J Street on Its Own Terms


This commentary originally appeared in the Algemeiner, June 28, 2012.

It is easy enough to criticize J Street from a conservative perspective, which, given developments since the failure of Oslo and the second Intifada, is the perspective that now predominates among pro-Israel voices. From that perspective, the very identification of J Street as a progressive Israel lobby invites conservative dissent – dissent that, if one is able to step back from the partisan divide, should not stand as inherent challenge to J Street’s bona fides. (That is a conditional of some magnitude in contemporary American politics, but this begins as an intellectual exercise.) What, though, if J Street is considered on its own terms, with assessment based only on what the organization says about itself? What does J Street purport to be? How does it, in accordance or contradiction, actually behave?

J Street’s initial problematics can be extracted from of its sloganeering. It is a registered lobby as the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.” Pro-Israel everyone can get. That’s what lobbies are supposed to be – pro the client they each represent and an advocate of the interests of their clients, as their clients consider them to be. That last is fundamental. Lobbies, like any professional for hire, may in their advisory role offer dissenting and critical perspectives behind closed doors, but their voices in the halls of power are those of parties they represent. They lobby for.

Registered, professional lobbies are thus value neutral, other than the value of the role they play in a democracy. Like the interest, praise the lobby. Not so much? Not so much. The estimation of the lobby will be rooted in an estimation of the interest it represents, so the regard in which a lobby for the state of Israel is held will begin, though not necessarily end, in one’s regard for Israel. But as much or more than J Street has established itself as a lobby for Israel has it presented itself as an alternative to AIPAC – an implicit, before even any explicit, criticism of the latter. Has the Israeli government expressed any dissatisfaction with AIPAC, any desire for an alternative in the United States in generating support for its position and interests? It has not.

Whose interests, then, does J Street represent? This is not a question pointed toward hidden truths or clandestine activities. Clearly, J Street represents the interests, not of the current (or the one before that) Israeli government, in what that government perceives its nation’s interests to be, but of a certain segment of Jewish and non-Jewish American liberalism in that segment’s disagreement with Israeli policy. The claim of J Street to be “pro-Israel” thus relies on a particular kind of casuistry, in which one claims to be seeking what is best for a party in the face of that party’s immediate dislike of present behavior toward ends pursued supposedly in its interests. This is not necessarily invalidating. Any parent is familiar with the stance of a loving intention toward a more long-term good, against present displeasure and discomfort. However, this is not usually the activity of a lobby. Lobbies are not parents.

J Street’s further sloganeering as “pro-peace” is standard progressive rhetorical fare, but not consequently excused from analysis. Especially since the Vietnam War, Western liberal and progressive factions standing in opposition to an ongoing military conflict have presented themselves as anti-war and pro-peace. The claim is not necessarily so simply made even in such a clear circumstance as that, but there were anti-war forces during the Vietnam War who truly desired and sought peace at any price, even the one ultimately paid, of the abandonment of allies and the fall of the South to the communists.

The circumstances of Israel-Palestine since 1948, then 1967, are much more complex than a single war, however, and persist, arguably, as a single, multifaceted conflict punctuated by varied periods of low-grade violence and eruptions in terrorism, with outbreaks of further combat. What exactly constitutes “pro-peace” under those conditions is much less clear than the willingness to simply withdraw from a field of conflict during a single discrete war. To further muddy the meaning of “peace” in “pro-peace” or “peace party” is the history of the Oslo process and the Second Intifada. Just as the American right ignores the post New Deal historical record of having subsequently spared the economy and the populace the degradations of pre-Depression joblessness and poverty, the post-Oslo Israeli left, with its American and other progressive allies, simply ignores the nature and record of Israel’s foes. Judah Skoff argued reasonably in the Times of Israel earlier this month that “In order for the left to regain its voice and relevance, it needs to recognize its own failures” and that “[i]nstead of attacking the right and throwing up its hands, the left should focus its energies on articulating a new path forward.”

But J Street will call itself “pro-peace” as if this were 1993 or even 2000. As if nothing had occurred to warrant reconsideration of conditions. As if there were no history to warrant what one may be said to mean by declaring oneself and one’s organization to be “pro-peace,” impugning thereby, of the organization to which J Street chose to stand in contrast, and of its supporters and sympathizers, that – what exactly? – that even when there is no actual present warfare, all those supporters and sympathizers may be caricatured as “pro-war”? Isn’t this the cartoon more likely, more commonly, drawn by those more accurately labeled, except by those who will torture language to senselessness, opponents of Israel?

