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J Street and the Death of Liberal Zionism

At first glance, it may appear downright curmudgeonly to speak ill of J Street as it triumphantly open its second annual conference.  I attended its first conference in 2009 and hosted an unofficial progressive blogger panel there.  Since then I’ve had a testy relationship with the group which has eventually led me to sever ties with it.  One of my initial disagreements involved its decision to exclude Jewish Voice for Peace from the first conference.  It also excluded Michael Lerner of Tikkun Magazine.

The second time around they’ve embraced some of the previously excluded in ways tentative or hearty depending on how closely they embody the liberal Zionist ethic the group represents.  New Israel Fund, Peace Now and Tikkun Magazine have each received their own panels to showcase their work.  Jewish Voice for Peace, however, hasn’t quite come in from the cold.  Its director, Rebecca Vilkomerson, will participate in a BDS panel with three opponents of the concept.  Jeremy Ben-Ami made some typically condescending comments to Washington Jewish Week in which he reassured mainstream Jews not to worry about Vilkomerson’s views infecting the J Street body politic because merely hearing them at the conference would prove to listeners the error of JVP’s ways:

Ben-Ami…said he is not concerned that the appearance of Vilkomerson might legitimize BDS. Rather, she was invited to air her views, he explained, so that conference attendees who might be “tempted” to embrace BDS will think otherwise after they see its moral and tactical failings exposed in debate.

This is the condescending, dismissive, litmus-test-driven J Street which drives me up a wall.  The Israeli-Arab conflict should be beyond ideology.  It should be beyond deciding for the parties how many states there should be.

I’ve reviewed the speakers and generally (with a few exceptions) I find the American speakers are standard issue liberal Zionist fare including figures like Dennis Ross, Peter Beinart, Gershom Gorenberg, Bernard Avishai, Ken Bob, Daniel Sokatch, Daniel Levy, and David Saperstein.  [UPDATE: a characteristically thin-skinned Gershom Gorenberg  writes to complain that he is Israeli, though interestingly doesn’t reject the “liberal Zionist” label.  The fact that Gorenberg was born in the U.S., retains U.S. citizenship and earns a considerable portion of his living in and from the U.S. seems to have been lost on him.  But I promise I’ll call him an Israeli-American liberal Zionist next time.]  But the Israelis are a different story.  There are of course the typical Israeli pols, Knesset members who bring little to the table except the ability to flatter J Street that it is hobnobbing with the Israeli power structure.

But there are several young Israeli leaders of the Sheikh Jarrah movement who will speak, notably Assaf Sharon and Sara Benninga.  Also, there is Daniel Seidemann of Ir Amim, Michael Sfard of Yesh Din, Jessica Montell of B’Tselem, Oded Naaman of Breaking the Silence.  This shows that J Street has at least recognized that they represent something vital is Israeli dissident politics.  However, the group’s leaders have over-romanticized the Israeli movement and freighted it with far too much significance.  There is a tendency among the liberal Zionists to view Sheikh Jarrah as the Great White Hope for revival of an Israeli left.  J Street is no exception.  Note that it’s titled the panel on which the Israelis will appear: The Revival of the Israeli Left. Sheikh Jarrah isn’t the revival of the Israeli left.  It is a successful political concept which most likely cannot be grown into a national movement because of its inherent limitations, which make it good at what it IS doing.

An added problem for J Street is that while the Sheikh Jarrah movement is just about the only bright spot on the Israeli left, it is decidedly not liberal Zionist.  So what is left of the Israeli left may appear at this conference, but J Street will find that the Israelis are much closer in spirit and independence to Jewish Voice for Peace than J Street.  What is exciting about Sheikh Jarrah is that it doesn’t toe a party line.  It doesn’t call for an any state solution, one or two.  It is a single issue group and that is it’s power.

J Street has included precisely three Palestinians in its conference program (and two Palestinian-Americans).  One of the former is Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, who tonight delivered his powerful words of faith and hope.  But a Jewish peace group has to do better than including a smattering of Palestinian voices in its deliberations.

