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J Street and Main Street: The Israel Lobby We Need

When J Street’s supporters gather in Washington later this month for the dovish Israel advocacy group’s first national conference, they will have no shortage of things to celebrate. In the year and a half since its launch, the self-proclaimed “political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement” has made itself a major player in the Jewish community — and, for many, its enfant terrible. While other dovish Jewish groups have attempted, over the years, to influence America’s Mideast policy debates, none has managed to generate anything comparable to J Street’s potent combination of grassroots enthusiasm, inside-the-Beltway political cachet and media buzz.

J Street owes its success, in considerable part, to its talent at tapping into the Jewish left’s deep reservoirs of discontent with the established pro-Israel groups that purport to represent the American Jewish center. Already, it has crossed swords with groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. J Street staffers have alleged that “established pro-Israel groups have enforced right-wing message discipline on Israel in Congress” and warned Jewish leaders that in aggressively criticizing President Obama they may “alienate” young Jews “from their aging institutions.”

J Street has been more cautious in taking on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and its spokespeople have disclaimed any intent to challenge the primacy of the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse. Then again, J Street doesn’t have to. From an admiring New York Times Magazine write-up titled “The New Israel Lobby” to articles and blog posts that label J Street an “alternative to AIPAC,” people know a foil when they see one.

The blind spots of the established Jewish groups, meanwhile, have left J Street with an often wide-open playing field. And the group has already made some significant contributions to the national conversation on Israel.

J Street has consistently inserted the concept of America’s national interest into its discussions of Middle East policy, something that established pro-Israel groups often fail to do in a credible fashion. (Instead, they are prone to spout inanities like, There should be “no light” between the public positions of Israel and the United States — a line that should have been tried out on Israeli governments that have publicly supported settlement growth, contrary to the stated desires of successive American administrations.)

J Street has also expanded the pro-Israel tent, enabling a congressional critic of some Israeli policies, such as Rep. Donna Edwards of Maryland, to proudly don the “pro-Israel” mantle. (After all, would the pro-Israel community be better off locked in a downward spiral of acrimony with legislators like her?)

Above all else, J Street brings to the communal table its dogged determination to advance prospects for a two-state solution. Too often, especially when there’s a right-wing government in Jerusalem, established Jewish groups drop the ball on promoting this particular existential interest of the State of Israel.

Indeed, on the issue of West Bank settlements, Jewish groups — even those, such as the ADL, that have no great enthusiasm for the settlement movement — have tended to act as political enablers of an enterprise that threatens to preempt the very possibility of a two-state solution. As J Street’s executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami aptly put it, Israel’s defenders can sometimes be like a friend who would “not only let you drive home drunk but offer you their Porsche and a shot of tequila for the road.”

J Street supporters say that in pushing aggressively for a two-state solution, they are giving voice to the sentiment of the American Jewish mainstream. And they’re not incorrect. The latest installment of the American Jewish Committee’s annual survey of Jewish public opinion found that a significant plurality of American Jews (49%) support the establishment of a Palestinian state under current circumstances. But this year’s AJC survey also found that, in even larger numbers, American Jews are deeply suspicious of the intentions of Israel’s neighbors. Three-quarters of respondents agreed with the statement: “The goal of the Arabs is not the return of occupied territories but rather the destruction of Israel.”

In other words, American Jews may believe that achieving a two-state solution is a vital Israeli interest, but most also know that it is not Israel’s only vital interest. They know that Israel faces many grave threats, not all of which are self-inflicted.

And when it comes to confronting Israel’s enemies in the Middle East, and its most one-sided critics in the West, AIPAC and the alphabet soup of establishment Jewish groups can be counted on to respond with vigor (if not always with wisdom). For all of their shortcomings, these “aging institutions” perform a necessary task that has earned them a measure of loyalty from the Jewish rank-and-file.

J Street, on the other hand, too often comes across as the pro-Israel group that won’t — or simply can’t be bothered to — take Israel’s side in a fight. When Israel launched its military offensive against Hamas in Gaza last December, J Street dashed off a statement that said: “Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong. While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.”

This prompted a fierce rebuke from the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, arguably the American Jewish establishment’s leading dove. Writing in these pages, Yoffie called J Street’s statement “morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve.” Indeed, even if J Street’s concerns over the Gaza offensive have proved to be, in some respects, prescient (but only in some respects, because Operation Cast Lead did, in fact, bring a measure of quiet to southern Israel), the group was clearly tone deaf in its choice of words.

But the Gaza war wasn’t the only time J Street has seemed out of touch. Perusing its early public statements, one could be forgiven for thinking that J Street sees Pastor John Hagee as a greater menace to Israel than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (On its Web site, under the heading “Myths and Facts About J Street,” the group counters complaints over its critical emphasis by noting that it has “also been critical of Holocaust denial by Hamas, the use of the Durban II conference to promote anti-Semitism, and support for violence and incitement against Israel in the Arab world” — hardly pioneering positions for a pro-Israel group.)

For all its zeal in assailing settlement expansion and the foibles of the Jewish right, J Street has not consistently demonstrated a commensurate taste for fighting Israel’s foes. Perhaps it’s because the former and not the latter is what gets its supporters excited. Or maybe J Street simply doesn’t see this as its job. After all, the constellation of established pro-Israel groups have considerably more resources at their disposal, and often do this work quite ably. Still, it’s a little unseemly to scold the pro-Israel establishment, while simultaneously letting it do the heavy lifting of defending Israel.

In its short existence, J Street has assembled a formidable army from the ranks of those who feel alienated from the pro-Israel establishment. But if it wants to move beyond this large but limited base, it needs to show that it is as passionate about standing up for Israel as it is about criticizing Israeli shortsightedness. Only then will J Street win the respect of American Jewry’s Main Street.

Daniel Treiman is the opinion editor of the Forward.


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