J Street’s Gifts To American Jewish Life

Opinion

By Shai Franklin

Published October 13, 2010, issue of October 22, 2010.
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J Street is caught between two opposite but equally potent reactions to revelations that it hid the involvement of arch-liberal philanthropist — and Israel critic — George Soros until “outed” by the conservative media. On the right, those who questioned the legitimacy of the liberal lobby’s policies and denied the pro-Israel bona fides of its leadership are gleeful now that Soros’s role and the group’s subterfuge have been revealed. On the other side, many who accepted J Street’s right to diverge from the seemingly monolithic Jewish establishment are feeling betrayed.

Yet another group had seen J Street’s unapologetic, progressive, left-wing offensive as opening more space for their own pragmatic, more center-left approach to issues like Middle East peace and Jewish identity. You might call this third group the intellectual “free riders,” and it would include some “establishment” Jews like myself.

The bounds of acceptable conversation have been broadened. As long as J Street was trying to pressure Israel on West Bank settlements, a tactic I don’t support, I did feel safer to defend the New Israel Fund from a campaign of literal demonization in the Israeli press. I also felt bolder about standing up for the constitutional rights of American Muslims to build cultural centers like the one planned for Lower Manhattan without having to submit to loyalty oaths, investigation of their finances or public intimidation.

So long as J Street can restore or maintain its credibility on Capitol Hill

and at the White House, it can and should survive, at least to fulfill its own mission. That’s just how America works. For myself, its continued presence impacts the essence and enhances the reach of American Jewry in ways that cannot be feigned or fabricated.

Unintentionally, perhaps, J Street had filled holes in the Jewish communal landscape, exposing needs that were routinely ignored. For example:

• For the first time, pro-Israel members of Congress had a way of supporting Israel and Middle East peace that didn’t necessitate complete endorsement of Israel’s official position.

• Generation “Why” gets an important new portal. Many young Jews feel disconnected from the establishment that once represented their grandparents. Flying them to Israel and sensitizing them to its challenges will not enlist them as pro-Israel activists or — most importantly — as committed Jews. They need and expect something more when they return home.

• The baselines for organizational effectiveness have shifted up. Until the arrival of such sophisticated, progressive start-ups across the Jewish community — and not just on the Israel advocacy front — most organizations were free to continue with business as usual, even as we were hemorrhaging members and allies. Belatedly, we have begun seeking creative and results-oriented solutions that expand our constituency, not just pander to it, and impact our target audience.

• American Jews’ political reach is extended with the rise of leaders with progressive credentials. Since many mainstream organizations have slid to the right, J Street’s arrival on the scene has not come at the expense of those who would not be cultivated anyway by a Democratic White House.

However J Street is perceived within the community matters less today than it did two years ago — not just because it has established and branded itself well, but because it has helped shatter the security fence we had built up around ourselves. There is less pressure today for an organization to prove or pretend it “represents” the entire Jewish community.

For the first time in a long while, we have a full-fledged representation of views from the right and the left that mirrors the political debate within Israel. To the extent Israel has credibility as a society, it is due to the relative lack of official or informal censorship. Whatever Israel’s military operations or housing policies, its public discourse does contain genuine voices of dissent from across the political spectrum. The American Jewish community had begun to lose that organic public pluralism.

J Street’s leadership has been rightly censured for disinformation and lack of transparency. Now, it would be nice if the organization succeeds in securing a permanent foothold within the communal and national conversation. The government of Israel has learned it can survive such American voices. Maybe the American Jewish establishment can learn that, too.

Shai Franklin is Senior Fellow for United Nations Affairs with the Institute on Religion and Public Policy in Alexandria, Va.


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