A number of people I like and respect like Matt Duss, Didi Remez and Mitchell Plitnick are either participating in the conference or blogging hopefully about it.  While I continue to admire them I think ultimately they’re wasting their breath. J Street is an empty shell. Yes, they run a good conference.  But what are they when they’re not running a conference?  Where are they on the issues?  All over the place.  They were for Cast Lead till they were against it.  They were for and against the Goldstone Report, a pretty neat trick.  They were against Iran sanctions till they were for them.  Jeremy Ben Ami wasn’t taking George Soros’ money till he was.  They have an identity crisis.

Jeremy Ben Ami specializes in the old Clinton triangulation strategy.  You tack straight down the middle between right and left.  By doing so you gain the respect of the broad middle that eschews tags of extreme ideology or partisanship.  But there’s one big problem with this approach.  There is no “broad middle” that remains in either the American Jewish community or Israel.  There is the far right, which is dominant and the left which is largely quiescent.  So by hewing to a middle road you essentially satisfy very few.

J Street is also a lobbying group that supports liberal Democrats who support Israel and peace.  They contribute substantial funds to Congressional candidates.  But frankly, I don’t see this as being where the action in regarding either the Israeli-Arab conflict or even U.S. policy toward Israel, just as I see the Knesset as an irrelevant institution to political decision-making within Israel.

J Street is largely a cheering section for Obama administration policy in the Middle East.  It is true that it lobbied against a veto of the latest UN Security Council resolution against settlements.  But it lost that round.  And one could argue that the abject failure of Obama’s strategy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has left J Street with no horse on which to bet.  The group would have to stake out some independent ground since Obama has been shown to have nothing to offer.

Liberal Zionism is dead and J Street is liberal Zionism personified. It’s like the Sean Penn character in Dead Man Walking.  While it isn’t precisely dead, it is close to being irrelevant.  And in politics that’s as good as dead.  J Street abandoned us.  It is too timid to represent real change or a hopeful message for the future.  It waffles.  It fudges.  It performs ideological litmus tests to determine who’s welcomed inside the tent.  And anyone who believes it represents something vital or hopeful in the long-term is deluding him or herself.

While some may think I’m being overly harsh with J Street if they feel about it as I once did–that it represents a potential for something new in the American Jewish community.  But the truth is that J Street will either eventually embrace ideas it currently labels anathema, or it will rapidly become irrelevant.  Given what I’ve seen, I don’t see it taking the kind of bold positions that are vital to encourage real change on the Israeli political scene.  Israel needs tough love and Jeremy Ben Ami offers parve.

{ 48 comments… add one }
  • Gene Schulman February 27, 2011, 3:07 AM

    Well, Richard, I’m not one who likes to say I told you so, but I did a long time ago. I’m glad to see you’ve seen the light. I didn’t realize you had so early on.

    From the beginning JStreet has been nothing but a self-congratulatory ego gig for Luria, ben Ami and their friends. It has never accomplished anything. Actually, I don’t think it ever intended to do anything but try to take some heat away from Aipac and the lobby. Early on they admitted to me they were definitely a part of the lobby. By continuing to push for a two state solution, which any thinking person knows is dead, they are on the wrong side of history. And featuring guests like Dennis Ross is the give away. Why don’t they invite the rest of the neocon cabal while they’re at it?

    • Shai February 27, 2011, 9:14 AM

      Any thinking person knows a two state solution is dead? What exactly do you think is the most likely scenario? A one state solution?

      • Gene Schulman February 27, 2011, 12:07 PM

        Ultimately, yes!

        • Shai February 27, 2011, 12:32 PM

          And how do you suggest such a thing will happen? Will Israel fully absorb the West Bank and Gaza? Will there be a completely new state, perhaps one that is not even a parliamentary republic?

          • Sh irin February 27, 2011, 7:45 PM

            Will Israel fully absorb the West Bank and Gaza?

            Oh, yeah, now THERE’s a really just solution!

            Will there be a completely new state, perhaps one that is not even a parliamentary republic?

            How interesting what choices you choose to present and not present. What about a completely new state that does not by definition create an elite tier and lower tiers of citizens by explicitly defining itself in terms of a specific ethnicity or religion. What about a completely new state that is explicitly for all its citizens equally regardless of ethnicity or religion? In other words, how about a state that is not Jewish, or Arab, or Muslim, or Christian, or Druze, but a secular, pluralistic democracy? Have you thought about that possibility at all?

