I said earlier this week that I was going to get to Jeremy Ben-Ami's comments at the Jewish antiwar conference of last Sunday. Ben-Ami is the brains of J Street, the alternative Jewish lobby; and he was introduced with genuine excitement, by Rokhl Kafrissen, a young Jewish editor, who declared: "What Jeremy Ben-Ami did was organize a response to the neoconservative domination of the Israel lobby. I don't think you can over-exaggerate how important that is to people of my generation."
Yes: Don't we all despise the neocons! But in Ben-Ami's shrewd comments, it was clear that neoconservatism is not going away in the Jewish leadership, and in fact, that it reflects strong currents inside the Jewish community.
Here are some of Jeremy Ben-Ami's statements (quoted when in quotations, all emphases mine):
When people look back on the Iraq war, they will justly ask, "Where was the Jewish community?" Because "we were not there; we were not stepping up loudly and clearly as a community." Jewish organizations were careful not to support the war explicitly or vehemently. But "there was a very strong perception that Jewish individuals in the Administration, Jewish neoconservatives and thinkers, and activists involved in [Jewish organizations] if not the organizations themselves were behind the scenes big supporters of the concepts that drove the war." [Absolutely true] These concepts included the idea that "you can solve your problems through the use of force." Though: "I don't blame [that idea] all on the Jews."
Note that the very basic data point, Jewish neoconservatives, so hotly disputed by the neocons themselves and by Jeffrey Goldberg and Yivo, is stated directly by Ben-Ami (as it was by Joe Klein). More on Iraq:
We must ask, Who was against the war? The Jewish community, by and large. But as for organizations, Ben-Ami said, there were only two, including the National Council of Jewish Women. This meant that the war had "minimal [Jewish] opposition, and maximal individual Jewish support."
Ben-Ami spoke of the ways that the Jewish community is of two minds, hawkish and dovish at the same time:
American Jewish opinion is complex re Israel/Palestine. People like to say that Jews are liberals, but they can be very tough about Arabs. Yes they are for a two-state solution, by 70 to 30. But then 70% would support an invasion of Gaza tomorrow. "There's a split in the mindset, both here and in Israel."
What's absent: political leadership. Israel hasn't had a strong leader in almost a generation. And AIPAC is the only leader here of the American Jewish community on these issues. That's why J Street is so important, it's offering some diversity, Ben-Ami says. Though I would say: ethnocentrism doesn't work; progressive Jews have to make an alliance with other progressives, to take on the neocons.
Ben-Ami said a lot about the power of the Israel lobby.
When congressmen close their doors, they agree with J Street about the need to talk to Iran. "It isn't a matter of convincing them we're right… They don't have the courage to lead. They need to be given the courage to lead."
You can't be a Jewish organization in Washington without Israel "lurking in the background" of all discussions [Let my people go!] Things will always be considered through "an Israel lens, and that lens today is all about Iran."
"The Israel lobby has made Iran the number one issue for the Jewish community when it comes to foreign policy. If you're going to engage members of Congress," you have to talk about Iran. "They'll say, 'Isn't Iran the greatest threat to Israel?'"
J Street can't fight this attitude. "The voice of the Jewish community in Washington is and has been for 30 years" a "cluster of organizations that would seem to speak for the Jewish community." All of them right wing: AIPAC, Zionist Organization of America, the ADL, the American Jewish Committee, and the Council of Presidents.
AIPAC is a "source of power" for the Jewish community in Washington. And "the power in Washington relates to money." That's AIPAC's strength, money. "Until we are able to tell [members of Congress] that staking out positions that most of the Jewish community support is not going to hurt them politically, then we're not going to have a voice." These congressmen agree with us privately. But they won't say so publicly. We cannot take AIPAC on directly.
My conclusion: Jewish activists on Palestine Anna Baltzer and Phyllis Bennis are right. They say that progressives should not try and truck with the Jewish community. Shouldn't avoid it, but shouldn't truck with it either. Because out of Zionist feeling, and outsider feelings of Jewish power, that community is claimed by neoconservatism. If you want to attack neocons, you must get outside the Jewish community and make a bridge, right now, to Trita Parsi, Scott McConnell, and the realists. It will be a powerful coalition, and reasonable Jews will come on board. J Street, which has already done important work with its announcement that so excited Kafrissen, will be most effective in such a coalition.