This is a guest post by Elyse D. Rabinowitz. Elyse lives in Minneapolis and volunteers and has worked professionally for Jewish and Zionist organizations.
The ongoing debate on the merit and intent of J Street can be heard from the bima to the blogosphere, sparking both civil discourse and divisive arguments.
It has become increasingly clear that this debate is about far more than an advocacy group staking out its policy on Israel, political territory and opinion making among American Jews. Routinely, J Street’s polarizing actions and reactions are on display; its warm welcome and shepherding of Justice Richard Goldstone to Capitol Hill, its rapid judgment and condemnation of Israel after the flotilla incident and its funding from George Soros – a man who is on record as ambivalent at best about the Jewish state.
While relevant to the broader debate, these controversial issues often overshadow a much-needed conversation about deeper, core questions:
- Is it appropriate for an American Jewish organization to lobby the U.S. Congress in opposition to policies of Israel’s democratically elected government? Can such an organization be pro-Israel?
- How is the leadership of an American Jewish organization in a better position to determine Israel’s security interests than the government of Israel?
- Is it morally defensible for an American Jew to judge what is in Israel’s interest while not living with daily risks and existential threats, while not sharing its citizens’ sacrifice of blood and treasure?
- What constitutes legitimate criticism of Israel, particularly given Israel is routinely singled out for condemnation?
Several months ago, after attending an event featuring J Street’s Director of Policy, I was invited to become involved in J Street by a local leader. My response was “No thanks, I’ll only join non-partisan organizations that support the government of the State of Israel.”
Why this line in the sand?
Surely, lobbying before the U.S. Congress is a legitimate exercise in democracy. However, J Street’s partisanship and lobbying of Israel’s Prime Minister via the U.S. Congress and White House is hardly benign. While J Street can – and does – claim that its positions are representative of an Israeli viewpoint, Israeli political leaders sharing J Street’s policies have largely failed to secure support from the Israeli electorate or even from their own parties. J Street’s promotion of Israelis to prompt American Jews to lobby the U.S. government, putting pressure on Israel to do things it has already rejected in an open political process, is a questionable tactic.
The boundary lines are also grounded in my identity as an American, a Jew and a Zionist.
As part of the Jewish People I’m endowed with Right of Return. It is both a miracle and blessing to be born in the first generation of Jews in history with this birthright. My generation is further blessed by being born in America and living in a Jewish Diaspora endowed with the greatest freedoms and success in history. But unless and until I exercise my Right of Return I do not have a vote in Israeli elections. Nor do I bear the risk or consequences of those who live with the very real day-to-day threat posed by hostile enemies on its borders. Finally, I am not in a position to make the ultimate sacrifice – my children do not serve in the IDF. This reality, and a healthy dose of respect for those who do, brings me to a fundamentally different conclusion from J Street.
I respect the Israeli government’s position on a two-state solution, which stands the best chance to emerge through negotiations when there is no longer violent rejection and diplomatic refusal to recognize a sovereign Jewish state in its historical homeland. I also share the concerns and dreams of Zionists who are pro-peace. However, repeated calls for Israel’s accommodation have been shown to fail, and will go on failing with ever mounting consequences for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
While Israel’s pursuit of peace is of utmost importance, there is a more pressing issue that American Jews can and must do something about– the obsessive Israel-hatred now coursing through so much of the Western world.
The international campaign to boycott, sanction and divest from Israel, the hostile campaign to suppress Jewish and Israeli academic freedom, the disruption of artistic and athletic performances and the nefarious campaign against Israel in sectors of the Presbyterian and Lutheran church, all characterize the movements aligned against Israel. This unprecedented campaign of demonization and de-legitimization against a democratic, liberal country – one that protects women’s rights and gay rights, includes gays in the military, protects freedom of speech, protects abortion rights, allows un-censored artistic expression, provides nationalized healthcare and ensures an independent judiciary – does not merely threaten the security and existence of Israel.
These efforts, and the failure to condemn them, undermine the civilized progressive values that define Western democracies.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently said before the Canadian Parliament:
When Israel, the only country in the world whose very existence is under attack, is consistently and conspicuously singled out for condemnation, I believe we are morally obligated to take a stand. At the United Nations or any other international forum, the easiest thing to do is simply to just get along and go along with this anti-Israeli rhetoric, to pretend it is just about being even-handed and to excuse oneself with the label of ‘honest broker.’ But as long as I am prime minister, Canada will take that stand, whatever the cost. Not just because it is the right thing to do but because history shows us, and the ideology of the anti-Israeli mob tells us all too well, that those who threaten the existence of the Jewish people are a threat to all of us.
