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If J Street Wants the Political Center, Why Not Join Aipac?

The first time I heard Alan Dershowitz lecture Hadar Susskind at the Aipac conference telling him that J Street should join Aipac, I thought it was typical grandstanding by the right-wing pro-Israel huckster (I still think that).  But the longer I think about what he said and J Street’s pronounced move from the left to the political center, the more sense he makes.

I can also remember how J Street, when it began, ran like the plague from any notion, at least publicly, of criticizing Aipac or setting itself up as an alternative to Aipac.  To most of us on the left, it was clear that if J Street was ever to represent anything it would have to take on Aipac and beat it at its own game.  It turns out though, that we should have read the tea leaves and understood that the J Street leadership’s allergy to criticizing Aipac was not a tactic, but a strategy genuinely expressed.

Now, Shmuel Rosner, aping Dersh, wonders if J Street feels so cozy with the Israel government why doesn’t it join Aipac. He wrote this on the subject:

An Israeli familiar with the content of J Street’s meetings in Israel this week had said that “they sounded not much different from the visitors we have in AIPAC delegations”…It raises an old question: Why can’t they just join AIPAC instead of competing with them?…But there’s another way of looking at it: Maybe as a separate organization with more credibility on the left J Street can help Israel more by way of helping curb the wacky initiatives of the far left (like divestment in Berkeley).

I’d never quite thought of the fact that J Street either intentionally or unintentionally may serve to co-opt the political energy of the American Jewish peace movement.  Progressives funnel their energy into the organization which transmutes it in turn into  faintly liberal pro-Israel substance that bears only a slight resemblance to the actual political values of many of those progressives.  In this way, J Street contributes to the dumbing down of progressive Jewish politics.

Before I note some more of Rosner’s portrayals of Ben-Ami’s statements, I should add that Rosner is a terrible journalist, totally incapable of allowing his own right-wing prejudices from distorting everything he reports.  So it’s possible that the characterizations below of Ben-Ami’s opinion, none of which are actual quotations of anything Ben-Ami says, may be less than accurate.  Not to mention that it is in Rosner’s political interest to paint J Street as deviating from its original progressive political agenda and drifting farther right.  But given what I’ve read of Ben-Ami’s views elsewhere, and the lack of complaint by Ben Ami about misconstruing his views, we’ll take them as more or less accurate:

He seems quite happy about the bettering of relations with Israeli officialdom. My interpretation: He’d like this to continue, and is willing to pay a price for it.

Not once in the conversation – not once! – was there a word of criticism regarding Israeli policies. The only word of criticism I heard from Ben Ami this week was directed at the Palestinian leadership and its reluctance to go back to negotiations.

Is Netanyahu serious about negotiations? Ben Ami says he was convinced that Netanyahu is serious…

this is significant: Ben Ami doesn’t criticize Netanyahu and says he is serious about negotiations. Some J Street enthusiasts back home aren’t going to be happy – and Ben Ami knows this, and doesn’t seem to care much.

Ben Ami emphasized that J Street will not support boycott or divestment. Such position will also drive the more radical elements of the Jewish-sphere away from the organization.

In a related story, J Street’s national spokesperson scolded a local Brandeis chapter leader who criticized neocon University President Yehudah Reinharz’s choice of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren as commencement speaker.  She said her organization “welcomed” Oren as commencement speaker.

There was a time when I might chalk all this up to the organizational leadership allowing itself to get boxed in or outmaneuvered on issues.  But the logic of having a sulha with Michael Oren, and breaking bread with Shimon Peres, and expressing a willingness to meet with settler leaders seems to be a deliberate move to the center.  And this move to the center precisely mirrors the Labor party’s gradual movement away from its founding principles under the tutelage of none other than Shimon Peres (till he was moved by Sharon’s blandishments and abandoned Labor for Kadima) and now Ehud Barak.

Many of us over many years held out hope for the Israeli liberal Zionist parties that they could represent a distinct political voice for peace and justice.  That same romance some of us may have had with J Street before it began and up until its national conference seems to be cooling rapidly.

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  • Kalea May 2, 2010, 11:26 PM

    I’m glad you’re unmasking J Street and getting the word out. Again, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the pursuit of justice, and issues of conscience and morality should take precedence over political ideology, and party or lobby affiliations, so that when the party or lobby places its own agenda above what’s morally right the priorities I mentioned remain the same and continue to lead the way while those other loyalties lose their significance, never the other way around.

    The issue of Israel’s injustice and oppression of the Palestinians should be addressed within the broader context of conscience and morality that rises above left or right-wing affiliations or political ideology.

    There is no disillusionment when one expects nothing more than to be true to one’s conscience on all matters trusting that this kind of integrity will persevere. The issue of injustice and apartheid-like oppression is a question of conscience and morality and one chooses to side with these often at the expense of other “loyalties”.

    What can I say? I’m not surprised. However, I hate to think that J Street adopted the moral high-ground at the beginning with the intent of luring Progressive-minded Jews to a shallow center away from their conscience to remain loyal to the untenable status quo that Israelis cling to and Americans enable under Aipac’s direction or whether there is another incentive for losing one’s moral compass. If it’s the latter, I can’t imagine what it could be.

