Borderline Views: At the corner of J Street and the future

Progressive pro-Israel groups reflect a growing opinion among many Jewish communities, and especially among the younger generation.

On Tuesday, in a meeting room in the British House of Commons, a meeting will take place titled Making the Progressive Case for Israel. Organized jointly by the Labor Friends of Israel and an organization known as “Progress,” speakers will include Debbie Coulter, former deputy general secretary of the GMB, and Adam Ognall, the new chief executive of the New Israel Fund in the UK.
The meeting takes place against the powerful emergence of America’s J Street in recent years, and a similar coming together of progressive supporters of Israel in continental Europe. In a blurb leading up to the meeting, the organizers state: “We feel the time is right to remind ourselves that Israel was founded on social democratic values, and remains an example of a socially and economically progressive country in a region where progressive values are in short supply.”
Progress is no newcomer to the scene of political lobbying, it has been around since 1996, but today it will be taking a more active role in helping to promote a progressive lobby for Israel.
Unlike the US, the UK does not have a formal pro-Israel lobby. In America, AIPAC sees itself threatened by the emergence of J Street, which recently held a successful convention in Washington DC attended by members of Congress and even a few MKs (mostly from Kadima), even though it was boycotted by the Israeli embassy.
J Street will attract more big names to its meetings over time, as the American administration understands that it represents the opinions of growing numbers of American Jews no longer represented by the present government and its failed policies on both the peace and the foreign diplomacy fronts.
POLITICS AND lobbying is done differently in the UK. It is not as blatant or brash, and tends to operate behind the scenes rather than in media headlines. Each of the major political parties has a “Friends of Israel” lobby which produces position papers on the Middle East and which will occasionally host pro-Israel events at the party national conference, or an annual dinner for supporters where it will attempt to entice the party leader to deliver a speech supporting Israel’s democracy and its right to security.
In the past, the Labor Fiends of Israel was the largest of these lobbies, but this has been surpassed in recent years by the Conservative Friends of Israel, partly due to the declining number of Jewish MPs in the Labor Party, along with a growing criticism of Israel from the intellectual Left.
The Liberal-Democrat party, the present government coalition partner, has moved from a generally pro-Israel position to one which has become the most critical among the three major parties, and its Friends of Israel lobby has significantly declined.
But the country’s leaders, from Tony Blair to Gordon Brown to David Cameron, have remained steadfast in their support for Israel, even if they do not agree with the present government’s policies.
The progressive pro-Israel groups reflect a growing opinion among the local Jewish communities, and especially among the younger generation, without whom there will be no pro-Israel sentiment in 10 to 20 years.
This younger generation, Zionist to the core, and supportive of the State of Israel, believes that its future is best represented by an end to occupation, and by furthering the cause of democracy and equality.
Without such voices in the US, Europe and the UK, Israel would find it even more difficult to promote its cause, and we should be thankful that these new progressive voices are filling the void created by a lack of critical support for the country.
But for the new progressive lobbies to gain wider support within traditional pro-Israel constituencies, they also have to make it clear where they stand on issues such as delegitimization, BDS, and the condemnation of terrorism. There can be no blurring of lines between legitimate and constructive criticism by Israel’s friends, and its enemies’ desire to see it disappear.
For one, criticism of the occupation is usually out of a desire to ensure Israel’s long-term future as a democracy, while for the other the same criticism is but an excuse for the delegitimization of the state. As long as these lines remain blurred, it is all too easy for the traditional conservative supporters to exclude the new progressive groups as a means of ensuring their own continued domination of the pro-Israel tag.
Nowhere could this be clearer than in the UK, where Samuel Hayek, head of the Jewish National Fund and a close associate of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, recently withdrew his support from the Jewish Leadership Council on the grounds that its leaders had expressed criticism of Israel’s current policies. It remains to be seen whether the JLC will eventually co-opt leaders of the new pro-Israel lobby or whether it will exclude them on the grounds that they do not represent the best interests of the Jewish state. Progressive supporters of Israel are in ascendance throughout the world, and it is time for them to be included rather than excluded.
The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.