The portrait of the J-Street lobby organization in the New York Times
is sympathetic, but unintentionally revealing.
The dictionary defines a lobby group as: "A group of persons engaged in trying to influence legislators or other public officials in favor of a specific cause: the banking lobby; the labor lobby."
The Times article is entitled, "The New Israel Lobby" but according to the article, J Street's position is that:
No country, whether Israel or Cuba, has identical interests to those of the United States. And yet mainstream American Jewish groups had implicitly agreed to subordinate their own views to those of the government in Jerusalem.
Of course, if the interests are identical, no lobby is needed at all. J-Street's mission, it seems, is to lobby against Israeli interests and in favor of perceived US interests if they diverge. How could that be an Israel lobby?
According to the Times article, J-Street has "liberal" views. Executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami told The Times, " We’re trying to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel. You don’t have to be noncritical. You don’t have to adopt the party line. It’s not, ‘Israel, right or wrong."
Being "pro-Israel" for J Street meant supporting the call of the Hamas and Arab world for an immediate end to the Israeli military action in Gaza, though Barack Obama took no stand on this issue. For J-Street, "pro-Israel" also means taking the Iranian position opposing sanctions on Iran to end its nuclear development program. That's not the Obama administration position either.
J Street seems to find itself supporting positions favorable to the genocidal Hamas and the Iranian regime of Holocaust - denier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, providing an interesting definition of "liberal." J-Street, according to the article, is enamored of the thesis of Professors Walt and Mearsheimer, whose "Israel Lobby" book purports to expose the hold of the Zionists on America. The book is recommended reading by none other than Osama Bin-Laden.
The article, and J-Street, however, are not about discussing policy positions. What is important to J-Street and to James Traub, the author of the article, seems to be not the substance of policy, but who supports it: Who is "in" and who is "out."
J-Street founder and director Jeremy Ben-Ami explained in an interview with MeretzUSA's Ralph Seliger:
For too long, the loudest voices in the American political and national policy debates when it comes to Israel and the Middle East have belonged to the far right – neoconservatives, right wing American Jewish leaders...
If Ben-Ami disagrees with someone, he labels that person as a far right "neoconservative." The people who Ben-Ami is talking about are not wild eyed fanatics who trash abortion clinics and oppose gay marriage. They are not members of the far right at all. They are leaders like Abe Foxman and Alan Dershowitz, who have impeccable liberal credentials in all issues unrelated to Israel.
Ben-Ami asserts in the Times article, “Our No. 1 agenda item is to do whatever we can in Congress to act as the president’s blocking back.” That sounds like an Obama lobby, not an Israel lobby. But the President presumably has the Democratic party to be his blocking back in congress, a much more effective "lobby" than J Street. What happens to that #1 item if the next president is a Republican or anti-Israel?
J Street does not distinguish between legitimate internal criticism of Israel, and deliberate sabotage of Israeli interests by misrepresenting those interests to the American government. It is one thing to tell your relative, for his own good, that he should be more circumspect in his criticism of Stalin. It is quite another to denounce him to the KGB, "for his own good." It is one thing to criticize Israeli policies with regard to Iran. It is another thing entirely to advocate anti-Israel and pro-Iranian legislation in the U.S. congress, or to advocate cutting aid to Israel if Israel doesn't conform to J Street policy recommendations.
Ben-Ami insists that J-Street stands are based on rational analysis. He dismisses Zionist opponents as governed by guilt and outmoded ideas:
"There’s a rational side that on policy grounds is with us and Obama," he says, “and can understand that talking, peace, these are good things, and they’re better than pre-emptive military action. Then there’s their grandmother’s voice in their ear; it’s the emotional side and the communal history, and it’s the fear of not wanting in some way to be responsible for the next great tragedy that will befall the Jewish people."
Is talking peace indefinitely to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really rational? This is not the voice of rational statecraft; it is the sort of naivete that leads children to take candy from strangers. Evidently Ben-Ami didn't get to the part of the history books that tells about Mr. Chamberlain's and Mr. Stalin's experience talking peace with the Germans. History still happened, and is still worth studying, even if the people who experienced it are dying out.
Some insight into the origins of J Street's strange attitudes to Israel may be gained from unintentionally revealing comments quoted in the Times article. M.J. Rosenberg, until recently head of the kindred Israel Policy Forum, dismisses traditional Zionist groups,
"You know what these guys are afraid of? Their generation is disappearing. All the old Jewish people in senior-citizen homes speaking Yiddish are dying -- and they’re being replaced by 60-year-old Woodstock types.”
