The American Jewish left is amidst a huge transition and I didn’t even realize it until I read Nathan Guttman’s article in The Forward. When J Street first began two years ago, there were talks of all the Jewish peace groups merging with it. But everyone seemed concerned about turf and that didn’t happen. But now that J Street has emerged as a triple-threat type progressive group, it has sucked a good deal of the oxygen out of the world of the Jewish left. Face it, J Street gathers most of the headlines, funding and opprobrium of the pro-Israel right. They wouldn’t waste their energy on a group that was a nothing. You don’t see Marty Peretz, Jonathan Tobin and their minions poring over public statements by Israel Policy Forum or Americans for Peace Now and waving them like Joe McCarthy to show the world all the Communists he’d found.
Brit Tzedek, a group which in my opinion has left a good deal of its potential unrealized, has seen the light and is in advanced merger talks with J Street. Guttman’s story though, describes a convoluted structure of a proposed deal. Though I used the term “merger,” Brit Tzedek won’t exactly be merging with J Street. There will be no formal combination. But J Street will absorb Brit Tzedek’s lobbying organization and those members who wish to transfer to the former group. The old Brit Tzedek might remain in some form (or not). That’s the part that makes no sense to me.
I suppose there may be some leaders of BT opposed to the deal who refuse to move over to J Street. This format allows the majority of BT to switch and also allows the diehards to carry on a rump version of BT is they wish to do so.
Guttman describes IPF as being almost on life-support. I don’t know if this is true as the mainstream Jewish press seems to love to report the demise of groups it views as outside the “communal consensus.” One development that shocked me was that M.J. Rosenberg, a senior IPF staff member since the group’s launch has left. He will be moving to Media Matters as senior foreign policy analyst. It is a progressive media watchdog group where Eric Alterman also blogs.
M.J. made one good point in his blog post announcing his plans:
My move is part of a general trend toward making Middle East policy not a boutique issue, but a mainstay of liberal politics and journalism. I have long believed that it is impossible to be a liberal (or progressive) and yet support Middle East policies that perpetuate the deadly status quo. With Media Matters joining this fight, we can help progressives of all stripes understand that supporting occupation and settlements (or wars with various regional players) is antithetical to a progressive world view and, most important, is bad for America.
For far too long, the Israeli-Arab conflict has remained the territory of niche specialists, mostly Jewish or Arab, for whom it was a deep personal mission. But the rest of the liberal-progressive community wanted nothing more than to stay out of the perceived quagmire. Daily Kos and Markos’ deep aversion to this subject is a prime case in point. I’m not sure M.J. is entirely right in that his move marks a sea change in attitudes among the progressive camp toward the region. But I will say in the traditional Jewish wish: “From his mouth to God’s ears.”
I should make it clear that J Street, while it has done much right since its launch, is not perfect. But one example is its upcoming conference which is being co-sponsored by seemingly every progressive American Jewish group with an interest in the Israeli-Arab conflict. There is one catch: if you’re not a two state group you’re not invited. That leaves out Jewish Voice for Peace which, in my opinion, is in its particular community almost as effective and enterprising as J Street–and with a lot less money and staff.
I understand the reason J Street feels it must place JVP outside the tent. There are lots of Jewish rightist warriors who are gunning for it. If they invited JVP, then they’d be spending time explaining their decision. And they’d rather be advocating for Obama Mideast policy than explaining why they invited JVP to their conference.
But I have a real problem with the impoverishment of the Jewish left that comes from this sort of exclusion. I believe in making the tent as big as possible not using artificial criteria to decide who is kosher and who is treif. While I could understand excluding an anti-Zionist Jewish group, JVP is not anti-Zionist.
I also felt J Street’s public statement about Neve Gordon’s BDS article in the L.A. Times and Guardian was weak and attenuated. There is a better way to tell the world you support academic freedom and free speech while not necessarily supporting a boycott, than the way J Street did. So you’ll hear me criticize J Street in as constructive a way as I can.
