Monday, January 25, 2010

The Great Debate

I watched the first 10 minutes of this debate between Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz and J Street's Jeremy Ben Ami (moderated by Eliot Spitzer), but got bored relatively quickly. Why? Because, try as they might, they don't disagree about much. What disputes they have are nearly invariable about either focus or degree, rarely about substance. So both support two-states, both oppose the settlements, both support some division of Jerusalem.

In a sense, this is why I am very surprised by the amount of controversy J Street has managed to gin up. It's quite apparent here that Professor Dershowitz really wants to accentuate the differences between his positions and those of Mr. Ben Ami; it is equally clear that they really just aren't that far apart. The dissonance, I think, comes from popular misunderstandings both of J Street and the broader pro-Israel community: the former is often portrayed as much further to left than it is, the latter, much further to the right. And this debate helps illustrate just how facile those assumptions are. Professor Dershowitz is often used as a bogey-man for the broke-no-criticism-of-Israel wing, but as he notes he is a longstanding critic of several key Israeli policies (like the settlements). And if J Street can't be considered mainstream after essentially being in cheerful agreement with most of Alan Dershowitz's positions, what would establish it?

Ultimately, J Street isn't out of the mainstream of Jewish policy positions on Israel because there remains a relatively robust center-left consensus amongst American Jews regarding Israel, one that's been well represented amongst all the fixtures of American Israel-commentators. This debate simply dramatized the effect.


N. Friedman said...

The issue is not whether J Street is nominally pro-Israel. The issue is what J Street's function is.

George Soros was among J Street's backers. According to an article in Mother Jones: "MoveOn financier George Soros, an initial backer of the concept for the group, pulled out of it, Ben Ami explains, because he thought his presence might ultimately be unhelpful, given his reputation as a bankroller for liberal groups."

Soros, it is to be noted, thinks that undermining AIPAC is how best to serve Israel's interests. Yet, as Soros acknowledges, "I am not a Zionist." He has had no role, it should be noted, in Jewish causes over the years. Small surprise. See his article in The New York Review of Books.

He thinks that undermining AIPAC is a good thing. Yet, AIPAC also supports resolving the dispute and has not been uncritical of settlements.

The reason for a group like J Street is to undermine the existing lobbying group AIPAC.

One has to ask: how can there be any benefit - if the goal is to keep Israeli support from being undermined - to have two groups, with different approaches, clashing? It can't. J Street was, until it blew up in his face, used by Obama to claim Jewish support for his initial stupid approach to resolving the Arab Israeli dispute - the one which he now says was a mistake - and towards Iran, which is even stupider, since the Iranian now know full well that there is nothing to stand in their way of obtaining the bomb.

I have always supported liberal causes. J Street, in my mind, is not one of them. Its goal - the one its backers want - is to undermine support for Israel, supposedly in the name of supporting Israel. My bet is that there are business interests behind J Street who see supporting Arabs as more important than supporting Israel.

joe said...

N. Friedman,

One has to ask: how can there be any benefit - if the goal is to keep Israeli support from being undermined - to have two groups, with different approaches, clashing?

This begs the question that AIPAC's agenda is more productive. It may also be that potential support for Israel is not a monolith and some of that support is wasted if the issue is framed as a straight referendum on AIPAC's legislative scorecard.

As for Iran, give me a break, they were always going to go nuclear.

N. Friedman said...


Support for Israel in the US is very high - as in far more than 60% and as much, depending on the month of the year, as 70+% of Americans who support Israel. That would suggest that AIPAC has done very well. So, in what way is J Street helpful when help appears not to be necessary?

Your view is that J Street is actually pro-Israel. That is not my assumption. My assumption is that J Street is the plaything of groups and people who do not care one wit about Israel or that have so little understanding of how the world works that they are willing, in the name of peace, to associate with people who could care less about Israel.

If J Street were really pro-Israel, why would a group like AMIDEAST contribute to the J Street PAC? Do you think AMIDEAST is stupid? Why would Rebecca Abou-Chedid be a contributor? She is not pro-Israel. Not very long ago, she was the national political director at the Arab American Institute.

