be, primarily a congressional lobby or a grass-roots peace organization has caused them to alienate the centrist, pro-Israel members of Congress and the mainstream of American and Israeli Jewish community that they so desperately need.
At the conference, some of the analyses were simplistic or naïve, and ignored the economics that help to keep Israel’s foreign policy in place. While romanticizing and overstating the significance of the Sheikh Jarrah protests against the eviction of Palestinian residents of this East Jerusalem neighborhood by Jewish settlers, they paid scant attention to the increasing class and social consciousness in Israel. Some of the more vocal participants seemed annoyingly incapable of understanding the political dread that has held Israelis in its grip since the waves of terror during the intifada or why some Israelis are hesitant to blithely embrace the “Arab Spring” shaking the Mideast (even if they want to be hopeful). The conference was too aggressively secular, ignoring the religious community and the role that religion could play in solving the conflict.
Yet meeting with more than 2,000 Jews who were unapologetically and proudly convening in support of the State of Israel was energizing and challenging.
This was a crowd that is fundamentally committed to the existence of the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people.
Like a majority of Israelis, they are angry that the peace process is dead and they feel betrayed by the policies of the current Israeli government. They reject the claim, which too many Israelis accept as a given, that being pro-Palestinian is inconsistent with being pro-Israeli and they refuse to think in zerosum terms. And they are demanding that we, the Israelis, recognize the political price that they, as Jews living in the US, have paid for those policies. And yes, there was a session devoted to the Boycott-Divestment- Sanctions (BDS) movement, the newest sina qua non of disloyalty to the Jewish people. J Street has repeatedly and consistently rejected BDS as a strategy for advancing the peace process and the session was structured by the J Street organizers to convince the audience of the moral, political and practical folly of the movement.
But even this well-planned panel, based on the tried-and-true hypothesis that objectionable positions and misguided opinions won’t go away just because you ignore them, was enough to charge the batteries of the anti- J Street crowd – as if providing a podium is an endorsement of each and every position that any speaker on the podium makes. The anti-J Street crowd is at least as energized as the J Street crowd itself, bursting into overdrive with publications that purport to reveal J Street’s “real” or “unadorned” agenda and making sure to put J Street’s own description of its agenda – such as pro-Israel and propeace – in dismissive quotation marks.
J Street’s critics are, of course, fully entitled to their criticism. I share some of it. But it’s the tone of the critique that troubles me.
The commentary is so virulent and the criticism is so gleeful that I dare say it reveals more about the quality of debate in the American Jewish and Israeli communities and about the critics themselves than it does about J Street.
J Street is not the only organization under attack. A concerted effort is underway by those with a vested interest in the status quo to portray all dissent as treason and all difference of opinion as treachery. And anyone who disagrees is immediately labeled with that penultimate epitaph against which there is no defense: “self-hating Jew.” The selfappointed group of loyalty assessors not only contends that there is only one way to be pro- Israel – now they contend that there is only one way to even think about being pro-Israel.
They refuse to understand that for many, in the Diaspora and in Israel, supporting a twostate solution to the conflict and strengthening democracy, equality and tolerance in Israel is the height of pro-Israeliness. They demand sole control over definitions such as pro-Israel, Zionist, and pro-peace.
Such attempts at censorship within the community show a lack of confidence on the part of the critics – maybe because they know that much of the world, including much of the Jewish world, disagrees with them. Maybe it is that lack of confidence that explains the sense of glee at every mistake or misstep, real, imagined or fabricated, that J Street has, or has not, made.
The delight is almost palpable in their writings – as if J Street and like-minded organizations provide a vindication of the entrenched belief that the world is against us, that we can’t even count on our own, that there’s no point in even trying. And since that is so, with a gleeful sigh of relief, we can continue on our merry intransigent way, never stopping once to examine our assumptions or challenge our positions.
We – the State of Israel and the Jewish people – deserve better. There really is a movement out there that is trying to delegitimize the very existence of the State of Israel. We need to contend with our real enemies, rather than engage in our own delegitimization of every opinion or position that deviates from the Israeli government’s official position.