          • Gene Schulman February 28, 2011, 1:36 AM

            Nope. The other way around. Palestine will absorb all of Israel. There will then be one state for two peoples – if the the Israelis are willing to remain.

          • Shai February 28, 2011, 5:23 AM


            Me: “Will there be a completely new state?”
            You: “What about a completely new state?”

            What the hell?


            How do you think that will happen? Natural population growth of Israeli Palestinians? Do you think they will eventually have the most seats in the Knesset? Or what?

          • Shirin February 28, 2011, 1:38 PM

            Don’t try to be cute, Shai. It’s not working.

          • Shai February 28, 2011, 4:52 PM

            I seriously have no idea what you want from me. You are trying to find something that’s not there. Move on, I wasn’t trying to suggest anything. It was an honest question. The only possibility I did not include was the absorption of Israel by Palestine which honestly I can’t see as a possbility at all.

          • Sh irin March 1, 2011, 10:18 PM

            Oh, come on! Look at what you wrote.

          • Shai March 2, 2011, 10:16 AM

            I looked at it again, thinking maybe I mistyped something… but I still can’t find anything wrong with it. I listed the absorption of the West Bank and Gaza by Israel and the formation of a completely new state that might not be a parliamentary republic (what Israel is). Those are the only two possibilities I think are realistic.

          • Shirin March 2, 2011, 2:30 PM

            Seriously? You can only see those two possibilities as being realistic?


          • Shai March 2, 2011, 4:47 PM

            I think they are realistic but I don’t think either of them will happen. I don’t think a one state solution will happen at all. The most likely thing to happen is still a two state solution IMO.

      • Mary Hughes-Thompson February 28, 2011, 6:52 AM

        Of course. Hopefully soon.

      • Duhay February 28, 2011, 1:35 PM

        How about a three state solution.
        Israel remains in tact, Gaza goes back to the newly formed democracy in Egypt and The West Bank reverts back to Jordan.

        • Shirin February 28, 2011, 1:39 PM

          Ah yes, a twist on the old “Jordan is Palestine” canard.

      • Vicky March 1, 2011, 4:08 AM


        As a result of the policies that Israel has been pursuing in the occupied territories, the viability of a two-state solution has taken a serious battering. This is mostly because of the obvious thing – large-scale settlement expansion, facilitated by the lucrative financial incentives that the Israeli government offers to settlers. However, there are other significant reasons why a just two-state solution will be very hard to reach – most notably the ongoing plunder of the OPT’s natural resources.

        Water is the best example here. Israel controls every aquifer in the West Bank. Eighty per cent of the water supply is piped directly into Israel, ten per cent goes to the settlements, and the Palestinians are sold what remains at highly inflated prices. Israel is being very reckless with the aquifers and the damage is significant. It may soon be permanent – if this continues, in ten years’ time the water will be too contaminated for use. And this is the water supply that Israel would leave for the future Palestinian state. There are plans to build desalination plants in order to serve the Israeli population – but what about the people here? Where would their water come from? They would have to buy it in from Israeli desalination plants, at prices set by Israel. The new Palestinian state would remain a captive market, and not just for water. There is a real risk that the oppressive economic policies currently used to keep the OPT in its impoverished condition will be embedded in the two-state solution, making it just a formalised continuation of the occupation’s ill effects. It’s difficult to see how that risk can be reduced successfully.

        Personally I think that a one-state solution would be best economically and also morally. Division and segregation have been used to fuel the conflict, so it seems paradoxical to me that separation would be offered as part of the solution. It’s never helped anybody. I don’t want a wall to be between me and my Israeli friends in Jerusalem, but I don’t want an international border to be between us either. I want to be able to get on the bus on the spur of the moment and just visit. That would be a happier way to live.

        • Sh irin March 1, 2011, 6:30 AM

          As a result of the policies that Israel has been pursuing in the occupied territories, the viability of a two-state solution has taken a serious battering.

