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.