Tuesday, October 27, 2009

J Street's Identity

At a J Street panel on "what does it mean to be pro-Israel", Matt Yglesias had a bit of a revelation:
I was debating with Jon Chait at a J Street panel this morning on the subject of “what does it mean to be pro-Israel?” As expected, we disagreed on a number of points, most of which I was right on and he was wrong on. But one thing he said in his opening remarks that I really disagreed with was that there was an ambiguity running through the J Street constituency as to whether the group was or should be pro-Israel at all.

That just struck me as kind of nuts. My J Street button said “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” It’s not a subtle aspect of the messaging. But when we moved to the Q&A time it became clear that a number of people in the audience really were quite uncomfortable self-defining as “pro-Israel” in any sense and that others are uncomfortable with the basic Zionist concept of a Jewish national state. I was, of course, aware that those views existed but it had seemed to me that it was clear that that wasn’t what J Street is there to advocate for. Apparently, though, it wasn’t clear to everyone.

Of course, this might mean I have to switch back on my Mondoweiss: saboteurs of or confused about J Street? debate (apparently, Phillip Weiss was at the quasi-official blogger panel). Max Blumenthal was there too, but while I think I read somewhere that he does not identify as a Zionist, I'm not positive about that.

I am 100% confident that the organizers of J Street are absolutely sincere in their self-identification of "pro-Israel, pro-peace". Its founder said as much in the Goldberg interview, explicitly triangulating against the anti-Israel far-left in positioning his organization. And I do, to some extent, understand why Matt, like Spencer Ackerman, was surprised to find out that not everybody at the J Street conference is on that train. But I do think they need to wake up to the realization that there is a left-ward pressure that is just as much "anti-Israel, anti-peace" as the right-wingers they're fighting against (hopefully, the realization they both had will be just the needed spark). And J Street will have to be pretty clear that they aren't a safe haven for that contingent.

I've had discussions with American peaceniks who have, to my mind, been extraordinarily cavalier with the prospects of Israel's security and future as a Jewish state. The reason is that they really take a baseline of American support for Israel as a given -- something that will never go away no matter what. So they can support any number of inflammatory actions towards Israel: protests, abusive rhetoric, mock war crime tribunals, even flirting with boycotts, because at the end of the day if things get too far out of hand the latent pro-Israel-ness of America will kick in and we'll rush to save the day. If that is your outlook, it is really surprising to find people who don't seem to adhere to that baseline -- whose objection really is to Israel, not to the lack of peace.

I, on the other hand, have been observing what's happening in Europe and South America and South Africa pretty keenly, and it kind of represents my nightmare scenario -- what happens when the popular baseline of support that lets us presume that anybody in a pro-peace room is also in some pro-Israel isn't present. And that gets us to a place where boycott proposals are a big issue, not marginal, and where anti-Semitism surges upwards alongside anti-Israel agitation, and where Jews really do face daily hatred and harassment if they don't publicly denounce Israel to the satisfaction of its most virulent critics. This isn't an impossible scenario for America, either, if we're not careful. The baseline isn't a given.

One major difference between J Street and what I take to be its ideological compatriots abroad, such as TULIP and Engage, is that the latter groups were defensive creations in response to the growing potency of the avowedly anti-Israel wing of the left. So they came into being with a keen awareness that they had to agitate against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment with equal vigor alongside their press for peace and two states. Nobody who is anti-two states will ever think Engage represents them.

J Street, by contrast, came into being in a political environment that does (for now, anyway) enjoy that baseline presumption of pro-Israel-ness. Unlike Engage or TULIP, it got off the starting line first -- it is well ahead of any significant political or social anti-Israel mobilization stateside.Yes, there are some fringe boycotters and PACBI enthusiasts and one-staters and anti-Zionists, but in America, they're pretty marginal. But the good guys are on the offensive -- we get to define the pro-peace position, and the extremists will have to dislodge a popular, well-established lobbying group that has the advantage of being right to their wrong.

J Street, in other words, exists in a climate that is far more hospitable to both Israel and peace, and far less so to the sort of anti-Israel, anti-peace (and often anti-Semitic) extremists one sees elsewhere. So one could be forgiven if one forgot, for a moment, of their existence as actual people, as opposed to threatening shadows in the fevered imagination of the Weekly Standard. Still, the fact remains that this sentiment is out there and has shown itself quite capable of hijacking the dominant liberal position with regards to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. And sometimes I think J Street and its supporters do overlook that, which is why one of my very rare criticisms of the entity came when I said I thought it was sometimes "mushy" on the topic of anti-Semitism.

Again, I don't think the folks most invested in J Street believe that. I think they are extremely genuine in their pro-Israel, pro-peace stance. But not everyone agrees, and some of the folks who disagree are a) also on the left and b) appear to consider J Street a viable political vessel. It is important to be vigilant against that, and demonstrate that if that's your position, J Street is not your ballgame.


N. Friedman said...

One very bad thing that J Street does is to label other pro-Israel groups as being right wing. Historically, AIPAC has not been right wing. Instead, it has supported whatever position is dominant in Israel or, at least what AIPAC'S leaders think to be the dominant position in Israel.

Further, in these times, division means less influence, which is a bad thing for a small country like Israel that depends, at least in part, on good relations with other countries.

Then, there is the fact - and it is a fact - about J Street's funding and origins. Soros is opposed to Israel and has written that view in the NY Review of Books. J Street has received donations from the Arab world including from those opposed to Israel's existence. Perhaps, these donors understand what their money is buying.

