Tuesday, December 01, 2009

J Street is better for not being perfect!

J Street opens to traffic

Passionate Detachment, Ian Williams' America, Middle EAst International 20 November 2009
Ian Williams

It should not be surprising that J Street – puckishly named after a street that is missing from Washington’s grid map – is blossoming in the present circumstances. A president who likes their message was voted into the White House with overwhelming support from American Jews, while Israel has a right-wing prime minister whose American education accentuates rather than conceals his opposition to the deep-seated liberal sentiments of the community.

Although it has a long way to go before it can match AIPAC, J Street has already crashed its pretensions to speak on behalf of the entire Jewish community. Its lines of communication to the new White House are a direct challenge to the monopoly AIPAC has exercised for so long.

Similarly, albeit in a small way, its related organisations have already shown an ability to blunt AIPAC’s biggest weapon, the power of the purse. When threats were made to mobilise funding against people who spoke sense on the Middle East, J Street’s affiliates raised money for the putative victims.

Obama’s National Security Advisor Gen James Jones spoke at its recent well-attended conference, and over 100 Congresspersons signed up for its host committee (even if many of them then went on to hedge their bets by voting for a fact-light resolution against Goldstone’s Report).

The organisation invited Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren to its conference – and he played into its hands by spurning the invitation, thereby confirming the suspicion that this Israeli government only wants to relate to amen-sayers. He and the “official” Jewish leaders thought that withholding the imprimatur of Israel from the event would devalue it, but of course it enhanced its attraction for many of the participants.

Uncomfortable alliances
It may be significant as well that it was Netanyahu who originally broke the solid phalanx of “official” American Jewish unconditional support for whatever policies an incumbent Israeli government had. Back in 1994, his emissaries met with 60 members of Congress and their staffs to lobby against the involvement of US troops in the Golan Heights, with the sole purpose of frustrating incumbent Premier Yitzhak Rabin’s talks with Syria, which depended on such US guarantees to win domestic Israeli support. When Likud took power and tried to assert the old rules, its previous conduct ricocheted, creating space for Peace Now, then, and now J Street, to be critical without total excommunication.

During the George W Bush years there was no light between the US and Israel, and very little between the “official” Jewish organisations and the Republican Party. This led to some natural questions from American Jews about just whom they represented. Most Jews were horrified by the domestic and foreign policies of the administration and were clearly uncomfortable with the close alliance of “their” leaders with obscurantist fundamentalist Christians and conservatives.

In fact, as J Street’s polls discovered, most American Jews opposed more Israeli settlements, and supported active US engagement in the peace process, even if it meant disagreeing with an Israeli government. As a double-edged finding, the average respondents ranked Israel eighth in their policy concerns, and less than one-tenth ranked it first or second.

J Street came onto the scene with funding – and, under Obama, access, which clearly rankles with the official lobby. Describing itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” J Street claims to advocate “for American policies that, in our view, advance the national interests of the United States, as well as the long-term interests and security of the state of Israel.”

There is a contradiction here for J Street: if so many Jews rank Israel as way down their list of concerns, how do you rally support for an organisation whose focus is to rescue the country from its own government and which claims to be axiomatically “pro-Israel”? The “pro-Israel” aspect was a major issue of debate at J Street’s conference.

Nod towards Zionism
In a rational world, it is no more anti-Israeli to consider that its government’s policies are unethical and suicidal for the country than it is anti-American to think that Bush’s invasion of Iraq was disastrous and wrong. In some ways Americans have a little more leeway – it is easier to be a patriotic American and disavow Manifest Destiny than it is to be pro-Israel but eschew Zionism. But conservatives in the US are not known for rationality, any more than their colleagues in Israel.

It is possible to say that Israel should not have been created, but it was, and we have to deal with fact. But that is no more the way to win friends and influence American Jews than telling white Americans that their nation should not have existed because it was built on ethnic cleansing and mass murder.

J Street realizes that, polls notwithstanding, it would be wrong to dismiss the reflexive support for Israel’s existence that many American Jews have. That is why, just as American labour unions and radicals head their parades with stars and stripes, an organisation that claims to speak to Washington on behalf of American Jews will have a short life and no influence if it does not nod in the general direction of the Zionist idea.

It is politically far more effective to point out the truth that many Israelis admit: that Israel will not exist in anything like its present form if the current disastrous policies are pursued. J Street has been doing that effectively and it would be counterproductive if it succumbed to positions that, no matter how well-grounded, cross the line to alienate those 60% opposing settlement building.

Perhaps the worst thing that could happen would be for Arab and pro-Palestinian groups and individuals to take advantage of J Street’s inclusively liberal outlook to try to join or support it. They would be much better off emulating the traditions of organisation and activism that J Street draws upon to mount their own parallel campaigns.

The real test is coming, however. Part of J Street’s appeal is its access to the White House, and that has been forthcoming, at least in part, because the organisation has helped create space for Obama’s Middle East plan. As that plan teeters on the brink of capitulation over settlements, it will be worth watching to see if J Street is open to two-way traffic. Can it pressure Obama and Clinton to deliver?

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