J Street Conference
Natasha Mozgovaya, J Street kicks off annual conference amid UN settlement resolution controversy, 27 February 2011
Richard Silverstein, Street and the Death of Liberal Zionism, 27 February 2011
Dan Fleshler, Why the Jewish Right Is Terrified by J Street’s Conference, 25 February 2011
J Street’s Conference is now concluded – links to videos of the event
Rachel Gai, Talking about BDS at J Street, 4 March 2011
Two highly critical evaluations:
Zoe Zenowich and Alex Kane, J Street Sticks to the Script at its Annual Conference, Despite Coming to a Two-State Dead-End, 4 March 2011
Chase Madar, J Street and the Middle East, 2nd March 2011
Speaking at Washington conference, left-wing lobby leader Jeremy Ben-Ami says that the time has come for Israel to choose: to remain Jewish, to be democratic, or to keep hold on settlements.
The leftist pro-Israeli lobby J Street kicked off its second annual conference in the Washington Convention Center on Saturday night, with over 2,000 participants in attendance, including about 500 students.
The event was preceded by controversy following J Street’s call to the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama not to veto the UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements construction.
|The audience at a J Street conference in Washington in 2009.|
|Photo by: Oren Shomron|
However, Washington did veto the resolution, while issuing strong rebuke of Israel’s settlement policy, making clear the decision was made out of conviction that the resolution would only harm the peace process by leading each side to fortify their positions.
Dennis Ross, the U.S. president’s special aide, is scheduled to address the conference on Monday.
Ahead of the conference, Noah Pollak, Executive Director of the Emergency Committee for Israel, wrote a letter addressed to Ross, saying that he was surprised that the presidential aide agreed to appear at the event.
“Speaking before a group that has worked diligently over the past three years to become a voice for weakening the U.S.-Israel alliance, for pressuring Israel to accept policies that Israeli voters have rejected as dangerous, and perhaps most important, for giving Jewish support to a global campaign of delegitimization directed against Israel and Zionism,” he wrote.
Pollak went on to ask Ross: “Will you challenge those who seek to brand nearly every Israeli security measure a war crime? Will you take on the inventors and proponents of so many false claims about Israel? Will you repudiate the Goldstone Report?”
The Israeli Embassy in Washington will not be sending neither speaker nor representative to this year’s conference, stressing to Haaretz, however, that the dialogue will continue despite the differences between J Street positions and the Israeli government positions.
Several Knesset members from both the Kadima and Labor parties attended the conference.
Rabbi David Saperstein from the Reform movement in his opening remarks stressed that a two state solution was the only solution for Mideast peace, adding that “there is so much J Street stands for.”
“You matter politically,” he said to the applause of the participants. He criticized the settlements and said that “anti deligitimization [of Israel] campaign can succeed only if we have wall to wall support.”
J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami said: “We reaffirm our commitment to the people and state of Israel. We believe that the Jewish people have the right to a state of their own.” “We value and share democratic values on which the country was founded.”
“We realize that Israel has real enemies. We are profoundly and unapologetically pro-Israeli,” Ben-Ami said, adding that his group believes “that the future of the state of Israel depends on the two-state solution. The time has come for Israel to choose: to remain Jewish, to be democratic, or to maintain all the land between Mediterranean and the Jordan. You can have only two.”
“Israeli supporters have the right and obligation to speak out,” he added.
“We believe that debate on Israel is good for the Jewish community. It stirs strong emotions, but it’s not something we can’t handle. Not only the status quo in the Arab world has changed – but the status quo between Israel and the Palestinians has to change,” Ben-Ami said.
Moriel Rothman, J Street U board President, said: “I love Israel but I do not love the war in Gaza. I love Israel, but I do not love its treatment of minorities. I love Israel, but I do not love the occupation of the Palestinian land.”
Three guests were honored at the opening plenary session: the author Peter Beinart, who caused a vigorous debate last year with his article about the relationship between Israel and the young U.S. Jews; Sara Benninga, an Israeli activist from the Sheikh Jarrah solidarity movement; and the Palestinian physician Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost his three daughters in January 2009, and established “Daughters for Life” foundation.