As for Iran, it was not and is not inevitable that Iran will go nuclear. It is, however, inevitable if the US stands by while it occurs. That is for sure. But that pressure could be exerted in a meaningful manner is still not out of the question - if the political will can be asserted. The alternative - the one that says let the inevitable happen - is to create a greater likelihood of a war that does not need to be and that will be very destructive.

David Schraub said...

Begging your pardon, but on what grounds, aside from her Arab name and affiliation with Arab groups, do you assert that Ms. Abou-Chedid is not "pro-Israel"?

There is no reason to suspect that J Street isn't exactly what it says it is: an advocacy group lobbying for a variety of policies related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, that it believes are in the ultimate interests of Israel, Palestine, and justice writ large. It draws support, by and large, from people who share its policy goals -- which includes some Arabs, which includes Ms. Abou-Chedid. There are people who disagree with its tactics, still others who disagree with its broader worldview. But there is no grounds to assert that it is behaving in bad faith, other than feverish paranoia unsupported by any evidence other than conspiratorial mutterings of unnamed "business interests" pulling the wool down (gosh, where have I heard rhetoric like that before?).

N. Friedman said...

I do not base my assertions on her name. I base my assumptions based on her affiliations. I was not aware that the Arab American Institute is pro-Israel. In fact, I believe it is not a pro-Israel group at all. Read my words ("Not very long ago, she was the national political director at the Arab American Institute") and please do not insinuate racism that is not there.

Note that like the good future lawyer you hope to be, you ignore the more important contributor: AMIDEAST. I repeat what I wrote before:

If J Street were really pro-Israel, why would a group like AMIDEAST contribute to the J Street PAC? Do you think AMIDEAST is stupid?

So, David, what is your answer to this group's support of J Street?

The rest of your comment is so naive that it defies imagination. The various Arab and Iranian groups which give support to J Street do so to advance the aims of their groups, which is not pro-Israel.

I shall quote from Professor Richard Landes' article. Here he is quoting Larry Ben-David:

What I find disturbing about J Street is the deception surrounding it. A donor will sign federal documents saying he is “not working” and living in Orlando when he’s actually Palestinian billionaire from the West Bank. You [i.e. Rebecca Abou-Chedid] are registered in the PAC as a “consultant” for USUS, not for the Arab American Institute. These disclosures have nothing to do with ethnic background. Why do Saudi employees and partners — WASPS, I presume — like lawyer Nancy Dutton and former CIA station chief Ray Close give to a “pro-Israel” organization? Why would life-long Arabist diplomats? Or activists in Muslim centers around the U.S., centers which identify with the Muslim Brotherhood? Or Genevieve Lynch, an officer in the Iranian-American lobby, give $10,000+ to J Street’s PAC?

David Schraub said...

I didn't say anything about Amideast because I had never heard of them. As for Ms. Abou-Cheddid (and let's be clear -- Mr. Ben-David, whom you approvingly quote, was quite clear that his suspicion of Ms. Abou-Cheddid stemmed specifically from her Arab background: "Why do so many Arabs contribute to an organization that purports to be 'pro-Israel?'"), I likewise don't know if the AAI is or is not pro-Israel, or more accurately, whether the positions it takes (or Amideast takes, for that matter) are consistent with J Street's conception of what it means to be pro-Israel. I do know from sources that I trust that Ms. Abou-Cheddid's views are quite consistent with J Street's publicly stated conception of pro-Israel. Hence, I have no problem with J Street being supported by people who agree with them.*

Now, if your problem was with J Street's official positions on face, than this wouldn't be an issue at all -- you'd just say "J Street supports policies X, Y, and Z, I think those are bad policies, hence, I oppose J Street." And it'd be irrelevant what their supporters thought -- you'd dislike them same as J Street for being XYZers.

But you're making a different argument: that J Street is something of a Trojan Horse whose public pronunciations that they support X, Y, and Z can't be trusted -- a mere mask for A, B, and C. And the reason we're given for skepticism is that they are supported by ... people who also publicly support X, Y, and Z ... but have Arab names and connections to Arab-American organizations. To which I say, first, that smacks of racist paranoia, and second, that if the goal is to have more Arab people (even those affiliated with *gasp* organizations!) support X, Y, and Z, that goal is going to prove rather elusive if anytime an Arab person affirms such support, our response isn't "hurray!" but "liar!"

