Friday, October 01, 2010

Shadowy Financiers, and, J Street as Israel

When the story first broke that J Street had, in fact, taken substantial amounts of money from George Soros (after previously heavily implying that they had no such funds), I left a comment over at the Z-Word that captured my views rather succinctly:
I have to say, there is something definitively creepy about how keen folks are to echo the “shadowy Jewish financier” trope when it comes to Mr. Soros. It is obviously disconcerting that J Street has not been entirely forthcoming about its relationship with Mr. Soros. But I remain deeply distressed at the all-too-common anti-Semitism that is directed at Mr. Soros for daring to be a Jew with money who backs causes. It’s very “J Street, backed by the Jewish money it didn’t tell you about ….”

One should not have to agree with Mr. Soros or J Street on everything -- indeed, on anything -- to find the position Mr. Soros has been cast into in our society to be profoundly disconcerting. I don't begrudge J Street's opponents for seizing on this misstep to try and score points against it. That's how politics works. But they do, I think, have an obligation not to contribute to what is by all lights classic anti-Semitic imagery of Mr. Soros' role in society. I find the "shadowy Jewish financier" narrative considerably more creepy than I do J Street's financial misstatements.

That being said, let's be clear: J Street misled us here, and that's a problem. And I'm not convinced that the statement Mr. Ben-Ami put out shows that he gets it. While purporting to "take responsibility" for misleading the public, Ben-Ami rapidly pivots to allege that the folks attacking J Street are "not good government watchdogs concerned about the state of non-profit financing in the United States," but simply opposing partisans seizing the opportunity for a some cheap points.

To which I say, so what? Yes, J Street has some powerful enemies, who will take non-existent crimes (much less real mistakes, as here) and blow them up into epic crimes against humanity. In this, J Street is reminiscent of another rather prominent Jewish institution that also complains, not without justification, of unfair treatment from the surrounding community. But guess what -- they knew they lived in that world, and I expected them to behave accordingly. You can either cry about the refs being biased, or you can raise your game. Just because the rules aren't fair doesn't give you an excuse to make it amateur hour. Obvious errors like this betray a fundamental lack of seriousness ill-befitting of the gravity of the problems J Street is trying to solve.

I still support J Street because I still think they fundamentally have the right idea for what will make Israel and Palestine safe and secure now and in the future. But today, they've embarrassed all of those -- myself included (and I don't have a problem associated with Mr. Soros) -- who stood up for them and have worked to make them a viable player in the American pro-Israel community.

The Forward's excellent editorial on the matter is also worth reading.

NOTE: Folks whose comments I've previously identified as choking off the oxygen of my comments section will refrain from posting in this thread.


Alyssa said...

Hello from Bangladesh, David. I'll try not to choke off too much of the oxygen in here.

I wholeheartedly agree with you that the "shadowy Jewish financier" trope is present and disturbing. While it's not the same case, it does remind me of the six degrees, terror-affiliation guilt game that opponents of the Manhattan mosque are fond of playing with its financial backers. While the noise is coming from different corners, there does seem to be a widespread case of anti-Semitism (in the broad literal sense) where wealthy Jews and Muslims backing causes are concerned.

Bruce said...

I support J Street too, but the J Street I support is the J Street reflected in the written policy statements on its website. I brought my two daughters, 23 and 24, to see Jeremy Ben-Ami and Jeffrey Goldberg together in Manhattan a couple of months ago, and I did so because I want them to hear divergent views about the I-P conflict.

But to say one supports J Street without more is ambiguous at best. J Street's problem is that in order to maintain the broad tent it believes it needs to counter the Israel right or wrong set, it has triangulated to the point where the "J Street" message is often garbled and mushy.

Ultimately, the important thing about the Soros flap is not about Soros himself and what he believes in. I look at the reason that J Street was less than candid about Soros' contributions to the organization, i.e it was afraid of how certain portions of its potential base would respond. What happened as a result is that J Street got too cute and they got caught and it looks awful and it has hurt the organization and possibly for the long haul.

The real issue is whether J Street can build a coalition that will include the Jeffrey Goldbergs of the world alongside the MJ Rosenbergs. I'm just not sure that dog hunts.

Anonymous said...

Hey let's ask Rick Sanchez what happens when you imply Jews have a lot of power in the media! Hey let's see how long it takes for this comment to be deleted! Three cheer for diversity and freedom of expression!

Anonymous said...

You know but seriously (because the people here are nothing if not serious right? Such moral creatures really), isn't wonderful the way Jews defended WASPs against the old trope that they had too much power in the US, even when though WASPs were a majority at that time. Gotta love that sense of fair play! Gee how long before this comment is deleted.

chingona said...

Last time I checked Rick Sanchez still has his show. And yeah, WASPs have such a long and tragic history of oppression and suffering.

Anyhoo, re: J Street and Soros ... This is a case of the cover-up being worse than the crime, but being transparent from the beginning probably would have meant foregoing the money because of the taint the Soros name carries in Zionist circles. Something that gets a little tricky is that there is a segment that is anti-Zionist on an abstract intellectual level but pro-two-state on a practical level. For the sake of argument, let's say Soros is in that camp and that's why he gave money to J Street. Nonetheless, there's a tendency to see these folks not as pragmatists but as some kind of fifth column.

That may be unfortunate (I certainly think it is), but that's the reality that J Street has to deal with, and like Bruce said, they haven't shown they can actually walk that line.

(Regardless, agree with the gist of the post - Soros as dog whistle is disturbing and J Street needs to realize this is not amateur hour, as every failure to do what they were trying to do makes it that much harder to try again.)

David Schraub said...

Actually, Rick Sanchez was just let go by CNN.

One thing I find particularly worrisome about the "Jews as hyperpowerful" trope (as helpfully demonstrated by our good friend anonymous -- despite her rather basic misunderstanding of what "freedom of expression" is) is that the very act of defending against it can be spun as a verification of it. If someone says something anti-Semitic in the form of a hyperpower obligation (the Jews control Washington!) and Jews successfully mobilize to have them punished (say, the person loses reelection), that person can simply point to it as proof of concept. And if Jews ignore it or fail in their countermobilization, well then, the Truth of the People cannot be suppressed by the Zionist interlopers!

I've never been quite sure how to counter that effect, and the impact of it -- basically, that Jews shouldn't be able to defend their interests qua Jews in the political arena (lest they act as some sort of illegitimate "lobby" or control) is extremely pernicious. And possibly deliberate -- a considerable amount of the anti-Zionist rage at the mere existence of the state of Israel seems to be outrage that Jews in a position where they clearly do control something, where they're not (properly) under the heel of someone else (as Professor Lesses put it: the "unholy glee in the thought that Jews will once again be a minority in Palestine, as if this is really the correct state of affairs").

Rebecca said...

David - thanks for the hat tip. What is Soros' position on Israel that would make J Street not want to associate with him publicly? (I haven't read anything specific about his views on I/P).

chingona said...

Well, my bad on that one. The Jews do control the media after all. ;)