In his speech, Peter Beinart said that “Israel cannot be holy in the time of Bibi, Lieberman and Ovadia Yosef.”
Sara Benninga said in her speech: “Our critics portray us as enemies of the Jewish State. But it is ironic that a country claiming to be the victim of a campaign of delegitimization, shamelessly delegitimizes sections of its own citizenry. We reject the false dichotomy between security and democracy.”
“We refuse to settle for anything less than a true end of occupation that is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for realizing our goal of substantive equality and genuine democracy in Israel. We know that true friends do not reinforce your weaknesses, but bring out the best in you,” she said.
“We see the same story unfolding here in the United States, where an outdated Jewish Establishment vilifies those in the Jewish community who dare to criticize Israel’s policies. This is why J Street is such a ground breaking organization, and why I am so proud to receive this honor tonight,” Benninga added.
Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who lost his three daughters in January 2009, and established “Daughters for life” foundation said, “I am moved and proud to be with you at this hopeful event. If only my daughters could come out of their grave and see that their blood wasn’t in vain.”
“We need to live the human values. As a Muslim I swore to God and to my daughters not to rest, because I will meet them one day, and I want to bring them the gift – to bring justice. To solve our problems peacefully we have to change our course.” Abuelaish said.
“Our enemies are greed, ignorance and that we don’t know each other. I truly believe that political solution of the conflicts is based on mutual recognition and two states for the two peoples.” She said that one cannot be pro-Israeli without being pro-Palestinian.
After the frustrations of Oslo it is tempting to give up, said Abuelaish. “But giving up peace is not the answer. I believe in you. Have hope, have faith, but take action.”
Richard Silverstein, 27 February 2011
The second time around they’ve embraced some of the previously excluded in ways tentative or hearty depending on how closely they embody the liberal Zionist ethic the group represents. New Israel Fund, Peace Now and Tikkun Magazine have each received their own panels to showcase their work. Jewish Voice for Peace, however, hasn’t quite come in from the cold. Its director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, will participate in a BDS panel with three opponents of the concept. Jeremy Ben-Ami made some typically condescending comments to Washington Jewish Week in which he reassured mainstream Jews not to worry about Vilkomerson’s views infecting the J Street body politic because merely hearing them at the conference would prove to listeners the error of JVP’s ways:
Ben-Ami…said he is not concerned that the appearance of Vilkomerson might legitimize BDS. Rather, she was invited to air her views, he explained, so that conference attendees who might be “tempted” to embrace BDS will think otherwise after they see its moral and tactical failings exposed in debate.
This is the condescending, dismissive, litmus-test-driven J Street which drives me up a wall. The Israeli-Arab conflict should be beyond ideology. It should be beyond deciding for the parties how many states there should be.
I’ve reviewed the speakers and generally (with a few exceptions) I find the American speakers are standard issue liberal Zionist fare including figures like Dennis Ross, Peter Beinart, Gershom Gorenberg, Bernard Avishai, Ken Bob, Daniel Sokatch, Daniel Levy, and David Saperstein. [UPDATE: a characteristically thin-skinned Gershom Gorenberg writes to complain that he is Israeli, though interestingly doesn’t reject the “liberal Zionist” label. The fact that Gorenberg was born in the U.S., retains U.S. citizenship and earns a considerable portion of his living in and from the U.S. seems to have been lost on him. But I promise I’ll call him an Israeli-American liberal Zionist next time.] But the Israelis are a different story. There are of course the typical Israeli pols, Knesset members who bring little to the table except the ability to flatter J Street that it is hobnobbing with the Israeli power structure.
But there are several young Israeli leaders of the Sheikh Jarrah movement who will speak, notably Assaf Sharon and Sara Benninga. Also, there is Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim, Michael Sfard of Yesh Din, Jessica Montell of B’Tselem, Oded Naaman of Breaking the Silence. This shows that J Street has at least recognized that they represent something vital is Israeli dissident politics. However, the group’s leaders have over-romanticized the Israeli movement and freighted it with far too much significance. There is a tendency among the liberal Zionists to view Sheikh Jarrah as the Great White Hope for revival of an Israeli left. J Street is no exception. Note that it’s titled the panel on which the Israelis will appear: The Revival of the Israeli Left. Sheikh Jarrah isn’t the revival of the Israeli left. It is a successful political concept which most likely cannot be grown into a national movement because of its inherent limitations, which make it good at what it IS doing.
