Those of you of a certain age will remember seeing old movie newsreels like the March of Time, in which narrators would intone solemnly: “The Allies are on the march!” That’s what today’s news from the world of liberal Zionism reminds me.
Later this month, J Street will hold its annual conference (“Making History”) at which it will feature the latest corrupt, irrelevant former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert. He will presumably regale the audience with tales of his almost Syrian peace treaty which he destroyed by going to war against Gaza, and his almost treaty with the PA which he messed up by promising almost nothing and getting almost everything from his Palestinian interlocutors. Maybe he’ll also ply them with tales of his pay-for-play real estate deals like Holyland and those empty Slimfast boxes from his pal, S. Daniel Abraham, filled with cash.
Ehud Olmert is about as relevant to Israeli politics today as Herbert Hoover is to U.S. politics. And J Street is about as relevant to real solutions for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Joe Lieberman is to Democratic party politics. Readers here, when I first wrote glowingly of J Street, called it Aipac lite. I said then that they were overstating their case. But now I believe they’re wrong for a different reason. J Street isn’t Aipac lite, its “Jews for Obama.” Unlike Aipac, it doesn’t make a pretence of being bi-partisan. It is partisan. Nor does it seek to build a truly mass or grassroots movement. It’s not embracing the Occupy movement. It’s not seeking out disaffiliated or disaffected Jews. It’s seeking to revive a sense of liberalism that died somewhere around 1968 or 1972. It’s working the margins seeking incremental change, if that. Instead of “Making History,” the conference should be called “Left Behind by History.”
Yesterday, the J Street chapter at the University of Pennsylvania held an interesting meeting with Israeli journalist Ben Dror Yemini. He isn’t just any reporter. He’s in fact, one of Israel’s most right-wing mainstream journalists. Something akin to Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. He doesn’t believe, for one thing, that there is such a thing as a Palestinian people. In that sense, he’d be right at home with Newt Gingrich and Sheldon Adelson. So why was he speaking at a J Street event? Not only that, students involved with PennBDS who tried to RSVP for what had originally been a public event, were told the event had become private and only J Street (read, Jewish) members were welcome.
Why would J Street invite such a figure to address its student members? And this is the American Jewish organization that is going to lead the way to a pro-Israel, pro-peace future for the homeland of the Jewish people.
The other major development in the annals of liberal Zionism was today’s launch of Peter Beinart’s paean to the creed, Zion Square. While I have liked what I’ve read of Beinart’s and thought he appeared more daring than the average lib Zionist (having turned left from his days at the New Republic), I have to say that this project leaves me ice-cold. The website’s tagline is:
A new conversation about Israel, Palestine and the Jewish Future.
Here is one portion of his manifesto:
Zion Square’s mission is to launch a conversation…about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…
How do you do that? By calling your blog project Zion Square? Naming it for an emblem of the Zionist movement? How will you speak to the Palestinian part of what you claim your mission to be? Speaking of Palestinian, who represents them in Zion Square? Precisely one blogger, Yousef Munayer, who will have an opportunity to represent a Palestinian perspective once every two weeks. Munayer, who believes in the Right of Return, a distinctly non-Zionist perspective, is balanced by Benny Morris, who has stated that Israel is likely to have to attack Iran with nuclear weapons; and who believes Israel didn’t do a good enough job of ethnic cleansing during the Nakba.
Add to that the participation of Gershom Gorenberg, who has the distinction of lying in the pages of American Prospect about my views, calling me an anti-Zionist. He will be joined by Emily Hauser, who called Israel “my country,” meaning she’s an Israeli citizen. They are joined by Hussein Ibish, every liberal Zionists favorite Arab because he’s a dyed-in-the-wool Fatahist. Though he’s not Palestinian (he’s Lebanese-American), all the best lib Zionists wish he were, because he flatters them so with his “moderate,” incrementalist, anti-one state, anti-Hamas views. Bernard Avishai, another hoary lib Zionist from the glory days of the movement.
There are a few writers who will post less frequently who I admire like Mikhael Manekin of Breaking the Silence, Trita Parsi, a leading Iranian-American leader, Maan’s George Hale, and Rabbi Aryeh Cohen.
But these two projects continue to prove the essential irrelevance of liberal Zionism to contemporary Israeli political discourse. Though J Street is more relevant in the American context than the Labor Party is in Israel’s (largely because there is a sitting liberal Democratic president), ultimately J Street can be no more effective than the Labor Party in advancing its political mission.
J Street and Zion Square are each designed to assuage the Jewish consciences of their participants, rather than engage fearlessly and provocatively with the hardest problems Israel and world Jewry face. One more disappointment, one more failure on the road to more radical solutions and analysis of the issues.
I fail to understand why the official “progressive” view of the negotiations that Barak and Olmert conducted with the Paletsinians are always potrayed, as you did, as having Israel “offer nothing” to the Palestinian. As I recall Barak offered something like 95% of the territorial demands of Arafat, and Olmert upped it to something like 98% (I do not claim these numbers are totally accurate but they are close). Olmert offered to hand over the Western Wall and the other Jewish holy places in east Jerusalem to the Palestinians in the guise of calling it “international control” but the international body in charge would have included Saudi Arabia and Jordan so, in effect, this group would support Palestinian demands on the control and access to the places.
So what do you mean when you say that Olmert “offered nothing”? Not to agree 100% with Palestinian demands is to offer “nothing”?
Of course, Olmert did not offer the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees. No Israel Prime Minister will. If you call this fact the basis that Israel “offered nothing” then you are agreeing with my view that the RoR is the deal breaker, the Palestinians can not give up unlimited RoR and no Israeli leaders will ever agree to it.
However, regarding the territorial issue, the Israeli Left has pretty much conceded a total withdrawal to the pre-67 lines, perhaps with some territorial swaps. This is NOT “nothing”.
Richard Silverstein says
Barak offered about 90%. Olmert around the same, perhaps 1 or 2% more. Olmert offered 5,000 refugee returnees when the Geneva Accord had envisioned 25,000. Olmert told Abbas he was lucky to getting anything. He was derisive, dismissive & contemptuous typical of he way the Israelis & Americans treat Palestinians. Read the Palestine Papers if you want to know the actual offer Olmert made.
Since you were so off in your estimate of the percentage of land to be returned to Palestine I see no reason to credit any of your other claims about Olmert’s proposal.
Regarding your claim that Gershom Gorenberg is lying (your world) when he says you are an anti-Zionist, I think it would be interesting to poll people who are familiar with your writings to see whether they think you are a Zionist or not.
A good example would be your comparison of Ben-Gurion with Hitler and Pol Pot
I would venture 99% of people would think that someone who made such a comparison is not a Zionist, nor would he WANT to be considered a Zionist. In any event you said above that Yousef Munayer supports the Right of Return of the Palestinian refugees WHICH YOU YOURSELF SUPPORT and then you say Munayer’s position is “distinctly non-Zionist”. There…you said it yourself.
A person can not simply appropriate a word for himself that has an accepted definition by everyone and then it has the opposite meaning. I would guess that about 90% of the Jewish population of Israel would call itself “Zionist” and virtually all of them, even on the Left, would take umbrage at comparing Ben-Gurion with Hitler and Pol Pot. I am sure they would reject your hijacking the word “Zionist” and using it to describe your views, even if you claim to support a Jewish state in some form or another.
Richard Silverstein says
I don’t determine my views by polls nor do I ask anyone’s approval or permission before I use terms to describe my views. You are an avowed supporter of the radical settler movement. I wouldn’t expect you to wish to allow me to use the term “Zionist” in describing my views. But you aren’t an arbiter of what I am or believe.
This is about the 5th time you’ve disputed my characterization of myself as Zionist. The subject is now closed for you. If you challenge me again on this you’ll lose yr comment privileges. In addition, any other off topic comments or ones violating comment rules will simply not be published. Consider yrsel warned.
Yousef Munayyer is “non-Zionist” because HE says he is, not because I do. He is a Palestinian & hence no one in their right mind would call him a “Zionist” even if he renounced the Right of Return, just as no one would describe a Jew as a Palestinian nationalist merely because he supported a Palestinian state. Though I suppose we need to make exceptions for bizarre specimens like Gilad Atzmon.
I did not portray his views about one or two-states since I don’t know them for sure. But if he supports one-state then he surely would be at least non Zionist. So what Munayyer believes has nothing to do with whether I can legitimately call myself a Zionist.
Richard Silverstein says
Here is a perfect example of your mendacity. Because what I actually wrote had almost nothing to do with what you claim I wrote. To put things in proper context, I posted about a U.S. killing campaign which was totally opaque & unaccountable. It involved a process by which U.S. citizens & virtually anyone could be designated for murder for reasons almost no one knew about. The individuals who made the decision never had to explain themselves to anyone & kept no written records of what they did or why.
Here is what I actually wrote as opposed to your lies:
So, no, I was not saying Ben Gurion was like Hitler or Pol Pot. I was saying that this U.S. killing program was as opaque & left as little paper trail as Ben Gurion’s Plan Dalet which led to the Nakba, or the Cambodian genocide program.
What you’ve done is to lie about what I wrote. And to lie in such a way that either you’re very stupid because you couldn’t understand what I wrote, or because you’re a bit of mangy hasbarist trash (or both).
You have either 2 choices: either you can apologize for the mendacious claims you made about me; or you can be banned permanently. Since you’ve been a commenter here for a very long time I will not ban you immediately, but will give you a chance to respond. Do so within 24 hrs or you will lose yr comment privileges.
I didn’t review what I wrote before I submitted it…when I wrote that you objected to Goremberg saying that you were not a “Zionist”, I mistakenly wrote regarding the world “lying” the following in parentheses: “your world”. I, of course, meant “your word”. Sorry. I did not mean to imply that you lie.
Bob Mann says
Interesting how Olmert’s appearance at the J Street conference is almost completely buried on their web site.
The link you provided does not even include his name among the speaker’s list. Featured speakers named are Amos Oz, Anat Hoffman, and Peter Beinart.
He’s not even included in the lengthy list of “also featured” speakers. One has to click through to the Gala Dinner sidebar to find him (and even there he isn’t listed as keynoter).
Incidentally, I notice that you have changed the subheading of your website to something that more accurately reflects its content. I hope that my suggestion helped in some small measure!
Richard Silverstein says
Yes, thanks for the suggestion. I took it.
I take it Olmert’s plane will not be making any landings in Europe. The only place he should be going is to the Hague, in handcuffs.
Binyamin in Orangeburbg says
As U.S. public opinion is being conditioned for a war with Iran, I think it is not advisable to criticize J Street, which opposes (however vacillatingly) the new war. We are going to need all the allies we can get. Yes, on the Palestinian issue, they are AIPAC-lite. We’ll get around to that in the fullness of time.
You seem to be missing the point.
The whole Iran affair is just a diversion tactic designed to allow Israel more rope in the occupied territories.
It seems to me that J Street has almost always been a kind of uncourageous poseur, essentially, even if unconsciously, designed to alleviate the conscience of those Jews uncomfortable over Israel but for various reasons not willing to do or even say much publicly about their concerns. Frankly, Richard, what puzzles me is your own position on matters central to your blog. On one hand you have defined yourself, I recall, as a liberal Zionist and at least certainly a Zionist, albeit one critical of Israeli policy, but then there are those moments when you seem not to be or want to be a Zionist. Obviously it’s no business of mine what you want to be, or not to be, but I do wonder that if you are indeed a Zionist then how can you, or at least your blog, be taken for anything more than a listing of Israeli outrages that simply go on and on without our being able to do anything other than hope that the international community will eventually set things right? I guess what I’m saying is that regardless of any of the positives to be found in the history of Zionism, given what Israel has decidedly become, how can a Zionist today expect or even want anything other than an exclusionary Jewish state or even a theocracy?
RE: “But these two projects continue to prove the essential irrelevance of liberal Zionism to contemporary Israeli political discourse.” ~ R.S.
ALSO SEE: Creating a Warrior State: The Enigma of Israel ~ by Gabriel Kolko, Counterpunch, 3/16/12
ENTIRE COMMENTARY – http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/16/the-enigma-of-israel/
Binyamin in Orangeburbg says
Having now had the opportunity to read Beinart’s manifesto on ZionSquare, I have to say I think you are overly critical of him too. I think he is a very sincere voice that is questioning core claims of Zionism, namely that Israel is, in fact, a democratic state. He may not reach the same conclusions as you and I, but goodness gracious, he sure is going in the right direction.
I read it and was surprised. I am not American, so do not really understand what it means when this particular person takes this stance, but if he is that important (as it seems) then this is a hopeful sign.
The real initiative lies with the many Palestinian grassroot organizations. I really do believe that the future lies there.
But if the one-sided American policy would change because influential people like him would help this to happen, then I wish him succes.
He said something about restricting the right of “return” (of Jews) to those Jews actually fleeing persecution.
It is a start.
In my opinion, ALL people fleeing persecution should find a safe haven in our affluent societies. (Yes we are still incredibly rich!)
Right now, Jews are not persecuted more than so many other minorities all over the world, and none of them have armed-to-the-teeth ethno-states luring them to come (nor should they have, God forbid!).
Acceptance of refugees of any opressed group and pressure on the governments of countries that do not protect their minorities properly is the only way to go.
He may go in that direction eventually Binyamin! Let’s hope so.
One is left with the impression that Beinart wishes to save or redeem Zionism, even tame it. However, that exercise unfolds as Palestinians continue to be walled, persecuted and dispossessed. I agree with Richard that it is actually “designed to assuage the Jewish consciences of their participants”.
It is a return to Jewish ethics, in their highest and most moral form, that Israel can be transformed into a democracy, in my opinion. There’s nothing exceptional about Israel or Zionism, similar problems of ethno-religious-secular nationalism gave us the assassination of Gandhi and the philosophy of Qutb. It is telling when liberal Zionists and illiberal ethno-religious-secular nationalists share the same problems. In the case of liberal Zionism, it is done in the cover of rationalism and furrowed European Enlightenment brows.
delia ruhe says
I, too, had high hopes for J Street, but the first day of their first conference which seemed like a big competition to see who loved Israel most. Their gushing tributes to their “homeland” made me think about all the Israeli Jews who really resent those sentimental chequebook diaspora Zionists, nice and safe in America while they, the Israeli Jews, are putting their lives on the line for them.
What irks me most is that J Street DOESN’T represent most liberal American Jews — the silent majority who won’t speak out for fear of making waves (or perhaps — because of the way Israel shames them — they secretly wish it didn’t exist).
It’s that silent majority for whom Avirama Golan was speaking in her Ha’aretz column a couple of days ago. It’s a surprisingly powerful and pertinent article:
Piotr Berman says
“while Israeli Jews are putting their lives on the line for them.”
Israeli Jews seem to be quite delusional. Checks from USA have some tangible effect on lives in Israel, and the effect can be positive if the funds are spend on worthy projects (clearly, the effects can be negative as well). Israel picking fights with neighbors and more distant countries cannot have positive effect on lives in USA.
Ashkenazi Jews spend several hundred years as sidekicks of Polish nobility who regarded themselves as “Antemurale Christianitatis (the Bulwark of Christianity)”, hence the vision of a rampart manned by the nobles (now, by Israeli Jews) defending the rest of Christianity from the might of Muslim hordes (Tatars, Ottomans). We really could do much better without any bulwarks and aircraft carriers in the Middle East.