          It’s taken more than a serious battering, Israel has killed it. But that was always the plan. Since the Partition Resolution Israeli leaders have been bent on preventing a Palestinian state from coming into being, and that certainly did not change after 1967. What changed then was that they had more power to make sure there could be no Palestinian state, and set about establishing facts on the ground that would obviate it.

    • weindeb February 27, 2011, 11:02 AM

      In my many years, I have often noticed that those who don’t like “to say I told you so” often do call upon those very words. But that is neither here nor there so much as the possibility that J Street, so thunderingly quiet in the face of one Israeli outrage after another, is. Mr. Schulman, indeed simply another diversion to make critics of AIPAC and such feel better and believe that a valid dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian issue is occurring and might actually produce something positive. As to any thinking person knowing a two-state solution is dead, does it then mean that that same oracular thinker recognizes that there already is a one-state solution [sic] called Israel? Of course, it’s a rather uncomfortable state for a very large number of its inhabitants. I frankly at this point see no solution short of Israel’s chief patron, the U.S., stepping in boldly and effectively wielding a very large truncheon against the Settlement Movement, etc. Obviously nothing like this will happen, and Israel will continue to proceed with its facts-on-the-ground modus operandi, which has apparently become the DNA of Zionism. Seize and hold territory against whatever moral and legal arguments counter said seizure, and eventually all will be forgotten and even forgiven, or seen as downright Biblical and thus acceptable.

      • Sh irin March 1, 2011, 10:22 PM

        Israel will continue to proceed with its facts-on-the-ground modus operandi, which has apparently become the DNA of Zionism.

        The facts-on-the-ground modus operandi has not become the DNA of Zionism, it has been the DNA of Zionism since the beginning of the colonization of Palestine. It was the DNA of Zionism when the state was created, and well before. It is clear from historical Zionist writings, and even more clear from historical Zionist actions.

        • Norman March 2, 2011, 5:00 PM

          Perhaps I stand corrected. I just never thought of Zionism from its inception through its progression(s) as a monolith. Thus I believe that its adherents really covered quite a moral and political range from left to right, as has been so documented. On the other hand, given what has transpired through the years, everything from the Balfour Declaration to the conflicts of the 1920s to the Holocaust, it does seem that Zionism as movement and philosophy, despite individual adherents believing and functioning otherwise, has fundamentally adopted facts-on-the-ground as its core strategy.

          • Shirin March 2, 2011, 6:25 PM

            It wasn’t/isn’t a monolith. However, there are certain core strategies that have been part of mainstream Zionism from the beginning throughout its history until now. The facts-on-the-ground strategy is one of them, and “transfer” is another.

            As for range from “left to right”, remember that it was the “left” that planned and executed the expansion and ethnic cleansing operations of 1948 in Palestine, and 0f 1967 in the West Bank (including Ea. Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights. The 1967 Alon Plan for the systematic expropriation and colonization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories – i.e. for the creation of facts on the ground intended to obviate the creation of a Palestinian state – came from the “left”. And as we used to say, Likud talks about building settlements, but it is Labor that actually builds them.

            The main difference between left and right is one of image, not reality.

            As for the names that always come up, Ahad Ha’am, etc., they were very much outliers and not part of the mainstream of Zionism, or Zionist thought in regard to the land, its indigenous peoples, or the rights of those peoples.

          • Richard Silverstein March 2, 2011, 8:19 PM

            I don’t think you’re right in one particular. In his day, Ahad HaAm was a very influential figure as were Buber, Magnes, etc. I think what happened is that the movement largely went in a diff. direction & left their views behind. But I think there were important junctures where things might’ve gone differently, but didn’t. And I’m a firm believer in everything old becoming new again. The ideas of these thinkers will become more viable & credible the worse things become for contemporary Zionism. I don’t think we’re going to end up w. an outcome that will reflect fully the Brit Shalom vision. But they will have an impact over the coming years that they haven’t had in decades.

          • Shirin March 2, 2011, 10:40 PM

            I can’t agree. Ahad Ha’am, Martin Buber and Judah Magnes are mentionable historical figures precisely because they were outside the mainstream, and because they failed to alter Zionism’s trajectory. They stood out less because they were influential than because they represented a very different take on Zionism, and clearly did not influence enough Zionists sufficiently to change the direction that Zionism had been headed in from the beginning.

