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Jeffrey Goldberg on J Street and the Blogger Panel

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.

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • fiddler October 24, 2009, 3:56 AM

    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.

    In the context of a two-states solution (which J Street supports) immigration rights would be internal matters of each state, not contingent on the respective other state’s laws, and certainly not competing rights. The right of a Jew to immigrate to Israel would not depend on the right of a Palestinian to immigrate to a Palestinian state and vice versa.

    Ideas like equilibrium between peoples and compromises of each people’s rights are relevant in the context of a one-state solution and in the necessary evolution of the status quo with a view to a non-sectarian, democratic future.
    I’d be (pleasantly) surprised if that was your view.

    J.G.: But there are others who are glomming on to you guys as a cover, just using you to advance another agenda entirely.[…]
    To say that we are exploiting J Street’s success in order to promote an anti-Israel agenda is objectionable.

    Far be it from me to read Jeffrey Goldberg’s mind, but I read his remark the other way round: he wasn’t criticising you (for exploiting J Street’s success) but J Street for having supposedly unwanted allies such as Richard Silverstein, Hamas, Abu Mazen, Ahmadinejad, Nasrallah, etc, who all oppose the occupation (and therefore must all be alike).
    Of course that’s moronic, but it’s what you get when you divide the world in either for or against Israel.

  • Donald October 24, 2009, 2:45 PM

    Interesting. I’m on J Street’s email list and I guess they’re still a small enough group with few enough people that they actually send back personal responses to a couple of emails I’ve sent them. Which I thought cool.

    It now turns out they only wanted lefty support as a stepping stone (sort of like Obama). I should have known once they got onto the front cover of the NYT Sunday Magazine it would be time to start purging the ranks of their supporters, to become fully mainstream.

    I guess I can put up with their political machinations if the end result is a just solution for both sides. The odds of that don’t look too good right now. If they don’t help achieve that, then it’s just another power struggle between two lobbying groups, of no interest at all.

  • nedster October 24, 2009, 4:23 PM

    Richard, Mobius wrote this article on J-Street’s feint to the right & alienation of the left. http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-27877-NY-Israel-Policy-Examiner~y2009m10d24-Peace-lobby-breaks-from-left-as-conference-approaches

    I wish to respond to this para from the Mobemeister:

    “In response to Ben-Ami’s interview with Goldberg, one reputed anti-Zionist blogger, Mark Elf of Jews Sans Frontieres, quipped on Twitter that J Street was ‘AIPAC-lite.'”

    — To be precise, it was I, Nedster a JSF co-blogger, who twitted that line. I’d like to explain it a bit. At Sully’s link, http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/10/talking-j-street.html he quotes Ben-Ami as saying that cutting aid to Israel is never an option on the table. Which prompted this response from Sully:

    “What’s interesting here is that J-Street’s head insists that the only serious lever the US has over Israel should be taken off the table before any deal is even negotiated. This is the lefty, peacenik, goddamned hippie position! Military aid, mind you, is already formally illegal because of Israel’s secret nuclear bomb program (which no American president can, you know, mention), but is retained because, well, because it would never be repealed by the Congress. And so Netanyahu knows he can do anything he wants without any real blowback from the US. And he has about as much interest in a two-state solution as I have in marrying a woman.

    “This leaves the US with no leverage over a central party in critical discussions which indeed affect the national security of Americans. In what other case does that apply?”
    I agree w/Sully. If the liberal-left wing of Zionism refuses to countenance bringing any real pressure on Bibi to stop building, that is, stop forking over our money to their treasury, it’s as good as giving him their good housekeeping seal of approval for building roads & chalets in Efrat & Itamar. Ergo: AIPAC-lite (a term coined by Abunimah, not I.)

  • Andy October 24, 2009, 7:55 PM

    “…that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes…”

    The so-called “neo-conservatives” (who are neither “conservative” nor “neo-“, but that’s another comment for another time) are unabashed imperialists, and are quite upfront about it. There’s nothing remotely ‘conspiratorial’ about them.

  • robyn tevah October 25, 2009, 6:39 AM

    Thank you for this piece. I had been planning on going to the conference, but was quite disturbed by some of Ben Ami’s answers. (J street does not go far enough for me.) Your analysis at least made more sense of their context.
    I think I look forward to the blogger’s lunch most of all however!

  • Warren October 25, 2009, 1:19 PM

    Goldberg is a plain hack, Richard. It’s nice of you to want to find something redeeming in there, a testimony to your general good will and humanity, but Goldberg’s portrayal of the Walt-Mearsheimer book is just plain old deception and intellectual dishonesty. I seriously doubt he’s even read it. This is indicative of his journalistic standards in general, and in a civilized, sane country with its head up, he would not be considered a serious journalist. The fact that he occasionally throws out a few crumbs of contrarianism that might stick in the craw of the pseudo-fascists over at Commentary, does not mean he’s a critical thinker. Have our standards become so low? At least an H.L. Mencken, notwithstanding his annoying prejudices, had dazzling raw color and verve and some real literary meat to his writing.

    I’m afraid J Street is indeed looking more and more like Aipac-lite, and, no, that isn’t good enough. I’m glad they’re giving you guys a space to do your thing (now you Philip, Helena and the rest really are shining lights in the wilderness), however, J Street’s positions to date do not indicate an organization of solid moral core and foundation. Their objection to the targeted and principled stance of the Toronto Film Festival protestors, and their support for sanctions against Iran, show an organization that really doesn’t get it.