* Even granting the most pessimistic version, which is that these people are all anti-Israel zealots, there's still another explanation for their behavior that doesn't impugn J Street's motives: they're looking to hijack it. Outside groups seeking to take control of relatively established, credible organizations in order to forward contrary agendas is a well-known practice. CORE is an example of a body affected by this, some argue that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty are others, the Sierra Club has also been affected by similar takeover attempts. See my post here.

N. Friedman said...


Well, if you investigate AMIDEAST you will find that it is not pro-Israel. It is not my habit to quote Wikipedia. However, this is not a contentious matter. AMIDEAST has its origins in the American Friends of the Middle East and, as Wikipedia notes, the "major role" of that group was "criticism of America's pro-Israel policy and defense of the Arab position."

Mr. Soros, who was among those originally behind J Street, wrote rather clearly what his aims are, aims that seem rather similar to those of J Street - to liberate American politics from the supposed control of AIPAC:

I believe that a much-needed self-examination of American policy in the Middle East has started in this country; but it can't make much headway as long as AIPAC retains powerful influence in both the Democratic and Republican parties. Some leaders of the Democratic Party have promised to bring about a change of direction but they cannot deliver on that promise until they are able to resist the dictates of AIPAC. Palestine is a place of critical importance where positive change is still possible. Iraq is largely beyond our control; but if we succeeded in settling the Palestinian problem we would be in a much better position to engage in negotiations with Iran and extricate ourselves from Iraq. The need for a peace settlement in Palestine is greater than ever. Both for the sake of Israel and the United States, it is highly desirable that the Saudi peace initiative should succeed; but AIPAC stands in the way. It continues to oppose dealing with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

Whether the Democratic Party can liberate itself from AIPAC's influence is highly doubtful. Any politician who dares to expose AIPAC's influence would incur its wrath; so very few can be expected to do so. It is up to the American Jewish community itself to rein in the organization that claims to represent it. But this is not possible without first disposing of the most insidious argument put forward by the defenders of the current policies: that the critics of Israel's policies of occupation, control, and repression on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem and Gaza engender anti-Semitism.

The opposite is the case. One of the myths propagated by the enemies of Israel is that there is an all-powerful Zionist conspiracy. That is a false accusation. Nevertheless, that AIPAC has been so successful in suppressing criticism has lent some credence to such false beliefs. Demolishing the wall of silence that has protected AIPAC would help lay them to rest. A debate within the Jewish community, instead of fomenting anti-Semitism, would only help diminish it.

More in a second post.

N. Friedman said...


I have trouble with insinuations - which have been quite a number on this website - that I am somehow racist. That appears to be what some here - perhaps you as well - insinuate with your comments. Is that what those of us on the left have been reduced to, name calling?

Had you been alive back in the 1960's, you would know what real racists are and what they say. You would not insinuate racism, most especially to undermine a perfectly reasonable point, namely, that J Street seems to attract a lot of people and groups which have no history of any remote sympathy for any Jewish causes and who have strong sympathies for causes antithetical to Jews.

Let us suppose that I had assumed, arguendo, based on Ms. Abou-Chedid's name - which I did not -, that she is pro-Arab and not pro-Israel. That, frankly, would not be racist of me. It would not even be an objectionable point. There is a difference between stereotyping and racism - an important one. All people stereotype. Why? Because it is necessary to the how the human mind works. And, it is a reasonable deduction to think that an Arab would be pro-Arab and not pro-Israeli. That comes from personal experience of knowing a lot of Arabs. It comes from reading the newspaper. It comes from reading public opinion polls over the years.

In any event, I noted that Ms. Abou-Chedid worked for the Arab American Institute, which is surely not a pro-Israel group. So, it is reasonable for any human to assume that a person who works for an advocacy group shares a part of, if not most of, the group's agenda. Again, that is stereotyping but, having lived a long time, it has the virtue of corresponding with reality more often than not.