If the organization is a declared and registered “pro-Israel” lobby, these considerations undermine all its affirmations. If it is, rather, simply a one-issue organization representing a particular kind of progressive philosophy, then the situation is clearer. Then we can deal directly with the policies and the politics and forego the pretense. J Street, rather than lobbying for Israel is lobbying for a change in U.S. policy toward Israel, which, indeed, J Street acknowledges to be its goal. That is why it has a PAC.

From the start, J Street’s actions have belied its verbal dress and revealed its body politic. At its first annual conference, in 2008, it hosted a blogger panel that in included the foremost names in American anti-Israel blogging, some of whom are even avowedly anti-Zionist and, read at length, more, deeply and persuasively anti-Semitic. It is simply unimaginable that a progressive conference supposedly championing the interests of any other cultural minority in the United States would include such an event. Conjure an antagonistic competitor to the NAACP arising and hosting a luncheon including Clarence Thomas, Allen West, Michael Steele, Herman Caine, and Alan Keyes. It would be in neither the progressive nor civil rights traditions as those terms have historically been understood. Indeed, when the CPAC conference in recent years has invited the John Birch Society to be an official cosponsor, and when it this year invited the participation of figures from several Christian and white nationalist organizations, such as ProEnglish, VDare, and Youth for Western Civilization, liberals around the country were justly outraged. But J Street began its existence the very same way, and as it has done multiple times in its brief history, it sought disingenuously to finesse the issue by declaring the panel an “unofficial” event of the conference.

Even this year, in its political endorsements, on its own terms, J Street falls far short. The acceptance of her endorsement by Diane Feinstein was certainly a coup, and J Street’s support, in Illinois’ 8th CD, of Tammy Duckworth, with her military and her sterling, young governmental career, over the reactionary and disreputable Joe Walsh– an opponent of the two-state solution no less objectionable than opponents on the other side – is precisely the endorsement that a truly progressive, truly pro-Israel organization should make. Unfortunately, but by now predictably, many of J Street’s other endorsements are either less progressive in a true sense or less supportive of Israel, from incumbents like U.S. Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) who refused in 2009 to sign a resolution affirming Israel’s right to defend itself, to David Price (D-NC), who recently sponsored a heavily one-sided resolution within the North Carolina Democratic Party blaming Israel for the “illegal occupation” of Palestine.

In some way even more telling is J Street’s endorsement in New Hampshire’s 2nd CD of Democrat Anne McLane Kuster over Republican Charlie Bass. Kuster has no public record on Israel whatsoever. Bass has been a firm supporter of Israel. Were J Street a more general political organization, one could understand its support of the more progressive Kuster over a Republican. Given its guiding public purpose, however – and numerous other races toward which to direct its funds – J Street’s endorsement in this race of an unknown quantity over the demonstrated supporter is suggestive of a closing truth.

Greater than its commitment to Israel is J Street’s dedication to a particular brand of progressive philosophy, one in which the virtues of Israel’s position contra its demonizing foes is not as readily apparent as it is to others. Given a candidate whose positions, though unknown, might seem to promise, by philosophical extension, that particular brand in application to Israel, against the demonstrated strong support of another candidate, J Street will not even abstain. Pro-peace persists as a cant placeholder that affirms nothing concrete in the real conditions under which solutions are actually achieved. Pro-Israel does not win out, over a zero.

J Street stands as a “home,” as they say in real estate, with a lot of curb appeal, but the interior presents a different vision.


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3 thoughts on “J Street on Its Own Terms

  1. Couldn’t one look for another angle in creation of J-Street? To simplify the problem, I would offer personal motives. AIPAC and other similar pro-Israeli organizations are pretty solidified and static structures with very few chances for newcomers to make a career* in the ranks.

    So: identify an unexplored political angle, a possibly sympathetic group of customers (youngsters, leftists of a certain bend, etc), work out a few slogans – and here you are, in a new and (at least for a while) prospering line of business.

    Sorry for being so cynical, but I have watched several British (Jewish and non-Jewish) personalities that realized (with “s”, of course) that anti-Zionism is not just a system of beliefs but a possible road to fame and recognition. Not to mention possible remuneration, which is indeed less important in most cases.

    (*) I don’t mean the remuneration, although this could also be a factor.

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