J Street, Who Are You?

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)