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.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.