Jeffrey Goldberg has finally broken his silence on J Street. Well, not exactly silence, since he’s spoken glancingly about the national conference, though not in any detail. He kept his powder dry for a story he published today which consists of an interview he did with Jeremy Ben Ami. My initial reaction is complicated but mostly favorable.
First, a bit of background. Goldberg is a bellweather Jewish journalist. He buys into what I call the corporate Jewish consensus and has a lot of the bad habits that such Jewish I-P journalists have which I’ve written of here. But he’s sophisticated enough that he sometimes has a trenchant and provocative perspective on issues and takes an independent view of things. So his type of journalist plays a large role in the Jewish community. If he hates you then it gives the radical right a license to kill. If he holds his fire or even speaks favorably, then a whole host of enemies are disempowered.
So I think that Jeremy has done well by engaging Goldberg and attempting to explain J Street to him. And Goldberg, considering the drawbacks to his reporting, has done a pretty decent job in this interview (with a few exceptions–more on that later).
I’d like to focus mostly in this post on the points where I take issue either with Goldberg or Ben Ami. They begin with a discussion of the Walt-Mearsheimer book and Walt’s support for the J Street conference. While Jeremy does well refusing to renounce Walt’s support, both Goldberg (who I expected) and Ben-Ami (who I didn’t) seriously mischaracterize the book’s central tenet. Here is Goldberg:
Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer blame the organized American Jewish community for starting the Iraq War and even helping cause 9/11? It’s a statement of fact, it’s in their book.
This is a typically lazy Goldbergism. You reduce an argument to a slogan or sound byte. The authors of The Israel Lobby don’t blame “the organized Jewish community” for the Iraq war. They blame “Jewish neocons” for the war. That is even overstating it. They blame Jewish neocons for providing some of the key intellectual underpinning for the movement leading to the war. And they claim that the reason for such Jewish neocon support was a sense among them that this would support Israel’s aims in the region. Now, you can argue with this thesis from various angles. But it seems to me that it is at least in part accurate and certainly deserving of serious debate instead of derisive dismissal.
As for blaming the American Jewish community for “helping cause” 9/11, that too is reductionist. Walt and Mearsheimer say that the festering nature of the unsolved Israeli-Arab conflict has allowed Islamist extremism as represented by Al Qaeda to flower. If there was no Arab-Israeli conflict, there might still be an Al Qaeda, but one of its strongest recruiting tools would be eliminated. That’s what these authors really say. You can compare that to Goldberg’s mischaracterization and see how far he is from the truth.
Jeremy too wildly mischaracterizes the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis in this passage:
…When the analysis of that lobby…essentially says that all of American foreign policy is controlled by this one lobby and this one interest group, to me, personally, this does smack of the kind of conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This notion that somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes, this is when you cross that line. I believe that the analysis in the Walt and Mearsheimer book and article crossed that line…
Personally, I think Jeremy should be ashamed. Apparently he hasn’t read the book. If so, he should. At least then he could speak more intelligently about it. The book argues not that all of U.S. foreign policy is “controlled” by Jews (that WOULD be anti-Semitic). Rather it argues that U.S. policy relating to Israel has been largely controlled by the lobby. As for the claim that Walt-Mearsheimer says Jews control this country, that’s astonishingly dumb. I know it sounds good for Jeremy to say this to Goldberg’s audience who has preconceived notions about the book. But currying favor with such an audience doesn’t mean you’re entitled to take liberty with the facts.
I myself have taken issue with certain elements of the Walt-Mearsheimer thesis here. So I’m not saying it is torah l’Moshe mi’Sinai. No, it is fallible in some parts. But it remains a serious thesis worth engaging. And the problem is that neither Goldberg nor Ben-Ami nor virtually any of their pro-Israel critics engage it seriously or factually.
I can understand too why Ben-Ami felt compelled to defend the Law of Return given who his audience was for this interview. But Bernie Avishai has it right on this one, I’m afraid. There should be a carefully defined, limited Right of Return which can be exercised under certain conditions. But aliyah should be an immigration process as it is in all other countries. It should not automatically be a right of any Jew who wishes to exercise it to become a citizen immediately on arrival. Though there certainly should be cases in which such a Right would be exercised.