An added problem for J Street is that while the Sheikh Jarrah movement is just about the only bright spot on the Israeli left, it is decidedly not liberal Zionist. So what is left of the Israeli left may appear at this conference, but J Street will find that the Israelis are much closer in spirit and independence to Jewish Voice for Peace than J Street. What is exciting about Sheikh Jarrah is that it doesn’t toe a party line. It doesn’t call for an any state solution, one or two. It is a single issue group and that is it’s power.
J Street has included precisely three Palestinians in its conference program (and two Palestinian-Americans). One of the former is Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who tonight delivered his powerful words of faith and hope. But a Jewish peace group has to do better than including a smattering of Palestinian voices in its deliberations.
A number of people I like and respect like Matt Duss, Didi Remez and Mitchell Plitnick are either participating in the conference or blogging hopefully about it. While I continue to admire them I think ultimately they’re wasting their breath. J Street is an empty shell. Yes, they run a good conference. But what are they when they’re not running a conference? Where are they on the issues? All over the place. They were for Cast Lead till they were against it. They were for and against the Goldstone Report, a pretty neat trick. They were against Iran sanctions till they were for them. Jeremy Ben Ami wasn’t taking George Soros’ money till he was. They have an identity crisis.
Jeremy Ben Ami specializes in the old Clinton triangulation strategy. You tack straight down the middle between right and left. By doing so you gain the respect of the broad middle that eschews tags of extreme ideology or partisanship. But there’s one big problem with this approach. There is no “broad middle” that remains in either the American Jewish community or Israel. There is the far right, which is dominant and the left which is largely quiescent. So by hewing to a middle road you essentially satisfy very few.
J Street is also a lobbying group that supports liberal Democrats who support Israel and peace. They contribute substantial funds to Congressional candidates. But frankly, I don’t see this as being where the action in regarding either the Israeli-Arab conflict or even U.S. policy toward Israel, just as I see the Knesset as an irrelevant institution to political decision-making within Israel.
J Street is largely a cheering section for Obama administration policy in the Middle East. It is true that it lobbied against a veto of the latest UN Security Council resolution against settlements. But it lost that round. And one could argue that the abject failure of Obama’s strategy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has left J Street with no horse on which to bet. The group would have to stake out some independent ground since Obama has been shown to have nothing to offer.
Liberal Zionism is dead and J Street is liberal Zionism personified. It’s like the Sean Penn character in Dead Man Walking. While it isn’t precisely dead, it is close to being irrelevant. And in politics that’s as good as dead. J Street abandoned us. It is too timid to represent real change or a hopeful message for the future. It waffles. It fudges. It performs ideological litmus tests to determine who’s welcomed inside the tent. And anyone who believes it represents something vital or hopeful in the long-term is deluding him or herself.
While some may think I’m being overly harsh with J Street if they feel about it as I once did–that it represents a potential for something new in the American Jewish community. But the truth is that J Street will either eventually embrace ideas it currently labels anathema, or it will rapidly become irrelevant. Given what I’ve seen, I don’t see it taking the kind of bold positions that are vital to encourage real change on the Israeli political scene. Israel needs tough love and Jeremy Ben Ami offers parve.
Dan Fleshler, 25 February 2011
J Street, the political arm of the American Jewish pro-Israel, pro-peace movement, will convene its second national conference on Saturday night. There will be an enormous turnout. An organizer told me that about 2100 people are pre-registered (at their last conference, only 850 people were pre-registered but 1500 people showed up). There will be about 500 students from 100 campuses.
Why are all of these people converging? There are many reasons. They are desperate to find hope in what often seems like a hopeless mess in Israel and the territories. They want answers to troubling questions, like, “Is the 2-state solution dead?” and “What, in God’s name, can the U.S. do to help?” They want community. They want inspiration. They crave ideas for mobilizing somnolent American Jews and cowardly U.S. politicians. I’m going, and I want all of those things.
