Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Road Not Taken: J Street and the Brandi Maxxxx Strategy

As you may know, my strategic advice for J Street and like orgs over the past couple years has been to seize the center. Stress that the emphatically pro two-state, pro-Israel, pro-peace solution bears far more in common with what the more established center groups like AIPAC and the AJC do than the unrelenting Greater Israelism of their right-wing counterparts at ZOA or the ECI. You might also know that they are not taking my advice, instead "defining itself as an outright opponent of the Jewish establishment rather than as its dissenting adjunct."

This Bloomberg article, detailing efforts by AIPAC to forestall putatively "pro-Israel" amendments to the Iran bill by Seante Republicans, struck me as a perfect opportunity to exploit this strategy -- except, of course, my advice is moot. Even still, I thought I'd at least roll through the path not taken. I call it "The Brandi Maxxxx Strategy."

For those of you who don't know, Brandi Maxxxx is a bit character in the TV show Parks and Recreation where she is Pawnee's local porn star. It is either a great compliment or great insult to Mara Marini, who plays Brandi, that on first view I genuinely was unsure if they got a regular actress to play the role or if they brought in a real porn star to do some cameos (as best I can tell, Marini has done no porn). In any event, one of the running jokes of the series is that Brandi not only looks a lot like Leslie Knope (even portraying her in a video), but is always declaring just how similar they are. "And just like Leslie, I know what it’s like to be the only woman in a room full of men." "What Leslie and I do is obviously art."

This, of course, drives Leslie bonkers. But the reason it does so is simple -- she's not wrong. Leslie really does believe that we shouldn't censor expression simply because some deem it obscene. Leslie really does value strong women in workplaces dominated by men. Leslie's feminist credentials are such that she'd never slut-shame Brandi for her choice of profession. Basically, while she doesn't like the tone or the emphasis, Leslie can't actually disagree with the content of what Brandi's saying. And so it is that the understanding of Brandi as being "just like Leslie" is cemented in the public mind.

J Street could do the same thing. "Like AIPAC, we are appalled that extreme conservatives would try to sink the Iran bill in defiance of Israel's best interest." "J Street and the AJC are in agreement that groups which promote a one-state solution can in no way shape or form declare themselves to be pro-Israel." These statements are entirely accurate, which would make it quite difficult for the mainline groups to disavow them (if they did, it would give J Street a far cleaner shot at claiming the mantle of the only pro-two states group on the political map). And suddenly, our understanding of the "pro-Israel" community isn't "AIPAC", it's "AIPAC + J Street."

Why should we care about perceptions? Well, perception has a funny way of calcifying into reality. Imagine a straight-down the center Jewish Israel supporter -- the most mainstream of mainstream. He's probably an AIPAC guy, but he's willing to work with other groups. If the media drum is that AIPAC is always fighting with J Street but is basically aligned with ZOA, he'll be inclined to feel friendly towards them and their positions. But if the media narrative is reversed, his perspective will reverse as well. Everything we know about group identification suggests that who we perceive as ideological compatriots does far more to channel our ultimate policy positions than the reverse. Someone who perceives J Street as basically aligned with the pro-Israel movement will also look more favorably on J Street's policy objectives.

Indeed, talking in this way is probably the best thing J Street could do to break the media narrative of the group as functionally an opponent of Israel in the United States. If there is one thing I've learned from observing politics and political coverage, it's that the media can only for so long resist a narrative presented as fait accompli before reporting it straight. This is true for claims far more outlandish than "J Street holds mainstream pro-Israel positions." If Paul Ryan keeps on saying -- as if it was the most natural thing in the world -- that he's devoted to the needs of the poor, the media will start reporting that as at least a rebuttable presumption that others must argue against. The trick is that the presentation can't take the form of an argument or apology -- it has to be cast as the obvious way things are. It's not "actually, J Street and AIPAC are aligned on this issue." It's "as usual, J Street and AIPAC are aligned on this issue."

Of course, it is fair to argue that at some point a group is so obviously distant from one's own priors that it does no good to try and "seize" it. If AIPAC genuinely wasn't interesting in peace in the middle east or the perpetuation of Israel as a Jewish democratic state, then tying J Street to them would do more to cripple the latter than to enhance its credibility. But I don't think that objection holds here. It strikes me as wrong to say that AIPAC is in fact so distant -- as evidenced by the fact that they keep on saying and doing things that J Street could quite honestly note makes them "just like J Street." One can doubt their sincerity, but I've found that the best response to that possibility isn't to call them liars but to simply treat them as if they were sincere. A debate on honesty nearly always dissolves into an irresolvable mush. But if AIPAC is forced to disavow, over and over, statements that simply assert that "it favors a two-state solution", that would be better proof of their insincerity than any raw allegation could be.

I worry that J Street is being infected by the lone wolf fetish one sees so often on the left, wherein one is so committed to viewing oneself as a solo Jeremiah standing up to the powers that be that one affirmatively resists taking steps to actually win the political game. Trying to win risks losing, whereas if one never makes the effort there's no real loss, only the comforting warmth of "I told you so." I have long worried that J Street is more committed to its self-image as the bold truthsayers in an otherwise blind pro-Israel community than it is to actually getting effective policy work done. It's a weakness activists can't afford to have.

And that brings me back to the Bloomberg article, and the missed opportunity it evinces. If you're worried about Jewish pro-Israel support bleeding from the Democratic Party, you couldn't ask for a better frame than "J Street and AIPAC versus the Senate GOP." That's like an early Chanukkah present. But seizing that opportunity to isolate the putatively pro-Israel far-right requires presenting the center and left as a united front. By instead separating itself out from the middle of the community, it is losing a valuable opportunity to reclaim the norm of what it means to be pro-Israel.

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