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I’ve just returned from the historic first national J Street conference attended by 1,500 Jewish progressives and peace activists. I found it to be alternately bracing, challenging, illuminating and infuriating. During a lifetime when I have been used to feeling in the minority for my political views, it was quite amazing to walk through the halls of the hotel and see hordes of Jews (and non-Jewish allies including Arabs) who shared (more or less) my own particular outlook on the Israeli-Arab conflict. Coming from a community of 40,000 Jews here in Seattle, it had been years since I had seen that many Jews in one place at one time, let alone progressive Jews. So yes, it was a heady experience.
J Street has done a great deal to break open the discourse around this subject in the American Jewish community. No longer do we have to feel like we’re whispering in the dark when we’re calling for a two state solution that offers justice to both Israel and the Palestinians. No longer does Aipac and the rest of the Israel lobby sit astride the colossus that is American Jewry and crack the party line whip. No longer does the Israeli government “own” the entire American Jewish leadership enabling it to march in lock step around any particular issue. There has been more diversity in the discourse in the past 18 months since J Street launched than in the past decade before that.
But I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture. J Street is still very much a work in progress. Can it take advantage of the breakthrough that happened this past weekend to mount a coherent and persuasive alternative political line to the Israel lobby? Can it open dialogue on this issue on Capital Hill as well? And in the White House? I think it has already done so to a small extent. But J Street is battling a $60 Million Man with perhaps tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the nation and direct access to hundreds of members of Congress and their staff. J Street is nowhere near that level of power and influence–yet.
But clearly, at least parts of the lobby are deeply frightened of J Street and have let loose the guns in the run-up to the conference. There was an orchestrated campaign by Aipac to prevent the Israeli ambassador from attending the conference. A former Aipac staffer known for his smeary reputation penned an article accusing the group of accepting donations from ARABS! Other “journalists” and bloggers took up other themes designed to raise doubt about J Streets bona fides as a legitimate Jewish organization.
For this reason, J Street has felt it needed to walk the line between a conventional pro-Israel position as defined by the Israel lobby and a more progressive line. This is where I have often felt myself diverge from the group’s strategy. There is clearly a minefield through which J Street is walking. It does not want to be another Aipac, but it also does not want to turn into yet another small, underfunded, short-lived Jewish progressive group along the lines of Breira, New Jewish Agenda or even the late lamented liberal American Jewish Congress. For that reason, J Street, when it can, attempts to adopt positions that show an independent, maverick streak. For example, it has endorsed the current Berman Iran sanctions bill being marked up in Congress this week. This is definitely not a progressive position. But it an attempt to triangulate between left and right and walk a line that is neither on one side or the other but somewhere between.
Jeremy Ben Ami, the Jewish lobby’s director, gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg in which he took quite center-right positions on issues like Iran sanctions, the Goldstone Report, the Law of Return and other matters. It was a calculated attempt to show the so-called centrist Goldberg that J Street couldn’t be pigeon-holed as a mere extension of the Jewish left.
On the other hand, J Street clearly arose out of a progressive Jewish impulse and knows that this is what makes it unique and important on the current scene. As but one example, Jerry Haber and I organized a blogger session at the conference. It was a delicate relationship which began with a frustrating attempt on my part to understand why J Street refused to incorporate the panel into the official program. But eventually, I began to see this decision as actually good not just for J Street but for the bloggers themselves since it allowed J Street to disagree with us and vice versa. And that is precisely what happened. During our panel at the conference bloggers like Max Blumenthal took Ben Ami strongly to task for the Goldberg interview. And alternately, a Palestinian-American blogger offered the strongest and most heartfelt endorsement of J Street’s two-state solution.
Such a panel allows J Street legitimately to claim that it is open to voices to its left. Nothing can ossify an organization quicker than forcing a consensus down the throats of members. Aipac has done this more or less and its positions are about as ossified as they can be. One of the beauties of J Street is that it is a work in progress. It has strong positions as well it should. But it is also open to an evolution of the political process. This year J Street debated one set of issues. Next year, new ideas and concepts will creep into the mix. J Street may never explicitly endorse BDS or the Goldstone Report or any number of issues propounded by the left. But next year, those issues may at least be debated officially within the halls of the conference. Perhaps Neve Gordon and Naomi Klein will even be invited to enter the august halls of J Street next year. That is all we can legitimately ask of J Street. That they remain open to the free flow of ideas and adapt their political agenda as those ideas become or accepted and enter the mainstream.