This won’t be quite as large as AIPAC’s legendary policy conferences, but AIPAC has had more than 50 years to build momentum; J Street is only three years old.
So what is the reaction from the American Jewish and Israeli right? Abject terror.
There is no other way to explain the panicky screeds on the right-wing Judeo blogosphere. Check out these widely-publicized riffs from Noah Pollak of the Emergency Committee for Israel and the permanently truculent folks at Front Page magazine. I won’t dignify all their arguments and character assassinations by conveying them here, but one of their objections to the conference is that some of the speakers are, gasp, Arabs who are unhappy with Israel!
American Jews, you see, are not supposed to listen to Arabs who are unhappy with Israel, people with different narratives and perspectives than those of the pro-Israel community, people like James Zogby or Mustafa Barghouti. Spend three minutes reading about Barghouti here, and you will learn about the kind of impassioned, articulate Palestinian nationalist that not all Israelis like very much. But surely all Israelis need to figure out how to live with a neighbor like Mustafa Barghouti.
But Americans Jews, you see, are not allowed to hear him speak. Perish the thought! And, of course, if an organization gives him a podium, that automatically means the organization endorses each and every one of his views. That is an enduring principle of the Jewish thought police. He will be speaking at a panel on Hamas, summarized as follows: “Hamas remains in control of the Gaza Strip, armed and opposed to the existence of the State of Israel. What is the best way to counter the threat posed by Hamas? Is reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah a prerequisite to peace, or would it make peace more difficult to achieve? Can Hamas be neutralized by undermining its popular support among Palestinians or splitting its moderate elements from its militants?” It would make perfect sense to exclude Palestinians from the ground who actually know what they are talking about from such a panel, wouldn’t it?
American Jews are not supposed to hear from Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, the physician and friend to many Israeli moderates whose daughters were tragically killed by Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead. Perish the thought! He has devoted his life to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. But we must not hear about his experiences or his three lovely, lost daughters because, Front Page asserts, he denounced the Israelis but not Hamas. We must run the other way if we see him coming.
Front Page sums up the other principal objection: “Any illusion that J Street has included these speakers merely to give insight into “the other side” is dispelled by the roster of Jewish speakers scheduled to speak at `Giving Voice to Your Values.’ All are leftists, and most are even more radically anti-Israel than the Islamists who will appear.” There are certainly a lot of leftists, and it is not hard to show that they are, in fact, pro-Israel. But what scares these righties more than anything, I think, is all of the thoroughly mainstream, centrist speakers who are also gracing J Street with their presence: Knesset Members from Kadima; Dennis Ross; Kenneth Pollack of Brookings; Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace; Tom Dine, who used to run AIPAC; Ethan Felson of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs; Rabbi David Sapirstein, head of the Religious Action Center of the Reform movement–the largest synagogue movement in the US.
“Censorship reflects a society’s lack of confidence in itself,” wrote Justice Potter Stewart. And that is what is going on here. We are listening to the sputterings of an insecure right wing that has no answers. They have no suggestions about the Israeli-Palestinian situation other than grim, bloody “conflict management,” which should really be called “nightmare management.” They have no notion of how to preserve the democratic Jewish state. They don’t know how to stop the steady drift of young people out of the American Jewish community because what is happening to the Palestinians cannot be reconciled with either Jewish or universal values.
And they are panicking. They want us to put our hands over our ears, like the haredim who don’t want to hear women’s voices singing, or the fanatics who want to burn down the offices of newspapers that print cartoons of the prophet Muhammed. Sorry folks. It won’t work. Thousands of American Jews and others will show up in DC this weekend, eager to hear complicated truths and nuanced arguments, instead of the useless pablum of those who cling to a horrific status quo.
Originally posted at Realistic Dove
Click here to watch video from Saturday’s opening plenary session, featuring: Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism; Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street President; Peter Beinart, author and journalist; Sara Benninga, Israeli activist and organizer, Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement; Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, physician, author, and founder, Daughters for Life Foundation.