    • Gene Schulman May 3, 2010, 5:04 AM

      Yes, I too have been on Richard’s case about JStreet for a long time. Their ideology was made quite clear to me after several email exchanges with Ben-Ami. I feel they have conned progressive Jews, just as Obama has conned the progressive Americans who believed in Hope and Change. Unfortunately, this is what our world has come to, just one big con game. Now there is a new movement in Europe, similar to JStreet, called Jcall http://www.Jcall.eu. As I told them when they solicited me to sign their petition to end the settlement movement, they too will be co-opted by the Lobby.

      • evildeor May 3, 2010, 6:34 AM

        Bernard Henri Levy is one of the initiator. How can anything BHL does on be “co-opted?” He is the personification of co-optation.

        • Kalea May 3, 2010, 7:21 AM

          I remember Bernard H. Levy’s comments during the Gaza Invasion. Total Aipac blather straight from the Hasbara Handbook.

  • evildeor May 2, 2010, 11:29 PM

    d never quite thought of the fact that J Street either intentionally or unintentionally may serve to co-opt the political energy of the American Jewish peace movement.

    Not to boast “I told you so”, but I told you so. So maybe you should visit JSF more often, because that was my analysis of J-Street from the start. Indeed, isn’t that exactly what AIPAC itself did to Jews after the Vietnam war?

    http://jewssansfrontieres.blogspot.com/2009/11/yada-yada-street-episode-ii-ben-ami.html

    http://jewssansfrontieres.blogspot.com/2009/11/yada-yada-street-episode-i-matt.html

    • Richard Silverstein May 3, 2010, 12:25 AM

      I think you had it right by & large. But you & I come at things fr. different angles perhaps. I don’t know your background, but mine came directly out of a Conservative synagogue, youth movement, etc. I attended Jewish Theological Seminary, spent two years studying at Hebrew Univ. There may be some people I know with a background similar to mine but politics similar to yours, but I don’t know of any. You have a slashingly criticial view of a lot of things I have marginally more sympathy for (though my right wing readers will heartily disagree). I still haven’t totally written J St. off for example while you did way back when it began.

      I don’t think I’ve ever written anything critical of JSF, though you’re right, I haven’t been a regular reader. I’m very open to reading yr work. Send me a link when you post on a topic you think would interest me.

      • evildeor May 3, 2010, 1:58 AM

        Yes, I do come from another “synagogue,” that of Marx and friends, ;-) FYI, http://twitter.com/jewssf carries news of JSF articles (marked with @jewssf to distinguish them from mere links. ) Thanks!

  • lasttrumpet May 3, 2010, 2:49 AM

    correction:

    The J-Street trip did not meet with settlers in Hebron. They met with the Palstinian governor, students from Hebron U, someone from the Hebron rehabilitation fund and nonviolent community activists.

    (I know because I was there)

    • Richard Silverstein May 3, 2010, 11:21 AM

      Jeremy himself said in a published interview they would meet with settlers from Hebron. If they didn’t then something or someone changed those plans. Or else he meant to say something diff. than what he actually said.

    • Richard Silverstein May 3, 2010, 11:43 AM

      Let me explain myself and my error. I was imprecise because I was writing from memory rather than examining Jeremy’s actual statements before characterizing them. He has said he would meet with settler leaders and non violent Hebron Palestinian activists. I conflated those 2 statements again by writing fr. memory. But I am guessing based on his statement that he planned to meet with Palestinian activists in Hebron (& did so) that he must’ve intended to meet with settlers and either met with them in another settlement or else changed his plans if he met w. no settlers. I for one am glad that he didn’t meet w. Hebron settlers who are an awful lot.

      I should add that there are Israeli Jews living in settlements who I would be willing to meet with such as Menachem Froman and a reader of this blog, Myron Joseph. But I doubt they would be the ones J Street would choose to meet with if it met w. settlers.

      I have corrected this error in the post.

  • bar_kochba132 May 3, 2010, 6:27 AM

    Richard-
    I should clarify the question I asked you in the previous thread: Have you been officially a member of J-Street, and have you, in the past, actively recruited people to join it, particularly in its formative stage and around the time they had their national conference which you participated in? If so, what was the response of Jewish progressives you approached. What I am trying to ascertain is whether there was skepticism then as to what J-Street’s policies really were. The impression I had from reading blogs of people who attended the national conference was that the people who came were closer to your views than the official line was, even then, and all the more so today.

    • Richard Silverstein May 3, 2010, 12:01 PM

      J Street doesn’t have “members.” I have contributed to the group and its candidates. I was on the local chapter mailing list till recently & am on the national mailing list. I have written positively about J St. in the past & organized a panel at the national conference. I haven’t directly recruited anyone to do anything on behalf of J St. except through this blog.

      Feelings about J St. were mixed. Some had high hopes. SOme were skeptical. I tended to be more on the “high hopes” side though I quickly tempered some of that enthusiasm with realistic understanding that there would be divergences bet. my views & J St.’s. I hoped at the time that the differences would be tactical rather than strategic. But as time goes by my differences tend to be more basic & less cosmetic.