Returning to the blogger panel, Blumenthal had one of the more memorably funny quotes of the day criticizing Elie Wiesel’s address to Pastor John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel national event (the joke refers to Wiesel’s investment losses with Bernie Madoff):
The last person Elie Wiesel trusted this much was Bernie Madoff.
The blogger panel was slimed by Michael Goldfarb in his bile-filed post in the Weekly Standard. Among the more objectionable passages in his report was a description of Gaza Muslim blogger Laila El-Haddad as “hijab covered.” I wonder why Goldfarb didn’t comment on Jerry Haber, an Orthodox blogger and co-host of the panel, wearing a kipah. The comment was clearly Islamophobic and shameful. Goldfarb seems to fancy himself an expert on Arab religious head gear, but hasn’t a clue what a hijab really is. A scarf, which Laila wore, is not a hijab.
Rachel Barenblatt offers a fuller report on the panel discussion at Velveteen Rabbi.
Another denizen of the right-wing Jewish deep slime, Hillel Stavis, crashed the panel, taking pictures of the panelists and attendees without authorization and had to be escorted from the room. Since he was a registered conference goer, J Street allowed him to remain in the hall even though he wrote a scummy report at his own blog complaining of his “shabby” treatment.
What follows is a combination of an outline of the most interesting ideas I heard from speakers at the conference combined with my critique of the ideas when they really impressed or disgusted me.
There were several discussions about settlements. At one, Akiva Eldar of Haaretz recounted a great story about a settler leader named Elitzur who told the reporter:
The Land of Israel is my wife. The State of Israel is my cleaning lady. If I have to make a choice, I choose my wife.
On a similar theme, Bernard Avishai has come up with what I think is a brilliant new term that distinguishes the settlers from your average Israeli. He calls the former “Judeans.” This too frames them as tied to the ancient land of Israel and also ancient, outmoded Biblical notions of Jewish nationhood. Avishai is interested in a definition of Israel that is modern and like unto the nations and not yoked to hide-bound notions of God-given rights to the land. That is why he has called his new book, The Hebrew Republic, to separate it from the settlers’ notion that Israel is Judaic religious entity (in the sense that a settler would use the term “Judaic”).
I also had an interesting chat with Avishai about his debate with Jeffrey Goldberg about the Law of Return. He favors dropping the Law of Return in favor of a standard set of immigration procedures like all other countries have. Within those procedures there would be provisions for accepting as immigrants any Jews facing life-threatening danger or anti-Semitism. But once admitted to Israel these immigrants would have to wait a requisite period to become citizens just as in other countries. This is precisely the type of normalization of Israeli life I too believe in. As long as Israel is home to Jewish exceptionalism, it will not find its rightful place in the region or the world.
J.J. Goldberg participated in two panels and for me it was two too many. At The American Jewish Left and Israel he made a series of strange statements that showed he had long since eschewed his mantle as a hero of the radical Jewish student movement of the 60s and 70s and become a cranky old Yid. Among his more memorable statements (I paraphrase):
* The American Jewish left has a problem with guns. This is a problem Israel can’t afford.
* 20 years ago J.J.’s lefty Jewish friends were beaten up by Jewish goons from the JDL and the like. Now, he thinks they were beaten up by the wrong people but for the right reason.
* the younger generation of American and Israeli Jews has been traumatized by 9/11 and the second intifada.
As for the last point above, J.J. has got it precisely wrong. He himself and those who think like him have been traumatized by 9/11 and the Intifada. Young Jews, on the contrary have not been affected nearly in the same way. In fact, polls by American Jewish pollsters show that young Jews in this country are increasingly alienated from Israel not because of the events the Forward editor lists, but because of Israel’s harsh, unyielding REACTION to them.
The conference featured an excellent panel on developments in Iran headlined by Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council (and a guest speaker at the Seattle conference I’ll be hosting in December) and Hillary Mann Leverett. These are two of the clearest thinking, most pragmatic Iran analysts in this country. Their voices were fresh and a delight.