    Why exactly is it wrong for Iran to pursue nuclear power, or even—gasp—nuclear weapons (which there’s no actual indication they’re currently doing)? Israel has scads of nuclear weapons and I don’t see J Street protesting that. Israel has shown itself to be a far more consistently brutal regime than Iran. I don’t see Iran dispatching defenseless Palestinian children willy-nilly like they’re out on some perverse human safari, as Israel is wont to do. Israel is arguably the most brutal & destructive-of-human-life regime in the Middle East today. Saudi Arabia is probably second in line a little ways back (note that these shining lights are our two biggest “allies” in the Middle East). Iraq under Saddam would have been a serious contender in this group (you can’t count contemporary Iraq and Afghanistan because those are wars WE started—thanks in part to the Israel lobby—and are hence responsible for).

    I’m glad that an increasing number of American Jews have found their consciences (are dusting them off) and are seeing a problem with the behavior of the Jewish state. I realize the looking in the mirror moment must be very psychologically difficult for a lot of (American) Jews, particularly when they’ve been indoctrinated to think of Israel as a supremely moral, superior place existing in a hostile sea of barbaric sub-humans, but after the IDF’s display of its ‘values’ in Gaza back in January, and the continuing immense Palestinian suffering, we need more than these baby half-steps away from Aipac fanaticism. I just don’t see the fundamental change coming from J Street, sorry. And if J Sreet is falsely seen as a real alternative, it once again warps our already badly warped American debate, wherein humane, rational voices informed by Enlightenment values seem to inevitably get shunted to the side and marginalized.

    • Shirin October 25, 2009, 11:32 PM

      J Street is indeed looking more and more like Aipac-lite

      J Street has always been AIPAC lite. That was obvious to some of us after about the first five seconds. The only reason others did not see it right away was that they were blinded by hope. The fact that a few more people are beginning to see J Street for what it really is is a good thing.

      the IDF’s display of its ‘values’ in Gaza back in January

      Yes, well, here is the part I don’t get. The IDF, and the Israeli government, have freely displayed their “values” ever since they came into existence, so why did it take Gaza, 2008-2009 to get people’s attention. What they did in Lebanon in 2006 was no less horrific, and no more justified, and one could give a chronology of IDF mass murder and mayhem going back to 1948 that would make most people’s hair stand on end, and have them screaming for justice. So, what was so special about Israel’s latest massive spasm of violence that people finally sat up and took notice after all these decades?

      • Warren October 26, 2009, 6:50 PM

        Good point. I don’t profess to know the history of Israel’s oppression of and crimes against the Palestinians like you do. I know there was widespread ethnic cleansing perpetrated against Palestinians from the founding of the state, and since. I’m just an American outraged at my country’s Middle East foreign policy and I know Israel is a very big piece of it. I feel helpless a lot of time (like I think a lot of Americans do).

        The recent Gaza massacre is something to hold onto precisely because it was recent, and some images I’ve seen from it just sear in my mind. You can grasp onto it and it’s an effective illustration of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, as is the blockade.

  • Stephen Frug October 26, 2009, 12:32 PM

    Jesus, when he finds out he’s been denied by the apostle Paul

    It was Peter, not Paul, who denied Jesus thrice. And Jesus actually predicts it, so “finds out… he’s been” is a bit oddly phrased.

  • Rachel Barenblat October 26, 2009, 1:09 PM

    Thanks again for orchestrating the blogger panel, which I really enjoyed. I did my best to post notes from that panel: [JStreet] Unofficial Israeli-Palestinian Blogger Lunch Session. Please feel free to circulate the URL among the panelists (I’m doing my best to do as well) and let folks know that I welcome corrections and amendations — I’m sure I made mistakes and will happily fix them if people let me know what they are!

  • orgo October 26, 2009, 6:37 PM

    Rachel: you note an audience member asked: “Whether the solution is BDS or not, one state or two-state, what’s the way to move?”

    Did anyone comment on BDS?

    • Richard Silverstein October 28, 2009, 8:51 PM

      I raised it as a topic for discussion for the panel but I don’t recall that anyone took me up on it. We had 90 mins. w. 13 bloggers so it was tough to pursue any one subject in any sort of comprehensive way.

  • Mike October 27, 2009, 10:12 PM

    The thing I found most dispiriting about the interview was the way Ben-Ami repeatedly dismissed the notion that American military aid to Israel might ever be even referenced as a lever in changing the Israeli government’s behavior at some point in the future not just as something to be avoided at all costs, but as an illegitimate thing for Americans to even consider as a possibility. As if sustained military aid to Israel at the present level is a perpetual fiduciary duty of the United States and not a discretionary commitment that we keep because of shared interest and a close alliance.

    it’s not that I expect him to say aid should be on the table, but something about the way his language suggests he sees his position in this country with respect to that question really bugs me.

    • Mike October 27, 2009, 10:22 PM

      Looked at it again — it’s not as bad as I thought the first time. Certainly he’s clear how he sees the question, though.

  • Alan October 27, 2009, 10:38 PM

    What I find disturbing is Ben-Ami’s comment to Goldberg:
    “…[leftist groups are upset with J Street] for refusing to embrace the Goldstone report and for standing up for the right of Israel to defend itself.”

    Refusing to embrace the Goldstone report is not the same as standing up for the right of Israel to defend itself. Goldstone clearly stated in his report and in interviews like the recent one with Bill Moyers that Israel has every right to defend itself. This is a false juxtaposition that distorts the truth. I want J Street to stand for truth and justice, without resorting to the sort of lies we have been getting for AIPAC for years.

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