      Yes, I think the J St. rank & file is more progressive than the leadership. After all, when Eric Yoffie attacked Richard Goldstone at the conference the Reform leader was roundly booed. Other liberal speakers were treated w. similar disquiet when they made similarly unprogressive statements.

  • Dana May 3, 2010, 7:54 AM

    One thing to remember about J Street and lobbying organizations in general: the money that funds them to allow them to grow is more conservative than the rank and file. Money is, by its nature, conservative (with very few exceptions). That’s why the Jewish establishment leaders (whether AIPAC or not) are considerably more conservative than the jewish people as a whole. The “establishment” leadership knows it needs a lot more money than individual contributors can put together. It needs money to be effective – especially in a lobby-infested environment like the US system.

    Ben Ami and friends may have meant all they said at the beginning. But as the organization grew, the leadership started running with a different camp of people, towards that elusive “center’ where all groups end up – left and right (just watch this happen with the tea party – which is being co-opted by the GOP – in return for a marginal nod to Ron Paulism, even as Ron paul himself continues to be sidelined).

    Some of what’s happening to j Street is simply the politics of power making its way through the “grass roots” just as it’s done to the bolsheviks of old. I think this is the pattern JSF notes clearly.

    personally I have always felt that Obama may have been the way the power establishment that rules us all, co-opted the progressive left to support american military ventures – be they in Iraq or Afganistan or Yemen. Just as the same “powers-that-be” first co-opted the GOP – under Bush – to bring neocon policies into the republican mainstream. This is a phenomenon no one has done more to note than Glenn Greenwald. It’s part of the “Look forward, not backward” mentality now simply taking over J street. The “it’s not wrong when our side does it’ way of seeing things. I see for example the pattern on left blogs as we speak. the battle lines redrawn daily on blog diaries like DailyKos, where progressives are being hitched to the wagons of the “powers-that-be”.

    This may sound conspiratorial but it’s really – at its core – just power politics playing itself out in new media and a bit faster than it used to be. Personally, I’ll be sorry to see Ben Ami all chewed up and spat out – seduced with influence peddling and empty verbiage about “peace”.

    • Donald May 3, 2010, 8:35 AM

      That was a very good summary of Obama, J Street and most of American politics.

  • HHM May 3, 2010, 10:42 AM

    There might well be a human-rights based alternative to J-Street: The International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN)

    http://www.ijsn.net/

    Points of Unity

    While we all come from diverse organizing and activist experiences, and have diverse relationships to our Jewish histories and identities, we share the following points of unity:

    * Solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian self-determination, including full political, economic, cultural, social and land rights for all those living in the historic Palestine, and the right of return for its refugees;
    * Rejection of the Israeli apartheid state, premised on Jewish supremacy and Zionist ideology, and support for all struggles for legal and economic equality against it;
    * Support for the building of just societies in historic Palestine, the larger region, and the other places in which we live;
    * A commitment to the values of democratic self-determination, social justice and solidarity, gender equality and cultural rights, and to assert the same values in our own organizing and political practice;
    * Commitment to the call from Palestine for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel;
    * Challenging the current use of Islamophobia as a strategy for defending and justifying an imperialist US-European agenda;
    * Challenging white racism, including its manifestations as Ashkenazi racism against Mizrahi Jews;
    * Challenging the privileging of Jewish voices in conversations and negotiations about Palestine;
    * Rejection of the ways in which the Zionist movement and Western governments exploit the Nazi holocaust to justify the historic and current actions of the State of Israel; and
    * Rejection of alliances with anti-Jewish racists, white supremacist and Nazi holocaust deniers in our Palestinian solidarity work.

    • Richard Silverstein May 3, 2010, 11:17 AM

      I am not an anti-Zionist.

      • Mary Hughes-Thompson May 3, 2010, 9:36 PM

        I am an anti-Zionist, based on the definition of Zionism given me by my Jewish friends. Since all of these Jewish friends are anti-Zionists, perhaps I should be making a comparison between their definition and the one accepted by Zionists. I know I have brought this up before, because I truly want to know just what it is to be a Zionist so that I will know what it is to be anti-Zionist. Because I agree with Richard on just about every point he makes, I am always troubled by this question.

      • Gene Schulman May 4, 2010, 6:21 AM

        You should be. Zionism is the worst thing that has befallen the Jewish people, not to speak of the Palestinian people. And it was foisted on them long before the Holocaust came along to give them any justification for it.

    • Kalea May 3, 2010, 10:09 PM

      In my opinion, Zionism is incompatible with Justice and Democracy, and I’m glad to see a movement that understands this.

  • Alan May 3, 2010, 6:56 PM

    I have believed for some time that J Street is a scam. It is likely an intentional cooptive mechanism designed to capture and muzzle the voices of progressive Jews. I am almost ready to believe that J Street was secretly founded by AIPAC itself.

    Perhaps this is a paranoid view, but I cannot understand how J Street can consistently criticize Israel’s critics (examples: Berkeley divestment, Toronto declaration, and most disgustingly, Richard Goldstone) without criticizing Israel itself.

    I would ask everyone to question the validity of J Street and to proceed with caution. Do not be fooled.