Both argue against sanctions. Parsi pointed out that due to existing American sanctions, Microsoft had already closed down its own Instant Messaging service before the disputed Iranian elections in June. Facebook was about to do so when the violent uproar occurred in the streets of Teheran and people massed in their tens and hundreds of thousands using sites like Twitter and Facebook as their social networking Bibles. The Iranian activist was pointing out the utter counter-productiveness of using sanctions like a sledge-hammer rather than the scalpel that is needed to make any progress on these issues.
Parsi argues that America tends only to think of punishments for Iran not behaving as it would like. Instead, we must think of what we can offer the Iranians that would act as motivators for them to change their behavior or compromise on issues of importance to the U.S. Sticks do not work without carrots. Iran wants to normalize relations with the U.S. Then why don’t we hold this out as a possibility if Iran compromises?
To point out the level of delusion and mutual misunderstanding that exists among the various major parties to this conflict, Trita noted that Iranians think of the U.S. 90% of the time and believe that Americans think of Iran 90% of the time. They don’t. Israelis think of Iran 90% of the time and believe Iranians think of Israel 90% of the time. They don’t.
Leverett called for a major U.S. opening to Iran, likening it to Nixon’s breakthrough trip to China in 1972. Back then, Nixon was willing to reconcile with a Chinese leader who had just killed 3-million during the Cultural Revolution, who had recently tested an atomic weapon, and who was threatening Japan, a major U.S. ally. Despite all these issues, Nixon did not waver in his commitment to open a relationship with the Communist regime. As a result, relations now, while not always tension-free, are on a much more stable footing than they ever were since the Communist takeover in 1949.
In this scenario, Israel plays a similar role to Japan. Leverett contends that a grand opening to Iran could have precisely the same results that Nixon’s opening to China did in vastly improving U.S. relations with Iran and the latter’s relations with Israel.
J Street has adopted a confusing position regarding sanctions. While it supports the Berman bill, Ben Ami said during a discussion with Rabbi Eric Yoffie that it supports diplomatic engagement, but does not YET support sanctions. I can’t reconcile those two positions. In addition, I asked whether J Streeters, when they lobby on Capital Hill tomorrow will be talking about sanctions. The answer I heard was No. Imagine the importance of such an issue in the possible lead up to a military attack against Iran and J Street has chosen to sit on its hands.
Sooner rather than later, J Street’s leadership will come to understand that sanctions are not a wedge issue like the ones Republicans exploit for partisan gain. Rather they are part of a possible scenario that could lead to scores, hundreds or even thousands losing their lives in attacks and counter-attacks involving Iran, Israel and their respective allies. Thus, sanctions must soon demand a pure moral response rather than a tactical political one, as reflects J Street’s current position. Otherwise, the worst could happen, and by then it will be too late for progressive Jews to weigh in with a principled position.
One of the important achievements of the conference was a panel composed entirely of Palestinians who shared their vision of what they wanted a peaceful future to look like. Bassim Khoury, the recently resigned PA economics minister (he resigned in protest of Mahmoud Abbas’ shelving of the Goldstone Report), reported that no one could argue any longer that Jerusalem was a “united” city. In fact, he claimed, the Holy City was characterized by apartheid in which the Jewish section of the city received a vastly superior percentage of resources and services compared to the impoverished Arab section. The numbers, when Khoury flashed them on the screen in Powerpoint slides, were chilling.
He had another memorable line:
The Green Line is a red line.
When Hussein Ibish took up what he called the “red herring” argument advanced by Bibi Netanyahu that Palestinians must accept Israel as a Jewish state, I thought how insane it would be for Mahmoud Abbas to insist that Israel recognize Palestine as a Muslim state. Clearly, what Netanyahu is trying to do is head off the claims of those who advance the Palestinian Right of Return. If Israel is accepted by Palestinians as a Jewish state then presumably they have just dispensed with their right to demand a return to their ancestral homes and homeland.
Gen. Jim Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, gave the keynote speech and I’ve rarely heard a less illuminating, more canned speech. It told us absolutely nothing new except that the Obama administration, if Jones’ remarks are a true reflection of current policy, are based on wildly optimistic assumptions about the actions of all the major players. Just as an example, Jones acted as if he believed it was possible to get Russia and China around a sanctions regime against Iran. I see no evidence this is yet remotely possible.