Click here for video from Sunday’s sessions, featuring: Mona Eltahawy, Journalist; Ron Pundak, Director General, The Peres Center for Peace; Robert Serry, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process; and five members of the Knesset.
Click here for video from Monday’s sessions, including remarks from top Obama adviser on the Middle East, Dennis Ross; a panel featuring Bernie Avishai, author; Daniel Levy, Co-Director, Middle East Task Force, New American Foundation; and Roger Cohen, journalist, The New York Times.
You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter, watch videos on YouTube and Vimeo, and see photos on Flickr throughout the conference. Our official conference hashtag on twitter is #jstconf.
Rachel Gai, 4 March 2011
Perhaps the most remarkable event that took place at the J Street national conference was the panel on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.) Or, rather, that the panel actually included a BDS supporter – a first for a Jewish organization with a clear Zionist leaning. As recently as last year, this kind of an occurrence would have been considered beyond the pale.
Mitchell Plitnick writes about the event on his blog The Third Way. He highlights the fact that while opponents of BDS claim that this movement has blocked the possibility of discussion among various factions within Jewish community, this event shows that discussion is possible.
Rebecca Vilkomerson, director of Jewish Voice for Peace (and one of the editors of JPN) was a participant, and had the tough job of presenting a
pro BDS position to an audience which was expected to be hostile. It turns out that a significant portion of the crowd was not hostile at all. This
has been the case in some of the other programs that took place during the conference. Perhaps J Street membership is way ahead of its leadership?
Rebecca’s powerful statement.
I’m also enclosing a link to a blog entry by Jerry Haber on his blog “The Magnes Zionist.” The title of his entry is: To BDS or not to BDS? If You’re a Liberal Zionist, Try TBDS. In it he points out that one can support certain parts of BDS while objecting to others. It’s a large umbrella, offering flexibility and room for maneuvering in accordance to one’s particular set of liberal convictions.
J Street Sticks to the Script at its Annual Conference, Despite Coming to a Two-State Dead-End
Zoe Zenowich and Alex Kane, 4 March 2011
The ‘Palestine papers’ revealed a grim prospect for the existing peace process, but J Street continues to talk about the need for ‘American leadership.’
When the liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street launched in 2008, it was big news. Coupled with a new presidential administration pledging sustained engagement on Israel/Palestine, the thought many had was that this was the moment a lasting peace deal could be forged between the Israelis and Palestinians.
J Street’s “No. 1 agenda item,” as founder and president Jeremy Ben-Ami told the New York Times in September 2009, was to “do whatever we can in Congress to act as the president’s blocking back.” J Street’s strategy of advocating “for urgent American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution” seemed on mark, given that President Barack Obama told the world in Cairo in June 2009 that he intended to “personally pursue” the two-state solution.
The goal of a two-state solution, in which Israel and a Palestinian state exist side-by-side, remains J Street’s message as around 2,400 activists gathered in Washington, D.C. last weekend for the group’s second annual conference. “It could not be more urgent for the administration to seize the initiative right now on peace and a two-state solution,” said J Street spokesman Isaac Luria.
But what happens when that goal, and the strategy of strong American leadership on the issue, seems out of reach? For some on the left, the current political situation means that J Street needs to adjust to the reality of fading prospects for a two-state solution.
While it’s clear, as blogger M.J. Rosenberg put it, that J Street has “opened up room” in the debate over Israel, progressive critics have called for new strategies to pressure Israel, such as the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Indeed, even some of J Street’s own constituents are frustrated with the Obama administration and are exploring more forceful ways to change Israeli behavior.
For instance, the liberal Zionist organization Meretz USA, which has close ties to J Street, recently came out in favor of a boycott of West Bank settlements. Others at the conference, like Israeli human rights lawyer Michael Sfard, echoed Meretz USA’s stance.
“The question of boycott, for me, is very simple,” said Sfard. “I cannot imagine a cent of my money being given to settlement products or any activity that is enhancing the settlement projects. For me it is like actively supporting illegal or immoral abuse of others’ rights.”
