Treating J Street With a Little Respect

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 01, 2011, issue of June 10, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

What happens when candor collides with civility? These days, discussions of contentious subjects routinely begin with a caution: We should be civil in our disagreements. But if we are to be courteous and respectful toward those with whom we disagree, how do we avoid lapsing into the anemia of political correctness?

Respect? I am happy to acknowledge my own fallibility. I am intensely interested in views different from my own when they come from well-informed people who in turn acknowledge the concerns that I express. I’ve had such exchanges regarding torture, abortion, capital punishment, Israel’s security requirements. But respect the view that Israel should hold on to all the West Bank, come what may? To my way of thinking, that is a proposal that Israel commit suicide — and I have no respect for those who promote suicide.

Candor: Our community’s current obsession with civility, led by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and its president (and my friend), Rabbi Steve Gutow, seems to have come about in significant part, as a response to the sheer ugliness of the debate regarding J Street. The disgraceful effort to characterize J Street as ”anti-Israel“ or as ”pro-Arab“ has found sufficient traction to become a seriously divisive force in communities across the country. One is surely entitled to disagree, even vehemently, with J Street’s strategy and tactics. But anti-Israel? That is nonsense, pure and simple.

But it is nonsense with traction. In synagogues across the country, any suggestion that J Street be given a respectful hearing or be included in a forum on what it means to be “pro-Israel” is likely to be vehemently attacked — nay, assaulted.

So here’s the question: How can so many people have accepted such an absurd and abusive a reading of what J Street is about?

We now have some evidence of how this works. The evidence comes from Boston, which until a decisive incident in late May had appeared to be as intemperately divided over J Street as any community in the country. But it turns out that the division was hardly a 50-50 split. It was, instead, the product of a group of militant J Street antagonists large enough and fervent enough to poison conversation, yet, as it turns out, small enough to qualify as tiny. This we now know because of a special meeting of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston convened to consider, among other things, whether J Street should retain its membership on the council or be expelled from it. In the prolonged and passionate run-up to the meeting, there was no way of confidently predicting its outcome. There was ample speculation that the 70 or so qualified voters would split at about 40 against 30. But when, after a full debate, the votes were counted, the decisively lopsided result was 57–9 to affirm J Street’s membership. It seems that all the noise that had so distracted the community for more than two years was now the product of a belligerent handful of malcontents confronting a largely silent majority.

In pressing for a vote of record, that small minority succeeded in arousing that silent majority, and when it came time for them to speak, they convincingly repudiated J Street’s denigrators. (During the debate, no one spoke more eloquently or passionately to the value of inclusiveness than Barry Shrage, president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, thereby putting to bed the perception that the Jewish establishment is inevitably the narrow-minded mouthpiece of a right-wing cabal.)

One is now entitled to hope that the Boston experience will serve as a precedent in other communities and that we will find more serious things to argue about — civilly, of course. This is not a First Amendment question. It is a question of our capacity to distinguish between allies and enemies. It is a question of how we choose to define “pro-Israel.” It is, in the end, a question of honesty.

Sometimes, it appears, civility and candor cannot be reconciled. It is now time to put the J Street debate to rest and not to argue, in the name of courtesy or a kindred virtue that it remain an open question. It is, please excuse me, time to disrespect those who vilify J Street.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.