If the Law of Return IS an automatic right then I simply don’t see how you can ask Palestinians to constrain their own Right of Return. Once again, this is a question of two competing rights. If you want to achieve an equilibrium between peoples and respective rights, then both sides will have to accept compromises of their basic rights.
I have to admit that on reading Jeremy Ben-Ami’s account of our blogger session at the conference, I felt a little like Jesus, when he finds out he’s been denied by the apostle Paul; not to mention that Goldberg completely misrepresents our effort:
JG: On another subject, you’re giving some space at your conference to a group of bloggers who range from the anti-Zionist Max Blumenthal to the anti-Zionist Helena Cobban.
JB: There’s a lunch. They’ve asked us that, since there is a lunch, can we have a room where we who are bloggers on this issue can sit and talk to each other? I mean, give me a break, I’m not giving them any approval whatsoever, and there’s no sanction to their beliefs. I’m just saying, sure, there are seven free rooms on the floor, use one. I’m not going to say, “No you can’t eat lunch together.” I mean really.
JG: They’re not eating lunch together. They’re having a program.
JB: I don’t even know what the program is. They can go into a room – wait, who’s speaking?
JG: Helena Cobban and a bunch of others, I think.
JB: Oh man, come on, Jeffrey. I’m letting them have a room for lunch.
First, Goldberg as usual falls into what I call the lazy journalist’s habit. Instead of doing any research or thinking for himself, he accepts a characterization he’s read somewhere or makes a snap judgment that enables him to dismiss a phenomenon that deserves more attention than he’s willing to give. Helena Cobban certainly is not a Zionist, but neither would I call her an anti-Zionist in the sense that she is opposed to the existence of the State of Israel. While I’ve never queried Max Blumenthal specifically on his views, I’ve never read him to express anti-Zionist views. Goldberg is simply slapping a label on someone so he can put them in a box and be done with them. Unfortunately, the reality of their views is more complicated than he’s willing to allow.
Not to mention that Goldberg lists only two of our twelve bloggers, who range from me, a progressive Zionist to Jerry Haber, an Orthodox Jew and supporter of Judah Magnes and Martin Buber’s views on resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict. Our panel will also include Dan Sieradski, another progressive Zionist who just finished a stint working for JTA. We will also have a Gazan blogger, Palestinian-American, and two Israelis.
I wrote this in an e-mail to Goldberg:
You seem to have focused on the panel members who would support a preconceived notion you have about the ideological danger of this panel. But you’ve left out the true diversity of this panel, which is what makes it a significant event.
Which brings me to a major problem I have with your work sometimes. It can be lazy and reductive. Instead of probing an issue you often take shortcuts and use slogans…Instead of attempting to understand what we might be trying to do you dismiss it with the vague claim that there will be anti-Zionists on the panel. That prevents you from having to actually grapple with the issues we will discuss. And that is unfortunate.
I feel a bit sad that Jeremy Ben-Ami felt he had to deny us in order to protect J Street. But it doesn’t bother me terribly much. I think our panel stands on its own two feet and doesn’t require public recognition or acceptance from the group. In fact, Jeremy in the interview gave us all the recognition that is necessary. The fact that they have allowed us to use a room during the conference is all that we need. Our effort at illuminating the role that the blogosphere plays regarding the I-P conflict will stand on its own and the utility of what we do will prove itself.
Let me also praise what I found a masterful answer Jeremy provided to a provocative question often asked by the pro-Israel right, which claims that by attempting to understand why Palestinians turn to violence against Israel, we are essentially justifying it. I’ve always found this claim noxious and J Street’s director lays it to rest:
JG: …You once said Israel is treating Palestinians in a way that forces them to become terrorists. Could you go into that a little bit more?