The Obama administration’s weak stance on the issue has become even more obvious in light of recent events. The administration backed down in the face of the pro-Israel lobby and a right-wing Israeli government that keeps issuing tenders for new illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and the Gaza Strip remains under a debilitating siege imposed by Israel. The release by Al Jazeera of the “Palestine Papers,” nearly 1,700 leaked documents on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, shows that despite numerous Palestinian concessions on Jerusalem, the right of return and more, the Israeli government refused to forge a deal.
The Obama administration’s ambivalence to the continued entrenchment of settlements on Palestinian land–a problem many consider to be the biggest obstacle to a two-state solution–reached new heights with the Feb. 18 U.S. veto of a UN resolution that condemned settlements as “illegal.”
“On this issue, Obama has really dropped the ball in a big way,” said Rosenberg, a former staffer at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “He may have set the cause back with that veto, and that veto will reverberate in the progressive camp for a long time.”
It was the first veto since Obama took office, and was in stark contrast to past administration calls for Israel to stop settlement expansion. J Street came out against a U.S. veto. There are about 500,000 settlers living on confiscated land in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the settlements, along with the separation barrier, have created a disjointed Palestinian landscape that makes a Palestinian state look less and less likely.
“All this talk about the two-state solution is largely meaningless. There is not going to be a two-state solution,” said John Mearsheimer, co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, in a recent Institute for Middle East Understanding press briefing. “The Israelis are in the driver’s seat here and they want to incorporate all of the West Bank, and effectively the Gaza Strip, into a greater Israel.”
For progressive critics of J Street, the veto, and continued settlement expansion, proves that alternative strategies need to be used to reach a real agreement—be it a one-state or two-state solution—rather than a mirage agreement that creates a Palestinian bantustan. “[J Street] put all their eggs into the Obama basket, and what we’re getting is bupkes,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, executive director of the left-wing group Jewish Voice for Peace.
“It’s a very clarifying moment for where we are in that it really shows us that just relying on governments, and specifically the U.S., as the vehicle for change in Israeli policy, is not going to do it,” Vilkomerson said. “That’s why we need to rely on civil society and tools like boycott, divestment and sanctions in order to get any real kind of change.”
But J Street continues to stick to its strategy of advocating for American leadership on the issue, and has come out against the BDS movement.
“J Street is focused on the policy process and political process,” said J Street president Ben-Ami during a press briefing at the conference.
J Street’s Luria insisted that the next step should be “an American initiative that lays out American ideas.” Boycott tactics, said Luria, are a “drop in the bucket compared to what an American-led peace could look like.”
The group’s anti-boycott stance, and its faith in American diplomatic leadership, reflects what blogger Richard Silverstein called a political tack “down the middle between right and left.”
As human rights lawyer Sfard put it, American pressure—currently non-existent–is not what worries the Israeli leadership, but rather the growing non-violent resistance movement in Israel and Palestine. “Traditional politics failed, party politics failed…In the last five years there has been a growing movement of civil resistance to the occupation in Palestinian villages and rural areas. This is a growing trend, and I have to say, it scares the hell out of the Israeli administration much more than the American pressure.”
That reality, though, hasn’t penetrated J Street’s leadership, though elements of its base get it.
The group’s continued push for an American-led proposal seems ever more distant, and all the more unlikely for that to materialize given that presidential elections are approaching. And the “Palestine Papers,” as former director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center Robert Grenier wrote in Al Jazeera, revealed that the “process for a two-state solution is essentially over.”
The “Palestine Papers” and the UN veto show that the “Obama administration is absolutely not willing to use any of the sticks it has at its disposal and is only willing to use carrots with Israel,” said Jewish Voice for Peace’s Vilkomerson. “History has shown that these sorts of carrots do not get Israel to change its behavior.”
Liberals Promoting War
J Street and the Middle East
Chase Madar, 2nd March 2011
J Street, America’s premier liberal pro-Israel lobbying group, has just wrapped up its third annual conference in Washington. There have been sessions and panels on “building peace from the ground up,” on “expanding the tent” and even some passionate condemnations of the Occupation. Amid so much good feeling it’s almost possible to lose sight of one of J Street’s fundamental missions: to promote and guarantee America’s lavish and unconditional military aid to Israel.