          • Richard Silverstein March 2, 2011, 10:48 PM

            Yes, we don’t agree on this one. But I maintain that in the longer view of Zionist history they will take a place of honor. They didn’t win in their day, but in future Israel will more closely resemble their vision than they ever could’ve imagined.

          • Shirin March 2, 2011, 10:56 PM

            I am not as optimistic as you are.

    • Richard Silverstein February 27, 2011, 11:06 PM

      I’m not one who likes to say I told you so

      Sure you do. Yr comments about J Street & Aipac are nonsense. J St. is not a shill for Aipac. It’s just a group that has lost its way.

      • Sh irin February 27, 2011, 11:17 PM

        I’ve never believed J-Street was a shill for AIPAC. I also do not believe it is a group that has lost its way. It has always appeared obvious to me that J-Street was a group of typical “liberal” Zionists who want to have their cake and eat it too while making themselves feel good and virtuous in the process.

      • Gene Schulman February 28, 2011, 1:44 AM

        Ah, Richard. J Street hasn’t lost its way. The trail is well marked. My comments about J Street are no more nonsensical than those I’ve made about Obama. Both know exactly what they are doing. Both are inimical to peace. You can keep believing if you want. I don’t.

  • Sh irin February 27, 2011, 10:34 AM

    Glad to see you recognizing J-Street for what it has always been.

    Oh, and if so-called “liberal Zionism” is dead, then I will celebrate, not mourn. “Liberal Zionism” has always been about holding onto the spoils while pretending to care about the victim of the theft. I had my fill of “liberal Zionism” around the time the second Intifada started.

  • David Bernstein February 27, 2011, 5:08 PM

    If I may state the obvious, given that J Street bills itself as “Pro-Israel and pro-peace,” of course it is going to have a litmus test. You seem to think that the litmus test should only be “pro-peace,” but if J Street is the least bit honest in its advertising, it has to enforce the “pro-Israel” part, too. JVP, to take one example, is not a “pro-Israel” organization, and indeed explicitly welcomes anti-Zionists into its fold.

    • Richard Silverstein February 27, 2011, 11:13 PM

      You seem to think that the litmus test should only be “pro-peace,”

      Not at all. I’m “pro-Israel,” but my definition of being pro Israel is different than J Street’s or yr typical liberal Zionist. I believe that being pro Israel means ensuring Israel’s long term security through a real, viable peace agreement & that this is the ONLY way to create peace. And I believe anyone who vacillates or temporizes as J Street does doesn’t do Israel any favors.

      JVP is certainly “pro Israel.” But it isn’t a Zionist organization. Nor is it a Palestinian nationalist organization. Nor does it have to be either to have the best interests of Israel and Palestine at heart.

      • David Bernstein February 28, 2011, 3:51 AM

        Here’s a good test for whether you are both “pro-peace” and “pro-Israel.” For every hour you spend criticizing Israel and people who support it for not being sufficiently pro-Israel, how many minutes do you spend criticizing those who are, in fact, anti-Israel. If the answer is “less than five”, as, e.g., seems true on this blog, and certainly with JVP, than you are not pro-Israel. If your answer is, I can’t identify anyone of any significance who is anti-Israel, than you are not pro-Israel. You only have to read the comments on, say, Mondoweiss, to find that there is a significant constituency, even in the U.S., that is not simply anti-Israel in ANY logical sense, but anti-Semitic.

        • David Bernstein February 28, 2011, 3:53 AM

          (Relatedly, saying “I’m pro-Israel” because if Israel only followed MY policies, all would be hunky-dory, isn’t really pro-Israel, it’s rather a sign of hubristic overconfidence in one’s own ideological premises.)

        • Vicky March 1, 2011, 4:32 AM

          People who leave nasty anti-Semitic comments on blogs do not usually have the power to demolish Jewish houses, evict the populations of entire Jewish villages, seriously limit Jewish educational opportunities, hamper Jewish attempts to find work (with the result that most Jews are in menial jobs), and prevent Jews from travelling about freely where they wish. If those commenters did have that power, I would expect Richard to give them equal airtime. But they don’t.