It is unfortunate, in my view, that so many from J Street feel free to go their own way regarding matters pertaining to Israeli peace and security positions, displaying no faith in the democratic process of Israel, no hesitation about amplifying condemnation of Israel and no sense of reserve in telling Israelis what they should do. Alternatively, American Jews who are bi-partisan in their support of Israel and respect its duly elected government have been most careful to not undermine Israel’s pursuit of peace or jeopardize its security interests.
While Israel – and we – face a hostile, illiberal campaign of de-legitimization, it is a pivotal time to demonstrate moral clarity and be unequivocal and steadfast in our response.
(Photos: Takver, Hoyasmeg)
Thank you. Well said!
Bravo to Elyse Rabinowitz for exposing the hypocrisy of J Street’s criticism (or is it demonization?) of the defensive measures taken by Israel’s democratically-elected government to ensure the Jewish nation’s survival.
If Israel did not face annihilation by its enemies, perhaps J Street’s naivete and fantasies about the Arab nations singing “Kumbaya” with Israel (and J Street’s outright condemnation of Israel’s protective policies) would be less destructive. Comparing AIPAC and J Street’s attitudes about Israel provides a stark contrast — AIPAC has Israel’s back, while J Street promulgates a contradictory mix of mythology and wishful thinking which seems designed to undermine Israel’s ability to withstand the anti-Israel onslaught.
Thanks, Elyse, for your very eloquent and moving commentary about J Street. And mazel tov to TC Jewfolk, for having the courage to post these urgent insights about this confused and bewildered organization.
Elyse and Paul:
As a strong J Street supporter, and one who cares deeply about Israel, I could not disagree more. It is one thing to disagree with J Street, it is another to demonize it by questioning its motives and intent. We are 160,000+ supporters in the United States, over 600 Rabbis and countless dedicated members of the community. We sit on the boards of community organizations and synagogues. Our motives come from our love of Israel, just like yours. Paul, we are neither “confused” nor “bewildered” and we will not sit by while a small minority tries to demonize this sincere and committed organization. There are many false statements about J Street, and I will address them in a longer post. For decades, many in our community have been saying that there is more than one way to be a Zionist. Had you attended our October 20 event at Mt. Zion, you would have heard a veteran Israeli diplomat, who has dedicated her life to Israel, explain her support for J Street and her commitment to a two state solution with secure borders. I respect the right of anyone to disagree with J Street, AIPAC, or any other organization. But our community will not benefit by name calling and demonization. J Street’s motives and founding principles are clear: the organization is pro-Israel and believes that a two state solution (and active U.S. government involvement to achieve this solution) is critical to the survival of the democratic Jewish homeland. J Street’s strong support among former high ranking Israeli government and military officials should answer any questions about its “motives” or “intent.”
You point to “J Street’s strong support among former high ranking Israeli government and military officials” as proof of J Street’s good intentions.
Could these be the same Israelis that Ms. Rabinowitz refers to here? — “Israeli political leaders sharing J Street’s policies have largely failed to secure support from the Israeli electorate or even from their own parties.”
If so, then your views are not altogether inconsistent. These Israelis, certainly with very good intentions, having failed to convince Jews at home, are trying their arguments on Jews abroad. While I strongly agree with Ms. Rabinowitz overall, I don’t think that it’s illegitimate for these well-intentioned Israelis to do what they do here. I do think that — as Ms. Rabinowitz has so eloquently expressed — American Jewry, not sharing the fate and daily dangers of Israelis, has no moral authority to tell Israel what to do. And, yes, that goes for the United States as a whole (the _power_ to influence is not the same as a moral right).
That’s why good intentions are not enough. They say nothing about one’s moral authority to speak. And — more importantly –good intentions don’t guarantee good results. When the voice American Jewry is split (with some, like J Street, going out of their way to criticize Israel), that gives cover to people whose intentions are not good. Even to our enemies.
I think that might be what Mr. Maccabee means by “confused” — J Street starts out with good intentions, but ends up with results that are bad for Israel.