I don’t understand the hangup against JVP. Best I can tell anyway, they don’t oppose the two state solution. Is it simply that the don’t exclude possibility of a single state solution?
Richard Silverstein says
The 2 state solution seems to be the litmus test for liberal Jewish groups. If you don’t endorse it then J St. & the other groups are afraid the mainstream pro Israel types will attack them much as McCarthy attacked non-Communists accusing them of being Communists (& let’s make no mistake, they would).
I think it is folly to focus on such artificial constructs when people are dying and the fate of nations and peoples are in the balance.
So yes, what bugs J St. is that JVP refuses to dictate to the parties what the final outcome should be. What is unintentionally ironic is that in 50 or 100 yrs time the shape of Israel-Palestine may be something other than a 2 state solution & then JVP will have been vindicated in its refusal to define this issue.
The point you make about M.J. Rosenberg moving to Media Matters because I-P should no longer be a “boutique issue” says the most. Yes, organizations merge and acquire lobbyists and that sort of thing, but the issue “going mainstream” — as Jstreet itself is trying to do — is the most important takeaway. It’s not so much the Jewish left in transition; it’s the issue itself in transition.
Rabbi Brian Walt says
I have huge admiration for what Jeremy Ben Ami, the director of J Street has achieved in just two years. I also strongly support J Street and it’s efforts but I oppose it’s unfortunate decision to exclude Jewish Voice for Peace.
J Street has not only excluded JVP but also Network of Spiritual Progressives and Rabbi Michael Lerner, who has provided courageous leadership on the issue of Israel-Palestine in the Jewish community. The right wing won’t be impressed by this and it won’t in any way affect their attack on J Street. There is little gain and much to be lost in not building the widest possible coalition. We have been on the losing side more than 40 years we need to build as strong a movement as possible.
Maybe J Street’s concern is that if they include JVP, the Network, and other non two-state groups, they would lose Rabbi Eric Yoffie and the leadership of the Reform movement that is currently scheduled to participate in the conference. Taanit Tzedek, Jewish Fast for Gaza, a group that I founded with some rabbinic colleagues, would also have joined as a co-sponsor of the conference but we also chose not to make a commitment to any particular political outcome.
I plan to attend the conference and to encourage others to do so. I imagine that members from many of the excluded progressive groups will be at the conference.
William Smart says
Jimmy Carter has just been to the West Bank with “the Elders” and is quoted (yesterday 6th Sep) in the Washington Post as stating that “more likely alternative to the present debacle is one state, which is obviously the goal of Israeli leaders who insist on colonizing the West Bank and East Jerusalem. A majority of the Palestinian leaders with whom we met are seriously considering acceptance of one state, between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”
Howard Lenow says
I would like to note that our organization, American Jews For A Just Peace (www.ajjp.org) was also not invited to the J Street Convention. We don’t advocate a one or two state solution, but adhere to principles of international law and human rights. Some of our members, myself included, have signed on as individuals to the 2009 Boston One State declaration, but our Common Ground statement is our true statement of principles. I wish the best for J Street because we should welcome all of the voices that are calling for a just peace even if we have different ideas for how that should or will happen. What I do know is that until we can impact the role of the United States in continuing to support the Israeli government and its apartheid goals, little is likely to change.
Rupa Shah says
I have a few friends in JVP in my city who are ABSOLUTELY committed to JUST PEACE in Israel/Palestine, they are very active and they have my whole hearted support ( BTW, I am neither Jewish nor an Arab). To exclude JVP from their conference is the most short sighted decision taken by J Street. And to support or not to support BDS is a very personal choice. If J Street as an organization does not support it, that is fine but I wonder if each and every individual supporting most of what J Street does, does not support BDS. To support or not to support BDS is a VERY DIFFICULT choice to make, not only for the members of Jewish community in USA or Jewish Israelis but other activists too.
Kung Fu Jew 18 says
I’m privy to the discussions between J Street and Brit Tzedek, but there’s no internal Brit Tzedek split as Richard has speculated here. It was a decision to inform the Jewish media before merger/acquisition talks were complete, which means certain details are still being finalized. To date, there has been no pushback from Brit Tzedek volunteers and it’s seemingly unanimous that this makes the work we do incredibly easier.