But the speech I most objected to followed Jones and was delivered by Rep. Robert Wexler, who was Barack Obama’s court Jew during the election campaign. Wexler had no clue what audience he was addressing. He shreyed at us like we were residents of a Jewish old age home in Boca Raton, his home district. He kept harping on the issue of Israel’s security repeating three times that U.S. and Israeli forces were at that moment engaging in military exercises. Did Wexler really think this was a message that would resonate at a J Street conference? Did no one at J Street brief him on his remarks? Wexler reminded us that Hamas were nothing but terrorist thugs and that President Abbas and prime minister were the great white hope of the Palestinian people.
The Florida congressman even had the chutzpah to say that Jordan’s King Abdullah simply wasn’t doing enough for peace when he pointed out to the Obama administration that the 2002 Arab League peace initiative was on the table and Israel should accept it before the Arabs can be expected to reciprocate. What did Wexler demand in return from Israel? That it accept a settlement freeze. There is a fundamental disconnect in pro-Israel people like Wexler who don’t stop to understand the differences in their respective expectations of Israel and the Arab states. Essentially, Wexler expects the Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. In return, Israel has to freeze settlements. Not, return to ’67 borders. Not, share Jerusalem. Not, accept the Right of Return. Just freeze settlements. There is a fundamental imbalance there.
Obama’s top Jew parroted the Aipac line that Iran must give up all uranium (which when he pronounced the word came out sounding like “Iranium”) enrichment and live up to the requirement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The only problem with this line is that according to NPT, Iran is entitled to enrich uranium as long as it doesn’t do so to weapons grade. Wexler comes across to me as a wind up toy you program and then let loose on whatever audience you want him to tackle. There is no finesse, no intelligence. Just canned talking points brayed in an insistently loud voice as if he was imploring you to believe him.
Believe it or not, Wexler has just announced his resignation from Congress in order to take up the presidency of the Middle East Foundation for Peace and Economic Cooperation. One wonders how someone who knows so little about the issues can successfully take up such a portfolio.
There was some consternation among progressive attendees at Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s address to the conference. He spent a good deal of time launching rather vicious personal attacks on Judge Richard Goldstone and his report on the Gaza war. One of Yoffie’s main claim was that it was shameful for Goldstone to allow himself to be used as a Jew by such an anti-Israel body as the UN Human Rights Council. To my shock, Yoffie’s dyspeptic statements were booed three times by the audience. The last time, the moderator, Jane Eisner, publisher of The Forward, invited those booing to leave the room. What I don’t think she understood was that there were probably more people in the audience who were disgusted by Yoffie’s attack than supported it. One could easily argue that it was Yoffie who was showing chutzpah rather than the audience.
I wondered why the Reform movement’s leader would come to J Street propounding such an antagonistic position. I realized that Yoffie, who attacked J Street during the Gaza war for insufficient pro-Israel patriotism, had to cover his own right flank. By attacking Goldstone he could argue on returning to the Reform fold that he went into the lion’s den to tell the “Jewish leftists” how a good pro-Israel Jew sees these issues. In that way, Yoffie allows himself to say that he’s willing to talk to the Jewish left and he can tell the Jewish right he only went there to tell off the leftists.
One of the most disappointing Israeli speakers at J Street was former Kadima Knesset leader and convicted sex offender, Haim Ramon. He is clearly a very smart, very rigid Israeli politician who comes with a clearly programmed Diaspora speech praising the two state solution and warning how quickly Israel will face a dreaded one-state solution if it does not act to end the Occupation. The only problem with this rap is that Ramon served as a senior minister in numerous governments (most recently under Ehud Olmert) who had their chance to end the Occupation and chose to squander it on useless wars in Lebanon and Gaza.
Ramon even had the temerity to boast of being one of the prime movers of the unilateral Gaza withdrawal. That worked out quite well, didn’t it? He claimed that Israel should adopt the same policy and, if necessary unilaterally withdraw from the West Bank. Hearing this left me scratching my head: if it didn’t work the first time why would it work the second??