Pursuing peace and security is not likely to be left to the self-appointed few at J Street or their representatives from Israel, whose far left views have lost support of the Israeli electorate. But this has not stopped J Street from defining the terms of a deal for a sovereign country they claim to support. For an Israeli’s perspective and excellent explanation of J Street’s latest policy offering see http://weareforisrael.org:80/2010/11/30/borders-and-security-first/
I have suggested we need to re-examine the moral distinction and boundary between organizations that represent American Jews and that of Israelis, those of us on this side of the pond and those in Israel who vote, pay taxes, serve in IDF and live with the inherent risks and consequences of their decisions. I make the argument that many in J Street have lost sight of this. Rather than focusing on what American Jewish liberals can identify with about Israel — a progressive democratic society, economic success or defending the existential challenges to fellow Jews, J Street sends precisely the wrong message at the wrong time — a gathering place for liberals to voice their discomfort, to be more partisan and to support only one party because Israel is not everything they want it to be. Furthermore, J Street largely ignores and at times even undermines Israel’s ability to withstand its existential and security challenges. For example, J Street originally opposed Iran sanctions before flipping its position after overwhelming support by the White House and Congress, it exhibits muddled thinking on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions and it has embraced the author of the UN-generated Goldstone report, coming from the most vicious, systematically anti-Israel and anti-Semitic body on the planet (see unwatch.org for further documentation). J Street has the right to use the American political system as means to lobby and influence Israel — and I say as much. But one should question how J Street’s actions can be construed as pro-Israel and how the definitive path to peace can be so readily determined by those who sleep comfortably eight time zones away.
This is America and J Street has every right to organize itself and pursue its policies. J Street might not be my cup of tea, but I respect the right of J Street supporters to speak and advocate to promote their views. In addition, I think we should resist the temptation to label people as pro or anti Israel. Let their views be heard and people can decide for themselves.
That said, I think it’s important to state with great clarity that J Street isn’t the same as AIPAC. AIPAC’s mission is advancing the U.S.-Israel relationship and working with both governments and political/diplomatic/military to enhance the bilateral relationship. J Street is about advancing its views on how Israel should make peace.
It remains to be seen if J Street can mount a sustainable and effective advocacy operation. So far, other than attracting attention and (I think unnecessary and unwarranted) angst in the American Jewish community, an understandable tactic for a new, unproven organization, it’s hard to point to any influence whatsoever on the peace process, or American or Israeli behavior. And it’s that influence that will ultimately determine J Street’s staying power.
Peter… J Street is obviously entitled to express their opinion and they HAVE been heard. Ms Rabinowitz’ post is a RESPONSE to what they have said and she eloquently states the reasons why many of us have decided on our own (oh, if only I had a brain) that J Street is “anti-Israel”. If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck…. we’ll call it what it is (altho I think it was you Peter, not Ms Rabinowitz, who used the “anti-Israel” label, interjecting that into this dialogue?)
And we totally get the J Street is not AIPAC… it’s the antithesis of AIPAC and J Streeters have even joined the chorus of Israel’s enemies in heaping condemnations upon APIAC and Israel. Rather than finding ways to work in conjunction with pre-existing Jewish organizations for peace & a better Israel and improved relations between our nations, J Street, the new kid on the block has been behaving like a bull in a china shop…
When it’s really just another duck….Quack quack quack.
I feel like the argument of “160,000+ people, rabbis, etc” does not provide evidence to back you up. Simply by saying that sooooo many people agree with you, doesn’t make it true nor add credit to your argument.
Also, I find a lot of Jstreet’s responses to include “these important people agree with us!” Really? Because people in positions of power have never made poor decisions before. I think better arguments may include WHAT Jstreet disagrees with the Israeli government about, and why? If they provided valid answers that made sense, my liberal pro-Israel support might jump directly over to them. In the mean time though, I have no interest in a group that seems to have it’s head in the clouds about how the world, middle east, and politics actually work.
I have just read Elyse’s piece. I did want to mention that when Lee Rosenberg (President of AIPAC) was asked recently about the difference between AIPAC and J Street, he answered that the main purpose of AIPAC revolved around strengthening the CONNECTION between Israel and the US and NOT around advising Israel with regard to her policies. I thought that his statement was not only succinct and accurate, but very wise, as well. I must emphasize that ALL of us living outside of the State of Israel are necessarily somewhat ignorant by virtue of that very fact, and so what Elyse wrote in her piece (“Is it morally defensible for an American Jew to judge what is in Israel’s interest while not living with daily risks and existential threats, while not sharing its citizens’ sacrifice of blood and treasure?”) is critical.