          They’re also irrelevant to the struggle for justice in Palestine. Genuine peace activists object to Israeli policies not because they are formulated by Israeli Jews, but because they cause millions of people to suffer. What matters is the suffering, not the ethnicity and religion of the people drafting the policies. Unfortunately supporters of those policies tend to do their very best to conflate Judaism with Zionism and criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. These are false parallels, designed to neuter the peace movement, and they don’t reflect its make-up at all.

          • Gene Schulman March 1, 2011, 6:08 AM


  • free man February 27, 2011, 11:16 PM

    I’m sorry to spoil the party.
    We’ve lived and thrived in Israel with the Arab boycott before the state even existed, let alone “occupied” Palestinian land in 1967. We will continue to thrive even if some Jews will join them.

    • Shirin February 28, 2011, 1:40 PM


  • Ruth February 28, 2011, 7:57 PM

    Hey Shirin, this discussion is strictly for the mishpaha.

    • Richard Silverstein February 28, 2011, 10:00 PM

      Not sure whether this comment is meant as a joke or not. If so, then great. If not, then I’m not sure I like the tone of it since this blog is not meant just to be a discussion for the mispacha.

      • Gene Schulman March 1, 2011, 6:07 AM

        Even as a joke it is not great. I’m happy to be not among Ruth’s mispocheh (sp. a la Rosten).

  • Oswald Pohl March 1, 2011, 8:05 PM

    Im with Gene and Shirin on this one. I support the Right of Return of the Palestinian people. Palestine is too small for both its true owners and the colonialists, and the colonialists will have to exercise their right of return, just like the French in Algeria. I hope that by next year, J Street will formally adopt the BDS position

    • Richard Silverstein March 2, 2011, 1:08 AM

      Palestine is too small for both its true owners and the colonialists

      I don’t know if you’re a troll, provocateur, or just plain stupid. Either way, I find yr comment offensive & if you keep up the nonsense you’ll be heading into oblivion here soon.

      I knew the name rang a bell. So you are an idiot provocateur using the name of an executed Nazi and laughing & tittering to all of your pro-Israel rightists friends in the process. Sorry chum, you’re history.

      • Norman March 2, 2011, 4:33 PM

        Good for you, Richard, that you identified the self-chosen i.d. of the blogger “Oswald Pohl”. What kind of creep would use that name as his id? Incredible, really! And truly sick, perhaps a person more to be pitied than contemned.

        • Richard Silverstein March 2, 2011, 6:05 PM

          I’m sorry to say it’s quite common online. The Jewish far-right thinks this is a really witty way to disparage their “enemies” by accusing them of consorting with Nazis thus they take the names of dead Nazis & write outrageous cmmments to which they can themselves point as examples of how extreme the blog & its readers are.

  • Steffen March 2, 2011, 6:30 PM

    Thanks for the summary on the J Street conference. It really sounds like the movement has trouble knowing who it is. I wonder if finances play a role in this. I am assuming they have to keep their centre-right supporters happy somehow to avoid losing their support just to be able to stay in business. I agree though, they risk becoming irrelevant if they don’t change. Someone there needs to take a few brave steps.

    • Richard Silverstein March 2, 2011, 8:15 PM

      I should clarify that I didn’t attend the conference so it wasn’t meant as a summary. My post was meant as an appraisal of J Street as a whole.

  • b. traven May 21, 2014, 7:01 PM

    I plan on attending the upcoming J Street conference because I live virtually across the street. I am doing it out of curiosity since I am pleased that there is some alternative to the regressive AIPAC but I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Silverstein on his assessment of where J Street is going if they don’t stop walking down the middle of a deadly highway. I get a general sense that the leadership just likes to hobnob with the political elite in the US and Israel but have no coherent plan and will just disappear if they don’t reset.
    I have relatives in Israel and my aunt and two young cousins were murdered in Auschwitz in the Hungarian Holocaust. I am a US Air Corps veteran of WW II and feel that the US must disengage our foreign policy from Israel. It has brought us nothing but failure and trouble. I am ashamed of the Jewish neocons and neolibs who have turned their backs on the great Jewish tradition of peace on earth and love of their fellow man.

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