Is this a "liberal" or a Mafia goomba talking about the "mustache Petes" from the old country that he is going to replace? Isn't there a discordant note of ageism and xenophobia in the self appointed liberal spokesman? What happened to multicultural pluralism?
The Woodstock festival, by the way, took place just after the Six Day War, an event that is generally considered to have sparked a worldwide renaissance of the Zionist movement.
Do we detect a bit of fear lurking behind Rosenberg's arrogant sneer? Can we see Rosenberg as Woody Allen in terror, imagining himself exposed as a Hassidic Jew while eating at his prospective in-laws' house in the film "Annie Hall?"
Rosenberg supported the nomination of Charles Freeman, head of an Arab lobby organization that got a gift of a million dollars from Saudi Arabia, to a sensitive U.S. intelligence post. Freeman, an outspoken opponent of Israel and supporter of Chinese suppression of dissent, had an obvious and blatant conflict of interest. But Rosenberg, predictably, had no problem smearing anyone who protested against the nomination as right-wing neoconservative representatives of the "Israel lobby."
Ben-Ami too, imagines that he is carrying on a war with the older generation, as if his generation invented liberalism as well as indifference to Israel. The Times article notes:
The average age of the dozen or so staff members is about 30. Ben-Ami speaks for, and to, this post-Holocaust generation. “They’re all intermarried,” he says. “They’re all doing Buddhist seders [the seder is the traditional Jewish Passover celebration meal].”
Is having Buddhist seders and being intermarried the key to understanding Middle East geopolitics? Is the religious affiliation of one's spouse a prerequisite for correct understanding of Israel's problems? Ben-Ami evidently thinks so. It's not about content and policy, it's about holding "acceptable" ideas.
The Times continues:
They are, he [Ben-Ami] adds, baffled by the notion of “Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you.” Living in a world of blogs, they’re similarly skeptical of the premise that “we’re still on too-shaky ground” to permit public disagreement.
In the world of blogs, everything is secure, Meanwhile, back in the real world, Israelis, young and old, Yiddish speaking and otherwise, face a totally different set of problems undreamt of by J Street staffers living in the world of blogs. Rockets and Iranian a-bombs don't fall in the world of blogs. In the world of blogs, Hamas and Islamic Jihad are just names, not vicious organizations.
“I grew up with my father spending his entire life arguing with his friends about the Altalena and Ben-Gurion and what a schmuck he was and how could Begin give back the Sinai.”
Ben-Ami's generational problems may be personal. Did Ben-Ami found a lobbying organization just to work out his relationship with his father? Does he really stereotype all Zionists as die-hard supporters of the Irgun, living in the past?
J Street's major contention is based on a sleight of hand. They claim they are the only Jewish group that supports a strong US role in the peace process. Actually, it is not so. They are, however, the only group that supports a strongly anti-Israel US role in the peace process, and opposes putting pressure for concessions on Arab states and Palestinians. One of their initiatives opposed a congressional letter urging pressure for concessions on Arab states and Palestinians.
J Street seems more a marketing effort than a group of serious political analysts. They are anxious to get the most out of the "cool Jew" image and the bandwagon effect. Yiddish is out. Buddhist seders are in. They offer "poll data" to support their contention that most US Jews support J Street rather than the dying generation of Yiddish speaking Zionists, and the data are referred to uncritically by the New York Times.
J Street polls are done by Jay Gerstein, formerly a founding J Street Vice President, and are not exactly objective. Even so, J Street's own poll taken last March, shows that American Jews do not support all J Street positions.
J Street's claim that they represent American Jews better than AIPAC and similar organizations is not borne out by poll results. 49% agreed that "The traditional Jewish organizations do a good job of representing my views on Israel." while only 29% agreed with the J Street position "The traditional Jewish organizations do a poor job of representing my views on Israel." 45% agreed that " Jewish organizations that lobby Congress to support every Israeli government policy are helping Israel's security," while only 35% agreed with the J Street position that "Jewish organizations that lobby Congress to support every Israeli government policy are not helping Israel's security." Only 64% of respondents could identify AIPAC, and a paltry 35% had heard of J Street, suggesting that the doings of lobby groups are of more concern to the lobby groups than to the Jewish population at large. Respondents favored AIPAC 37% -19% and also favored J-Street, 17% to 12%.
Contradicting J-Street's position, 75% of respondents approved of Israel's military action in Gaza, while only 25% disapproved. 41% of respondents believed it strengthened Israel's security, and only 18% believed it weakened it.