I do make the argument that J Street is somewhat of a trojan horse. That is why George Soros moved to the background of that group, since he is clearly not a friend of Israel and he does have an obvious ulterior motive. "MoveOn financier George Soros, an initial backer of the concept for the group, pulled out of it, Ben Ami explains, because he thought his presence might ultimately be unhelpful, given his reputation as a bankroller for liberal groups."

I do not say that J Street is wholly hostile to Israel. What I claim is that it is a group which is being used to undermine American support for Israel. That is its function for many of its Arab and some of its other backers. That may not be Mr. Ben Ami's intention. His motive may be similar to the discredited portion of Israel's political spectrum, who have refused to accept the reality that the Arab Israeli dispute is not solely solvable by Israeli concessions.

David Schraub said...

The Amideast line from wikipedia is so vague as to defy any sort of analytical inquiry. It engages in "criticism of America's pro-Israel policy and defense of the Arab position." What does that even mean? I have no idea. Is it consistent with support for a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living together in peace? Who knows!

I'd appreciate a link to the Soros comment, so I can read it in its original form. But I fail to see what is so damning about it. J Street has never made any pretensions that it lacks differentiation from AIPAC -- a fact that implies it wants to do things it imagines AIPAC is blocking (or at least is uninterested in). I suspect there are some marginal positions between what Soros is talking about here and what J Street ended up supporting, but not large ones. And some positions are reflected in J Street which I've criticized (I don't think they take anti-Semitism seriously enough, and I've critiqued them for it).

But by and large, we have a situation where 90% of J Street's backers support 90% of J Street's public policy positions (which puts it in the same boat as any other large institution or organization). Which gets us back to where we are above -- people with scary names (Soros! Abou-Cheddid!) support J Street, because of overlapping publicly stated policy commitments. Which is supposed to make me think conspiracy. Or something.

David Schraub said...

I doubt many people would draw the fine line you do between racism and racial stereotyping (the particular form of the argument you're making is well-dispatched by Jody Armour).

But even if "stereotyping" on its own doesn't qualify, What I can say is unequivacably racist is holding onto the stereotype in the face of individualized counterevidence. Credible sources say that Ms. Abou-Cheddid is quite committed to peace and two-states. With that on one side of the ledger, and your "she's an Arab who associates with Arabs" on the other, yes, I say adopting your side is a racist position to take.

More fundamentally, you keep making arguments like so-and-so is "clearly not pro-Israel" without backing them up at all. To my lights, if someone demonstrates their support for two-states, living side-by-side with recognition, equality, and security -- that's pro-Israel. So people who sign onto that set of principles (by joining up with J Street) are, in doing so, identifying themselves as pro-Israel. Your version is incredibly conspiratorial: Someone like Ms. Abou-Cheddid has been lying to us for years when she made it seem like she support a two-state solution, and joining J Street is just the latest machination in her devious scheme (unless J Street is in on the trick -- with it's strings being pulled by the Zionist banker-- I mean Soros! [oops -- don't know how that slipped in]). One of these accounts is fevered paranoia.

Does the AAI take positions that are inconsistent with someone working their identifying as pro-Israel? I dunno. The American Task Force for Palestine has an even more "Arab name", but its positions are clearly pro-Israel in my book. The problem is that if you hold onto the stereotype so tightly that it isn't falsifiable (just evidence of an ever-deeper deception), then you're setting up agreement to fail, because guess what? Any peace agreement is going to involve agreement with Arabs; and that's going to be difficult to manage if "Arabs agree with it" is sufficient to discredit the agreement!

Rebecca said...

N. Friedman, you say that AIPAC "has not been uncritical of settlements." I want a Jewish organization that is unequivocally anti-settlements. AIPAC has also had the likes of John Hagee speak at their conventions - see this report on his appearance in 2007 ( J Street is not going to invite John Hagee to its conventions, and it's against the settlements, which I think are one of the big obstacles to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because as they increase in size they make it much harder to create a viable Palestinian state. And without a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, we will end up with the one-state solution, which I am also opposed to.

N. Friedman said...


Most Arab organization are not pro-Israel. Absent evidence that one is, the most likely probability is that such an organization is not pro-Israel. If that is racism, then, frankly, I plead guilty - joyfully and honorably.