As for JVP, I have friends and a great deal of respect for their work. But whereas Brit Tzedek, APN, IPF and J Street have worked concertedly to prove they are within the mainstream of the Jewish community, JVP has not sought to place themselves within the Jewish community. Richard is very correct that the right sees J Street as a threat. They do not see JVP as one, because JVP’s leadership is not from the old boys and girls clubs of Jewish communal leadership. They may *be* Jews, but they’re strangers to everyday JCC directors and synagogues, the people who vouch for who is and is not “in the tent.” The other four orgs made strategic decisions to fill their boards and leadership positions with people with bona fides recognizable to the wider communal leadership, even to the point of turning down leaders who would otherwise be great organizers.
It’s a fact that if you’re not a two-state organization or if your key leaders have been involved in BDS or one-state activities, you have negative credibility in the Jewish sector. The one-state solution (or no position on two states) is still a fringe position in the American Jewish public, speaking both in perception and opinion polling data. It’s not a pragmatic position to take for a mass-mobilizing org. From my friendships with JVPers, that’s not a fight they wanted to take either.
And in explaining this, I don’t support or excuse it. Nor do I slander or undervalue JVP. It’s just the realpolitik of how to be effective with Jews.
Richard Silverstein says
Naomi Klein supports BDS & I found her debate with Arthur Waskow on the question to be quite compelling. You should read it if you haven’t. I think it was in In These Times. I think she’s a righteous Jew and hard to demonize given her popularity. I’m not saying she’s going to give Abe Foxman a run for his money as a mainstream Jewish leader. But I don’t think you can write her off quite as easily as you seem to be saying that the Jewish community does others who have her views.
Kung Fu Jew 18 says
I’m not arguing that Klein’s case isn’t passionately articulated and intellectually sound. Theirs was a good debate. But in an insular community like ours, what you say is secondary to who you are (read: who will vouch for you). There are no leaders of any JCC, day school, summer camp, or other community institution that supports BDS.
The small number of people who support BDS may be gaining some new listeners, but we’re still lacking any prominent insiders willing to say what Klein is saying. She’s still an outsider. It’s the prominent rabbi of your mega-shul who’s been a lifelong Zionist and has a son in the IDF who has the bulletproof credentials to move the community.
So I was saying that mainstream organizing is a slow and painstaking march to proving credibility. JVP decided working from the inside was not their fight, there were several orgs already doing that work. Working with the churches and other groups that needed immediate Jewish support, regardless of mainstream credibility. Any JVPers out there, feel free to correct what I’ve gleaned from our conversations.
Also, I want to mention that I feel really guilty sometimes about holding my tongue (occasionally, or at least my non-pseudonym’ed tongue) for the sake of maintaining my credibility. I made a decision to be effective, even at the cost of not expressing solidarity with my more far-left friends. And I recognize that.
Joel Beinin says
J Street’s public statement about Neve Gordon’s BDS article in the L.A. Times was not only weak. It was self-serving and politically naive. When someone is being attacked by right wingers, the first thing you say, whether or not you agree with them, is that you uphold their rights to freedom of speech and academic freedom. That doesn’t go in a footnote. Then, if you feel compelled, as obviously J Street does, you can note your disagreement.
Moreover, J Street has no strategic disagreement with Neve Gordon. They both support two states. If that’s your objective, then it is very useful politically to have people out on your left demanding stronger sanctions on Israel unless it moves towards a meaningful two state solution. Merely calling for support for President Obama’s initiative, whose concrete contents aren’t even known yet, makes compromises with the Netanyahu government in advance. Even if Obama is very insistent, and based on his handling of the settlement freeze issue so far, there is no reason to think he will be, he won’t get Netanyahu to agree to all of what he might propose. So if Obama were to decide to be serious, it would be useful to him to have Jews calling for more stringent measures that he is willing to take to get Israel to accept a more fair deal for the Palestinians.