This may seem like a harsh assessment of the lobbying group. After all, isn’t J Street routinely attacked by neocon ultras and praised by American liberals? But hack through J Street’s verbiage about “dialogue” and “conversation” and one finds this blandly phrased position statement: “American assistance to Israel, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, is an important anchor for a peace process based on providing Israel with the confidence and assurance to move forward on a solution based on land for peace. J Street consistently advocates for robust US foreign aid to Israel.” This last sentence is 99% of what one needs to know about J Street.
We Americans aren’t used to talking about the one thing we are most directly responsible for in the Israel-Palestine conflict: our $3bn annual military aid package that goes almost exclusively to one of the two sides. A bit weirdly, debate about Israel/Palestine among Americans tends to leap immediately to the issue of a one-state versus a two-state solution. Or we presume to give the Palestinians tips and pointers about what degree of violence is morally acceptable, and where’s the Palestinian Gandhi? Or we vow to redouble our efforts towards a “peace process” which doesn’t always seem to exist.
The one thing we Americans are not very good at discussing, or even acknowledging, is our already vigorous role in the conflict. Before we continue to micromanage the Palestinians and (to a far lesser degree) the Israelis might we first examine, and scale back, our own outsized contributions to what can only be called a war process.
We Americans badly need to understand that we are not now, have never been a credible arbiter in the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Our long record of doing things like shipping free-gratis cluster bombs to the IDF, expediting them when so requested for use on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure in 2006, has long disqualified us as “honest brokers”. Rhetoric aside, such lopsided military aid packages are our policy.
This is not another argument against all foreign aid. There are places on the earth where America does indeed owe a blood debt: Ghana, Haiti, Nicaragua for instance, nations historically wronged by our slave trade or by long-term US military occupation. It is strange that J Street or any ostensibly liberal outfit could believe that Israel is deserving of more foreign aid than the three of these impoverished nations combined.
There is a standard response to this criticism of J Street. Their half-measures may be lame, it is conceded, but they are a “comfort zone” for young liberal activists inside the American Jewish community, a space where they can get their message out. I hope it does not seem callous to view ongoing ethnic cleansing, the collective punishment of 1.3 million Gazans, and significant American security interests to be orders of magnitude more important than the sensitivities of the college students who just attended J Street’s conference.
It seems the true function of J Street is to set the acceptable outer limit to our national discourse on Israel/Palestine, and this is worrisome. For J Street has not been brave in its positions. It disapproved of the Goldstone Report; it discouraged a UN investigation into the IDF assault on the Gaza aid flotilla; it threatens to withhold its support from pols who meet with other, less Israel-centric lobbying groups–and that’s just for starters. Of course it’s super that J Street rallied behind congressional Representative Donna Edwards after she voted “present” on a resolution in support of the IDF’s attacks on Gaza in 2009. But if she had voted against the measure, how would J Street have responded? More recently Edwards voted with the majority to give an extra $205 million in emergency military funding to Israel, with only four votes against. In the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 30s and Israel’s constant flouting of international law regarding settlement construction, a gift of even more military aid seems bizarre. (J Street, predictably, welcomed the disbursement.)
True, J Street sometimes breaks with its neoconservative peers, as when it urged a US vote in favor of last month’s UN Security Council condemnation of ongoing settler expansion in the West Bank. But sporadic compliance with minimal standards is not impressive compared to the clear-cut policy changes urged by other advocacy groups. With Jewish Voice for Peace, the Council for the National Interest, the Committee for a Just Peace in Israel and Palestine and New Policy, the rubber meets the road when it comes to reorienting US policy without equivocation.
Some analysts optimistically see J Street as a sort of gateway drug that will lead its youngish adherents to eventually support a very different role for the United States in the conflict. But for now,J Street will continue to support dialogue, “expanding the tent”, and $3 billion in cluster bombs, white phosphorous and other armaments from the US government to the IDF, no strings attached, year after year.
Chase Madar is a civil rights lawyer in New York and a contributor to Le Monde diplomatique, the London Review of Books and PULSEmedia.org.