I agree with your point that the cancer that now plagues much of the world could spread here. However, that cancer has found its voice in opening up discussion about Israel. That is clearly the case in the UK, as anyone reading The Guardian since 2002 can attest.

Which is to say, J Street is not the right organization for these times. And, in any event, were one to spend a few minutes thinking about the currents running through the Arab regions just now, the chances of any settlement of the Arab Israeli dispute are between zero and none (See e.g., One State, Two States, by Benny Morris) if they ever really existed. So, while I support two states in theory - or any other moral solution that leaves Israel a Jewish nation -, I can't get excited about groups that imagine hope where sobriety finds none.

Ben Cohen said...

David - a thoughtful piece. If you'll allow me, I want to take you up on two points. One relates to something you said on my piece over at Harry's Place (http://www.hurryupharry.org/2009/10/27/j-street%e2%80%99s-parochialism/#comments - that thread has become a little busy, and I wanted to be sure you saw my response.) Two relates to a point you make here.

On one: you declared yourself "utterly baffled" by my criticism of J-Street for not discussing the wider aspects of the Middle East. Now I of course understand that they are lobbying on the Israeli-Palestinian issue: but you cannot educate people on that issue, and you certainly can't get them to credibly advocate on that issue, if you ignore the regional dimensions. From an analytical perspective, the issues I mentioned - like Arab regime authoritarianism, like the political consequences of petroleum dependency, like the use of the Palestinian issue to divert attention from home-grown problems like illiteracy, poverty and human rights abuse - cannot be divorced from the Israeli-Palestinian issue. To ignore them doesn't just demonstrate the parochial, intellectually lightweight character of J-Street that I wrote about; it also reinforces the perverse notion, beloved of the Philip Weisses and Max Blumenthals, that only the Palestinians are worth bothering about, that the only crimes in this world worthy of the name are those committed by Israel and its allies.

On two, I was intrigued by your comparison of J-Street with Engage and TULIP. Your remarks about the differing political contexts are well-taken. But I wonder: if J-Street was forging its identity in a much harsher environment, as in Europe, are you suggesting they
would be more suspect of some of the shady far-left characters they are clearly content to have hanging on their margins? In my view, the issue is not the comparatively benign environment in this country. It's that J-Street is politically confused, so much so that it cannot draw boundaries in terms of who to engage with (groups like ATFP, for instance) and who to cast out (advocates of the so-called "one state" solution, which I and others have long argued is a prescription for genocide.)

Thanks for reading, sorry for the lengthy free association!

David Schraub said...


Thanks for your reply. I read your protest of J Street as being an objection to them not having a position paper on Kurdistan, or a press release ready to go on the future of Iraq. I completely agree that knowledge regarding the regional dynamics of the middle east is very important to understanding the I/P conflict. But it is secondary -- "understanding" issues like Arab anti-Semitism or authoritarianism does not require direct advocacy about them, except as refracted through the lens of securing peace between Israel and Palestine. I don't think J Street disputes that intersectional focus is important and appropriate, but nor do I think that is in tension with their status as an institution which is primarily focused on abetting the peace process.

And this "parochial" focus is totally legitimate. I reject the idea that there is no qualitative distinction between having too many friends focused on helping you versus too many enemies focused on hating you (we can ask why so many people are obsessed with single-minded vilification of Israel, but it seems odd to say the least to wonder why a group of folks have sprung up to support Israel and insure its security and well being). It's a good thing for an organization to be out there whose primary focus is on ascertaining peace between Israel and Palestine. One thing that really annoys me about much of the left is how all of their campaigns have to include freeing Mumia and ending capitalism and workers rights in Tunisia and every other issue. Focus is a good thing. Focusing on helping Israel and Palestine is a particularly good thing.

On the second issue, I think that J Street is clearly influenced by a political environment -- quite different from Europe -- where the primary domestic opposition to a vibrant peace process and a two-state solution comes from the right rather than the left. Consequently, J Street is more structurally attuned to that as a "problem" than it is to left-wing anti-Semitism, which simply isn't as robust a political force as it is in Europe, and that means they aren't (at the outset, at least) going to be as worried about the threat to their agenda from the left. If that left-wing anti-peace contingent grows in influence, then presumably J Street will react against it (see Ben-Ami's interview with Goldberg).

Do I think they're too blase about the problem? Yes. But I'm not too worried about where there ultimate loyalties lie, or where they'll be if push comes to shove.

Rebecca said...

David, I basically agree with you on J-Street. Certainly their articulated positions are ones I wholeheartedly agree with.

I am disturbed, however, that they let Philip Weiss and Helen Cobban et al even have a "fringe" meeting at the J Street conference. I think this would have been a good opportunity for them to reject those people entirely and make it clear how J-Street is quite different from the anti-Zionist left. I am afraid that people like Weiss are starting to have more influence, despite their often rabid irrationality (did you catch when Weiss went on and on about how the NY Times didn't mention William Safire's Zionism in its obituary?). There are some very unsavory people on the anti-Zionist left, including those who still are willing to associate with such blatant anti-semites and Holocaust deniers as Daniel McGowan (of Deir Yassin Remembered). J Street needs to make sure that it will have nothing to do with such people.

I also found it disgusting that Eric Yoffie got booed at the conference by some people, and that some of the Jewschool folks thought this was just a scream. Can't people grow up and understand what coalition work is really about?