All of this, however, is hypothetical. The bottom line for J Street, as it is for Brit Tzedek and Americans for Peace Now and similar “liberal” Zionist groups is that under no circumstances should any sanctions be applied to Israel. So in the meantime, the Netanyahu government will go on building settlements, as the Obama administration expresses its firm disapproval. And the prospects for a two state solution that entails any significant expression of Palestinian national rights will become ever more negligible.
I am proud to be one of KungFuJew’s JVP friends and largely agree with his characterization of JVP, though there are those of us in the organization who do more of our work on the “inside” of Jewish communities. I will also note that the Bay Area Jewish community where JVP orignated has a very different terrain than probably any other in the states. To restate JVP’s case in the affirmative, we have chosen an “agnostic” stance on the one state v. two state both as a matter of practicality (we are not in a position to immediately implement either) but also to be able to speak as a Jewish voice on certain issues such as divestment. This means often speaking to a non Jewish audience as Jews, and does compromise our effectiveness at speaking to Jews. It is a tradeoff we have been willing to make, but I believe there is much we and JStreet can learn from and complement each other.
Richard Silverstein says
I’m very uncomfortable about this “inside” “outside” split we’re talking about. I understand that the right wing leadership of our community seeks to make this distinction because they are “inside” and the so-called extremists are “outside.” But let’s not make the mistake of believing that Abe Foxman, Howard Kohr or the rest will ever find J Street to be “inside.” To them, J Street will forever be “outside.” They make no distinction bet. J St. & JVP. They’re both the same to them. Perhaps they find J St. more dangerous because it aspires to be “inside” & therefore they reserve more opprobrium for J St.
But for Jewish progressives to adopt the same distinctions the leadership makes is most unfortunate. Why accept their terms & declare one group kosher and one trief? I’m sorry but I don’t like it.
Kung Fu Jew 18 says
I don’t like it either and I soundly disagree with how the right-wing orgs seek to define it. The body of American Jews is not the same as the segment that lives in the Jewish communal bubble, which is also not the same as the broad communal leadership, which is not the same as the Jewish defense orgs. It’s a “who is more Jewish” game that’s rather noxious.
That said, this is politics. You pick a line in the sand on the bell curve of public opinion and decide “This is where I must be to generate enough credibility and yet not compromise my principles.”
It’s ugly. But if Brit Tzedek didn’t submit to the back-scratching bullshit of Capital Hill and if J Street didn’t buy their way into legislators’ pockets, then we’d be that much more screwed in trying to affect American foreign policy.
Richard Silverstein says
JVP is being excluded due to a political principle. But what about Tikkun & Michael Lerner? What’s the political principle other than he has a large ego, a complicated public persona, & a history of criticizing his fellow members of the Jewish left? Is that a principle? Lerner represents tens of thousands of American Jews & you exclude him because he brings such baggage? I don’t get it.
Kung Fu Jew 18 says
I don’t speak for J Street, so I don’t know. In the past Brit Tzedek has accepted and declined doing events with Michael Lerner, Tikkun magazine, and the Network of Spiritual Progressives. Sometimes we have, sometimes we haven’t.
Tikkun is a mixed bag. On one side, Lerner himself is outspokenly Jewish and even-handed on Israel. On the other, Tikkun isn’t Jewish but rather an interfaith group led by a rabbi, as he’s described many times before. Many Tikkun/NSP people are avid Jews, but many have been involved with ISM and other “definitely not Jewish” activities. It’s a coin toss on whether they add credibility or detract.
Feel free to disagree. I always say that Tikkun/Lerner was my gateway drug to being a leftie.
Richard Silverstein says
I agree that it is a mixed bag. I’ve disagreed at times w Michael’s views on Israel though I think we have respect for ea. other on that as he might disagree with mine as well. I don’t know much about the composition of the Tikkun Community. But an editorial at Tikkun’s site states that J Street refused Tikkun’s involvement not because of any reasons you listed above (which might have some validity) but because supposedly J Street wanted to try a “new approach” not represented by Tikkun: