This is an expanded version of an article recently published in Middle East Eye:
In 2008, in the midst of a historic presidential campaign that would bring Barack Obama to the White House, a group of liberal Zionists disenchanted with the stranglehold Aipac had on Israel-related discourse in the U.S., founded an alternative Lobby. The co-founders were Daniel Levy, whose father was a Labour Party attorney general and peer, and Jeremy Ben Ami, whose father was a senior member of the pre-state Jewish terror group, Irgun. They sought to create a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization, which would lobby on behalf of the liberal democratic values embraced by Israel’s Declaration of Independence. They also planned to raise millions to support Congressional candidates willing to buck Aipac and oppose Occupation.
The day of its launch I wrote in the Guardian’s Comment is Free:
I came away…heartened by the J Street effort. Trying to be a realist after feeling burned by similar efforts previously, I’m not yet firmly convinced it will succeed. But it is bold, ambitious, well thought out and doable. Many other dovish political efforts in the past had one or even two of those qualities going for them, but few have had all of them. That is in J Street’s favour.
The following year, I attended its first conference and organized a semi-official panel of progressive Israel-Palestine bloggers. I retained a cautiously optimistic view of that event in the blog post, 2 1/2 Cheers for Historic J Street National Conference:
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…No longer does Aipac…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…There has been more diversity in the discourse in the past 18 months since J Street launched than in the past decade…
But I don’t want to paint an overly rosy picture. J Street is still very much a work in progress…
Last weekend, J Street held its 2019 national conference. It was another landmark for the lobbying group, as six Democratic presidential candidates graced its stage offering their vision for a new U.S. policy toward Israel. Two of the three top-tier candidates addressed the group, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Sanders took most of the spotlight with a groundbreaking statement that the $4-billion in annual U.S. aid to Israel should be reprioritized to also support the 2-million Gazans suffering from the nearly fifteen-year Israeli blockade of the Palestinian enclave. This was considered a major break with precedent as it marked one of the few times a presidential candidate threatened to punish Israel financially for its rejectionist policies. If Sanders did implement such a policy after becoming president it would be a major wake-up call for Israelis who take for granted they have carte blanche in pursuing their own nationalist interests. However, the Sanders approach is ameliorative, rather than revolutionary. It remains within the two-state framework and offers no breakthrough in the pursuit of Palestinian national rights.
U.S. media have devoted a lot of ink to the proceedings. Even the ‘Grey Lady,’ the New York Times, known for its cautious liberal Zionism, devoted a major story to the supposed chinks in the pro-Israel armor represented by Sanders’ remarks. 972 Magazine’s Mairav Zonszein, penned perhaps the most sobering profile, which cautiously tip-toed up to a critical line without stepping over it.
J Street: a Critical Appraisal
Given the flattering coverage, it’s worth offering a more critical appraisal of J Street and the overall liberal Zionist “consensus” among the mainstream American Jewish community. Within a year or two of its founding, I took an increasingly skeptical view of J Street as it endorsed Israeli invasions of Gaza, attacked international investigations of Israeli war crimes like the Goldstone report, rejected recognition of BDS and Hamas, and urged the Obama administration to reject a UN resolution demanding an end to illegal Israeli settlements. At that point, I joined other critics in calling the group, “Aipac Lite,” and “Jews for Obama.”
I had hoped J Street would become a home for new ideas regarding the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. Instead, it became a vehicle for funding candidates who pushed a Sisyphean boulder uphill, while an earthquake toppled the mountain on which it struggled. The group has adopted an incremental approach, which many of its critics view as too-little-too-late.
J Street’s continuing embrace of a two-state solution in the face of Israeli rejectionism has marked it as increasingly out of touch with reality. It allows liberal American Jews and the Obama-Clinton-Biden wing of the Democratic Party to assuage their conscience that they are “doing the right thing” while doing nothing. This approach nibbles around the edge of the problem, while Israel’s dominant far-right over has, over half a century, systematically gutted the very democratic basis of the state.
Another failure of J Street is its refusal to acknowledge the critical role that Palestinians must play in any solution to the conflict. They are an after-thought. Their suffering since the 1948 Nakba, their existence as a valued minority within the Israeli polity—all either ignored or rejected. Yes, lip service is paid. But the group’s embrace of Israel as a Jewish state in which the Jewish majority enjoys superior rights, is a fatal flaw.
The national conference showcased some Palestinian speakers, mainly affiliated with the Palestinian Authority and moderate streams of Palestinian politics and Israeli-Palestinian co-existence (i.e. normalization) efforts. Among them were Saeb Erekat, the PA’s long-time peace negotiator, Ayman Oudeh, leader of the moderate wing of the Joint List and surprisingly, Issa Amro of Youth Against Settlements.
A major Palestinian statement preceded the conference arguing that participation in it whitewashed the interests of Palestinians:
This is an open letter from Palestinians…driven by the values of equality, freedom, and justice… who root policy demands for Palestinian freedom in these values. J Street’s positions are not in line with these values…
…J Street dismisses our voices…pushing instead its agenda in liberal and progressive circles in ways that are harmful to our advocacy to hold Israel accountable for its human rights violations. Many of our fellow Palestinians who were selectively invited to appear at the J Street conference as “Palestinian leadership” do not represent…Palestinians dedicated to pursuing freedom and justice for our people. Their acceptance to appear at the J Street…illustrates their disconnect from the hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people for a future that guarantees our dignity…
…J Street’s advocacy does not represent a progressive vision for Palestinians and Israelis…
J Street’s Zionist Litmus Test
I anticipated J Street would be a Big Tent organization embracing a wide range of progressive views on Israel-Palestine. I quickly learned that this was not the case. From the beginning, the group excluded non-Zionist views represented by a major progressive organization, Jewish Voice for Peace. Consistently, Ben Ami has denigrated those in the Jewish community to his left:
I asked J Street’s Ben-Ami…[about]…the flourishing of activist groups to J Street’s left—many of whom reject Israel’s Zionism as inherently unequal…might ultimately squeeze the… group out of the discussion. He maintained the opposite was true. “The disavowal of Zionism is a single digit view,” he said. “It’s minimal single digits. They’re very loud, by the way. And carry a microphone pretty oversized.”
In fact, Jewish Voice for Peace, the group he implicitly attacked, has 18,000 members and 112,000 Twitter followers. It’s 2019 budget was $3.2-million. In terms of its activism and progressive vision, JVP and like-minded groups are eating J Street’s lunch. Not to mention more youth-oriented groups like If Not Now (INN), which is avowedly non-Zionist. INN was founded by former members of the campus affiliate, J Street U, who felt constrained by the latter’s ideological strictures. It has 52,000 Twitter followers. Clearly, the more forthright views of JVP and INN resonate in major portions of the American Jewish community. Demeaning their role seems part of J Street’s DNA and indicates an ideological litmus test for legitimacy. These are the very same criticisms Jewish liberals have had of the mainstream communal consensus for decades.