JB: …Ehud Barak, in 1999, when he was running for prime minister, said “If I was a young kid growing up in the Palestinian territories, I’d probably be a terrorist, too.” There is a sense of hopelessness, there’s a sense of a lack of future in the Palestinian territories and particularly in Gaza. When an Israeli kid grows up, he wants to launch the next big start-up, they want to make a billion dollars by having an IPO out of their garage, by having the next great idea, right? In Gaza, the kids are growing up wanting to be the next great suicide bomber, and that’s where martyrdom comes in, that’s where fame comes, that’s where family honor comes from, because there’s no other path. So we have to recognize that this is a part of the climate in the Palestinian territories. This is not blaming Israel for terrorism.
JG: Well, it is.
JB: No, it’s not blaming–
JG: Israel is creating conditions for the Palestinians to become terrorists, you’re saying.
JB: In order to solve a problem, you must be able to rationally analyze its causes and discuss the best solutions. And if we can’t have an open and an honest conversation about the role that the conditions in which kids are growing up in the territories plays in their development and what they’re growing up to be, then we’re not going to solve the problem. I’m not casting blame. This is a terrible conflict and there is really absolute hatred and anger about suicide bombing and rockets and terrorism and violence — that is not the way to achieve your hopes and your dreams and your aspirations, and I condemn it and we condemn it, but that’s not enough to really solve the problem. And then I can just close up the doors and say, ‘Well we solved the problem because we condemn the tactics of the other side’ — no, we actually have to solve the problem, so we say, ‘Okay, let’s talk about the problem.’
Here, Goldberg actually asks a very sharp question and Jeremy answers it beautifully:
JG: Are you surprised, pleased, unhappy with the level of controversy that this conference is obviously generating in the Jewish universe?
JB: …I’m very pleased about the controversy. One of the goals of J Street is to open up debate and discussion on these issues, to be able to talk about some very difficult things openly, that there are a lot of people who would prefer you not to talk openly. So the fact that this is actually getting such play means we’re actually fulfilling our mission, so I think that is terrific. What I’m not happy about is that I think it is very bad for our community, very bad for the Jewish people, that some of those who don’t want us to be having this conversation have gone over the line in the way in which they personally attacked and used lies and smears to try to make their point.
In this closing passage of the interview, there are several problematic issues that deserve addressing:
JG: The thing I’m worried about with the conference is that I think most of your supporters are well-meaning, left-of-center Jews who love Israel and are tortured by the various dilemmas, who do stay awake at night worrying about this. But there are others who are glomming on to you guys as a cover, just using you to advance another agenda entirely.
JB: I hope that we have a very strong left flank that attacks us, that Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that are consistently upset with us for backing Howard Berman’s sanctions plan and for refusing to embrace the Goldstone report and for standing up for the right of Israel to defend itself or for its military aid — I hope we get attacked from the left because I would characterize J Street as the mainstream of the American Jewish community.
I find the italicized sentence to be noxious. I presume Goldberg is talking precisely about our blogger event and some of our panel members. To say that we are exploiting J Street’s success in order to promote an anti-Israel agenda is objectionable. That isn’t what our program is about. It is about finding solutions to the conflict that actually provide Israel with security and stability instead of the current slow bleed and daily doses of murder and mayhem.
Regarding Jeremy’s reply to the question, I also object to it. He is using Jewish Voice for Peace as a convenient foil thus allowing him to say to those on his right: “See, we’ve dissociated ourselves from THEM. Aren’t you glad we’re not them?” That does a terrible disservice to the legitimate role that JVP places in this debate.
The very bona fides that Ben Ami raises in this passage to prove J Street’s pro-Israel, Zionist street cred are the points I find most disappointing about the group. Its embrace of Iran sanctions is unconscionable because they simply will not work and J Street has to know that they will not work. There comes a point in political issues when life and death is at stake and you have to stop grandstanding. On the Iran sanctions issue, J Street is triangulating instead of dealing in pragmatic policy.
I can accept a certain amount of tactical maneuvering from the group in order to prevent itself from being demonized by Aipac, the rest of the Israel lobby and the Jewish neocons like Goldfarb. But the tactics and maneuvering must not be allowed to become the whole show. There has to be a moral core that J Street upholds and on which it will not compromise. To my mind, it has not done so. And I view our role as keeping it honest in that regard.