69% also disagreed with the following heavily loaded statement: "With hundreds of Palestinian civilian deaths and a humanitarian crisis resulting from a month of no electricity and clean water throughout Gaza, Israel's response to Hamas' attacks was disproportionate."
An ADL survey in April reported somewhat different results. That poll found that 58% of American Jews support Israeli military action against Iran if negotiations and sanctions fail to stop the Iranian nuclear program, and 55% support American military action, contradicting J Street's position and poll findings. 66% of respondents thought Israeli action in Gaza was appropriate, contradicting the J Street position. 47% of American Jews in the ADL sample believe that the parties to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict need to settle their own differences, while only 44% favor a strong US role in the peace process. J Street's major talking point is not supported by the poll data.
It is legitimate for people to have different opinions about Israeli policy. Israeli and American Jews, including Zionists, are deeply conflicted, and always have been, between a pacifist and humanist tradition, and the harsh realities of Middle East war, between the hope for peace and coexistence, which are the ultimate aims of Zionism, and the formidable difficulties in the way of peace.
However, J Streets' positions are not based on rational thinking about the best way to support Israel or to bring peace. By their own admission, they are expressive of the attitude of a sub-group of supposedly younger American Jews to their Jewishness and their self-image. They seem tailored to fit Jews who are looking for ways to rid themselves of their troublesome Jewish identity, which they associate with decrepit Yiddish speaking people in homes for the aged who do not have Buddhist Seders, and with fathers who were fixated on the Altalena tragedy.
Ben-Ami and the constituency he is aiming at seem to have imaginations limited in time and space by their experience and knowledge. They assume that the entire world is something like California or Washington DC, always was and always will be. They cannot imagine that Ismail Hanniyeh or Hassan Nasrallah or even Mahmoud Abbas don't share their values and do not really think that talking peace is good. They cannot imagine what the world was like when there was no Jewish state, and what the position of Jews in Diaspora societies - even in the United States -was like, nor can they imagine or understand how easily Israel could be destroyed. The Times article implies that since the Holocaust happened before their time they cannot work out the intellectual implications of that event and couldn't be bothered to try. It's not important - something embarrassing that happened in Europe to Yiddish speaking people. What J Street offers this crowd is a designer ideology and a designer identity - Judaism lite for the NOW generation. Perhaps the real issue is a generational fight for power in the American Jewish community.
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Replies: 2 Comments
J-street to Israel is one of those friends, whose friendship asserts itself only when they get up to criticize you. On all other occasions you would be hard pressed to find them. Israel, so goes J-street's logic, does not need us to say anything in its favour. Israel only needs us when a true friend is called for, a friend who will tell you to your face what's what, especially when you don't like it, especially when you completely disagree with them, especially when it can do you the most harm. J-street is a friend the way Proust describes this kind of friend:
"It is prudent to be equally wary of Percy, Laurence and Augustin. Laurence recites poetry, Percy lectures and Augustin tells truths. A frank person – that is the latter’s title, and his profession is that of being a true friend. Augustin comes into a salon; verily I tell you, be on your guard and never forget that he is truly your friend. Remember that, just like Percy and Laurence, he never comes with impunity, and that he will not wait for you to ask him before telling you a few truth about yourself, any more than Laurence waited before delivering a monologue before you, or Percy before telling you what he thinks of Verlaine. He does not let you wait for him or interrupt him, since he is frank in the same way as Laurence is a lecturer, not in your interest but for his own pleasure. To be sure, your displeasure intensifies his pleasure, just as your attention intensifies the pleasure of Laurence. But he would forego it if necessary. So here we have them, three impudent scoundrels to whom we should refuse all encouragement, all indulgence, and anything, indeed which feeds their vice. Quite the contrary, for they have their own special audience which they can live off. Indeed, the audience of Augustin the sayer of truths is quite extensive. This audience, misled by the conventional psychology of the theatre and the absurd maxim, ‘who loves well chastises well’ refuses to recognize that flattery is sometimes merely an overflow of affection and frankness the foam and slobber of a bad mood. Does Augustin exercise his spite on a friend? His audience draws a vague mental contrast between Roman rough justice and Byzantine hypocrisy, and they all exclaim with proud gesture, their eyes lit by jubilation at feeling themselves to be morally better, more down to earth, altogether rougher and tougher. ‘He’s not someone to spare your feelings out of affection!…. Let’s honour him: what a true friend….”
(From: Pleasures and Days, by Marcel Proust)
Noga, Monday, September 21st
The real issue is whether there will be an American Jewish community in a generation. American Jews are not passing on their values to the next generation. And that is why J-Street is above all an exercise in irrelevance.
NormanF, Friday, September 18th
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