In fact, though, racism is a really horrible thing, something to be fought - which I did in my youth and stand for to this day. That you cannot tell racism from noting the obvious, namely, that pro-Arab organizations are mostly pro-Arab, not pro-Israel, is beyond comment. It amounts to surrendering your intelligence.

Racism is a real thing. I have seen it close up. I worked, when I was your age, for a legal organization that helped blacks in housing. I marched in favor of civil rights. I went to rallies to hear Dr. King speak. That was my generation's cause. So, do not lecture me.

No. Racism is not anything you say it is. It is a real thing. And to suggest that it is likely that an Arab who works for a pro-Arab, no friend of Israel organization, is probably not a friend of Israel is not racism. And, to suggest that such is so is nuts.

Surely, an Arab can be pro-Israel. That is certainly the case. But, if you select from the world of people with Arab backgrounds a person who associates with pro-Arab causes, the probability of the person being pro-Israel are rather small. So, it is a reasonable guess.

Such a person might sincerely seek peace with Israel. I do not doubt that. Hussein Ibish has certainly come to that view from his earlier viewpoint. But, he is certainly not pro-Israel notwithstanding that he sees the two state solution as important.

I already gave you the source of the Soros quote. I even linked to it. Here it is again. By the way, Soros is certainly no friend of Israel but he is rather close with the President.

Interestingly, after Soros' noted article appeared, Obama distanced himself from Soros - while taking $60,000.000 from him. The key language in the Soros article, which explains Soros' real goal - why he wants to undermine groups like AIPACE (and the reasons are business reasons) is the following:

The current policy is not even questioned in the United States. While other problem areas of the Middle East are freely discussed, criticism of our policies toward Israel is very muted indeed. The debate in Israel about Israeli policy is much more open and vigorous than in the United States. This is all the more remarkable because Palestine is the issue that more than any other currently divides the United States from Europe. Some European governments, according to reports, would like to end the economic boycott of Hamas once a unity government is successfully established. But the US has said it would not. [Emphasis added].

This is the viewpoint - which is the dominant viewpoint in European politics - that sees satisfying Arab demands against Israel as a means of securing lucrative business deals in Arab lands and, on top of that, peace and quiet with Arab Muslims. I think that Soros is important to understanding certain of the forces that impacted on Obama - and led to his stupid demands on Israel that created the current impasse where Israelis and Palestinian Arab leaders will not talk - because Soros is the money behind and Obama's general viewpoint, until very recently, was relatively similar to that of

N. Friedman said...


You make cogent points with which I do not much disagree in principle. Where we stand apart is my view that there is, for the next generation or so, no remote chance of a real settlement to the dispute. I am fond of referencing Benny Morris's recent book, One State, Two States: Resolving the Israel/Palestine Conflict, which I think is likely his most brilliant book and which shows rather well why settlement is not really in the offing. In my mind, the chances of a resolution at this point are similar to the chances of being struck by lightning.

Were it the case that there were a real prospect of settlement, I would say that Israel ought not build other than in areas it cannot cede for security reasons. I do not see any such resolution happening. What I see happening is the likelihood that there will either be an all Arab state or a mostly Jewish state. And, that will occur whether there are or are not settlements.

So, given the circumstances I see, I do not think it much matters all that much what the Israelis do so far as settlements are concerned. What matters primarily, for Israel's survival, is maintaining its political relationships with the US and finding a way to expand the number of countries that support Israel.

Now, I do agree with you that Israel should not build on land it might be willing to cede for an end to the conflict. That, however, does not include those settlements necessary to the country's self-defense. Which is to say, I see nothing wrong with building in what was, pre-1967, called the Arab bulge. That, to me, is really different from building deep in the captured territories.

N. Friedman said...


While the Weekly Standard is not my cup of tea, it does have an interesting article about one J Street conference speaker, Helena Cobban. Read this article. Helena Cobban!!! The article also mentions Philip Weiss!!!, he of the Mondoweiss blog. These people give loons like John Hagee a good name.

Are these the type of people you want at a pro-Israel conference? Somehow, I doubt it.

N. Friedman said...


In fact, Cobban CNI/CNIF Executive Director. There is no way she could be mistaken for a person who could care less about Israel.