Scott McConnell writes:
It is no small achievement to get 150 Congressmen and Senators to sign on as sponsors of J Street, all the more because of the sustained Likudnik campaign to scare them off (and no group may scare more easily than members of Congress.). Time will tell whether the new “pro-peace, pro-Israel” groupcan bend the course of history, but my strongest impression of its potential to do that came from the speeches given by Jeremy Ben-Ami and Rabbi Sid Schwarz at the final dinner.
J Street promises to post transcripts or videos of these speeches, but they aren’t up yet. Till then I’ll rely on my memory and emotional reaction: these sparkling addresses carry within them the seeds of something that could move the templates of American politics.
How so? In important ways, the United States has become a Judeo-Christian country. Not necessarily in a theological sense – which may be impossible, but in the sense that much of its public and official rhetoric is suffused by dual Jewish narratives of suffering and striving for social justice. If one lives in a major American city or has any sort of cosmopolitan life at all, it is all but unavoidable. As a former New York neoconservative, I was bathed in it, often without even realizing it. It is possible to roll one’s eyes at this—here goes yet another story about the Freedom Riders or the refuseniks or the desperate efforts to flee Europe in the 1930’s. But it impossible to deny that this narrative, grounded in our recent history, has real power and merits genuine respect.
Listening to Ben Ami and Schwarz, it struck me that the singular achievement of J Street may be to marry the Jewish social-justice narrative to Israel/Palestine, the most important foreign policy issue facing the United States. This is almost never done, at least in official “mainstream” political circles. Instead, for sixty years, major leaders speak about Israel as the culmination, the solution, for centuries of Jewish wandering and homelessness and oppression, with nary a word about those whom its creation displaced. J Street’s role, it seems to me, is to say, yes, it is our duty as Jews to care about injustice and try to overcome it, and that means, explicitly, caring not only about Jewish children but about Palestinian children too. Yes, there are many Israeli individuals and groups who take this to heart, and who struggle valiantly to document and oppose the injustice Israel imposes upon the Palestinians. But J Street brings this sentiment to Washington, to the Congress, to the very center of American debate.
This was evident in a hundred ways at the conference, and came across with special clarity at the dinner. Every time the fate of Palestinian children is included in the Jewish social justice narrative, it becomes that much more impossible to countenance things like the Gaza assault and the current blockade, or indeed to accept the entire web of “normal” Israeli rules and checkpoints on the West Bank designed to make Palestinian life unlivable. Upending that regime flows inevitably from J Street’s rhetoric—not so much the advocacy of two states, or peace, but the words about striving for social justice not only for Jewish children.
While the leadership of J Street surely wouldn’t put it this way, the group seems to aspire to nothing less than the excision of the hypocrisy from the Jewish narrative of social justice. If it succeeds, it will be giant step forward for America, going far to heal the blemish which now mars this country’s face before the world.