The Problem with J Street

The problem with J Street is that it doesn’t make sense. It is conceptually self-implosive. This was never really very hard to see. Last year, during the 2009 J Street Conference, Jonathan Chait wrote.

The problem, though, was that J Street had loosened the definition of “pro-Israel” to the point where it had virtually no meaning. As a result, the group has attracted the support of a lot of people who do not think of themselves as pro-Israel at all, some of whom oppose Israel’s continued existence as a Jewish state.

A “pro-Israel” group that draws support, however ambivalent, from anti-Israel figures – provides, in fact, a venue for an “unofficial” independent blogger panel featuring avowed anti-Zionists, and even quite obvious anti-Semites such as Phillip Weiss – is like a man with running sores on his body assuring you he’s feeling quite all right. J Street has spent its entire existence assuring everyone that it is quite all right.

Chait had just the previous day participated on a panel at the 2009 conference entitled “What Does It Mean to be Pro-Israel?” Now, really, this is very curious. Academically, we are, many of us, theoretically stirred by deeper meta explorations such as what it means to be “pro” – forget Israel – and, while we’re at it, what it means to mean, but in matters of war and peace, and righteous sympathies amidst it, if an organization, and one, even, that labels itself “pro-Israel,” has to hold a panel that debates what that designation means, then by definition that organization has an identity crisis. AIPAC calls itself the “pro-Israel” lobby, and it has no doubts what it means. J Street tried to differentiate itself as the “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” lobby, as if, by implication, AIPAC is not pro-peace – which is what some of those rather more anti than pro pros in the pro-Israel J Street might claim. But again, since these people would align AIPAC with longstanding Israeli policies, there’s the point.

During the panel’s discussion (here is Velveteen Rabbi’s detailed account of it), there was much, of course, unsystematic talk and exemplifying of what “pro” and “anti” might mean, but none of the examples were quite parallel to the condition of J Street’s existence. If one considers American antiwar protestors, being called anti-American, for instance, one is speaking of citizens of a nation criticizing their own nation. This is a very different animal from the citizen of one nation criticizing the policies and behavior of another nation, with added psychic and emotional attachment considerations if the person is of the same ethnic stock – American Irish, let’s say, taking positions during the Northern Ireland “troubles.” We tend toward the categorically removed if we think, further, not of an individual, but an organization, indeed a lobby – for a foreign nation – and one calling itself “pro.”

Consider the curiously contrary and diverse “anti-Castro” movement. The Cuban lobby, through organizations like The Cuban American National Foundation, has been pro many things, but has been defined by its “anti-Castro” impetus. A Cuban-American could share many aspirations with the movement, including those for freedom and democracy in Cuba, but if one were an advocate of relaxing sanctions and opening normal diplomatic and economic relationships with Cuba, under Castro (believing such to be the better course, in the long run, to achieving democracy and greater freedoms), one could never convincingly present oneself as anti-Castro. Indeed, the point for many who came to criticize U.S. policy was that it was time to stop being anti-Castro and to conceive of new ways to be pro-Cuban.

This curious contrary analogy is far from perfect alignment, because the same end in reverse, to revise policy and become anti-Israel – well, that’s the problem for J Street. How to remain “anti-Castro” without staying focused on being, actually, anti-Castro was an insoluble conundrum. How to remain focused on being pro-Israel – as an organization, a lobby for a foreign nation – without being AIPAC, a supporter of the nation of Israel in its conflict with its enemies, is also a conundrum. Generally speaking, being pro-America, or pro-Georgia (contra, perhaps, Russia), or pro-India (contra Pakistan) conveys, as a non-citizen, an affiliation with the culture and the present and continuing political nationhood of that country. Increasingly, for the kinds of “pro-Israel” critics of Israel, being pro-Israel has ceased to mean that. “Pro-Israel” has needed to be defined down, so that for many J Streeters it means little more than supporting Israel’s right to exist. How nice of them. And to be pro-Indian, then, means only to endorse the right of India to exist as a nation? Well, thanks, but we were already here without your presumptuous existential nod of ratification. To be pro-Palestinian, let’s note, is not merely to support the creation of a Palestinian state. I do that, and I am not pro-Palestinian. People who call themselves pro-Palestinian believe the Palestinians to be an aggrieved party – aggrieved at the hands and by the policies of Israel and Jews – which I certainly do not believe. I support Israel in its culture and in its present and continuing political nationhood. I believe in its righteousness in its longstanding conflict with its Arab and Muslim enemies

I might, as an Israeli citizen, or as an American Jew, or as a generally sympathetic American non-Jew, believe that the settlement project was wrong. I might believe it was wrong as a practical policy error. I might believe it wrong morally, because in accepting the 1948 partition Israel implied its acquiescence – whatever the immediate and subsequent Arab misbehavior – to political conditions in which it gave up even historically or legally rightful claims to tracts of land on the West Bank. I might cavil over this military engagement or that, or this policy toward Palestinians or that, and wish Israel a nation in which religious forces held less sway, but, especially as a non-Israeli, these private disagreements will be practically meaningless.

If however, I am an organization, a so-called lobby – a champion of the country for which I lobby – and all my “pro”-the country-I-am-lobbying-for is a mouthed profession of love and a, really, niggardly affirmation of the country’s right to exist in the first place, then the potential effect of my activity – my consorting with anti-Zionists and anti-Semites and BDS advocates and one-staters with an aim to delegitimize –  is not meaningless, and the very understanding of what I am and am supposed to be becomes a gaping hole in sense and coherence. Then we find out that I have misled from the very start about who – in the likes of the not terribly pro-Israel George Soros and other mysterious figures – were my funders, and then I lie about the deception.

And I keep contemplating what the meaning of “is” is.



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