Praise for J Street

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 38 Comments

It only seems appropriate to me to begin my posts post-J Street in a celebratory spirit. The ways the organization falls short I will come to, but I must tip my cap to a new Jewish group that filled a hall in Washington with 1500 people, including many congressmen and senators, and these people did not boo Zbig Brzezinski, even as his name was mentioned again and again, and did not cheer sanctions for Iran, and broke into applause whenever Palestinian human rights were mentioned. In the realms of Jewish history and American power politics, this was a huge development. It is little wonder that I ran into Dan Fleshler looking stunned and starry-eyed, marveling that such a day had finally come to pass. Or that I saw Jonathan Chait of the New Republic glowering as if he had just been forced to dine on porcupine. The institutions that Chait is engaged with, the New Republic and AIPAC, had just taken a giant hit. Celebration. The status quo Israel lobby is under assault from within the Jewish community, the battle has begun in earnest. Whether it will have any effect on Palestinian freedom is yet to be determined.

At J Street you saw old lefty Jews who have long been secretly critical of Israel walking around with a spring in their step. Their views were not echoed from the podiums, really, except for a stirring appearance by the young rabbinical student Alana Alpert, who spoke of the West Bank and Gaza, but these people felt included. Do they love Israel? I don’t know. They are confused by Israel, maybe they are angry at Israel. Some of them are secretly non- or anti-Zionist, and will come out of the closet before long. That’s a good thing too. In a panel on social justice in which the other participants were more anguished/handwringy/feckless, Alana Alpert invoked the boycott by union garment workers back when Jews were garment workers, and Adam explained to me later that boycott was a regular tool of the Jewish community 70 to 100 years ago to break the power of the sweatshops.

Just to hear the word boycott in such a positive and Jewish light was a beautiful moment; and before long J Street too will have to accept boycott, beginning with goods produced in the wicked occupation. Mark my word.

As for Palestinian views, they too had a place in the J Street conference. Not a very big place, but a place. There was a panel yesterday morning with Bassim Khoury, the former P.A. economics minister who quit over the Goldstone fold, at which he described what I had seen in Gaza, the wanton destruction not just of children with white phosphorus, but the wanton destruction of Palestinian factories at the end of the slaughter in January. When Israeli bulldozers went in and destroyed factories, ripped them down with huge chains, flattened beautiful European machinery made to mill modern products–the Israeli army, after burning little children, ripped apart the guts of the Palestinian economy. So when Netanyahu says that he is for an "economic" peace, he is lying. Khoury said this at J Street. A good thing, that.

The Palestinians were ghettoized at J Street. They weren’t on stage for the gala dinner, they weren’t there for the big panel on American and Israeli interests led by Bernard Avishai and the inevitable Martin Indyk (and Robert Wexler and Mel Levine, all the center-left of AIPAC). I saw a lot of non-Zionist friends at J Street, and I believe that many of them will be more jaundiced than I am about the conference. Because it’s too little too late, will have little effect on the two-state solution, let alone the cause of justice in Palestine. But again I am focusing narrowly here on the realms of American power politics and Jewish history, and this is a big shift.

I have a friend who is not intermarried (I know, I should have told you a long time ago), and this friend told me that she dated non-Jews all through college but married a Jew and when I asked her why, she said, Easier. Comfy. That feeling was in the air at J Street, of easy ethnocentrism, and it doesn’t make me happy. It is about Jews feeling most comfortable talking about the politics of Israel/Palestine with other Jews, about limiting the discourse to Jews and acceptable non-Jews. It won’t work in the end. The limitations inside the Jewish discourse are just too great. The idea that the peace process is still a wonderful option rather than an aging shell-game; the idea that Israel is still a miracle, rather than a neo-colonialist society that bans the Nakba from textbooks with Jeffrey Goldberg’s active support–these are leftish Jewish conceits about Israel, and the most powerful insult to them, which Max Blumenthal offered earlier this year in his video, Feeling the Hate in Jerusalem, which documented the rightwing racism that is a big current in Israel–the leaders of J Street have essentially denied. That discourse of denial can’t last, even inside J Street.

But still I celebrate it. I keep thinking about Jonathan Chait’s angry face. The history of postwar Jewish participation in the United States power structure is the history of an elite. That elite seems to draw on ancient strains in Jewish life, but the living themes of this tradition are high achievement, privilege, access, influence journalism/thinktanks, and the Israel lobby. J Street is a different way of imagining Jewish power, in less elitist ways. As such it represents a real change in the guard. Just who we’re guarding, ach, that’s another story.

38 Responses

  1. Eva Smagacz
    October 28, 2009, 11:04 am

    I remember reading your blog few years ago and marveled at the boldness of it.
    I am now glued to the computer listening to the speakers at J Street and can hardly believe the no-go areas being aired from the podium.
    This, for me is the best medicine against Anti-Semitism.

  2. potsherd
    October 28, 2009, 11:14 am

    And not to forget the boycott against German goods in the 1930s that actually caused the Nazi government to strike a deal, proving its effectiveness.

  3. BradAllen
    October 28, 2009, 11:20 am

    “and broke into applause whenever Palestinian human rights were mentioned”

    Progress indeed and very surprising. I still remember many a times when the mere mention of Palestinian Human Rights abuses would clear the halls by several pro-Israel attendees who simply would not tolerate any negative references to what is going on in Israel.

    This too is progress which I hope will gather some steam
    Who decided to go to war in Gaza and why?
    link to

  4. otto
    October 28, 2009, 11:32 am

    A fundamental human right is the right not to be colonised, and indeed the right to be decolonised. Those are the rights the Palestinians, like the black South Africans, need the most.

  5. US_Objector
    October 28, 2009, 11:34 am

    Phil, great report — well-balanced summary of the first conference. But what does it mean? Is it a ripple in the pond, or a sea change? And is it too late?

  6. Chaos4700
    October 28, 2009, 11:43 am

    Well I guess I have a little bit of hope for J-Street now. I’m still not entirely sold on the idea that the negative aspects that weigh it down — it’s insularity from non-Jews and, in particular, from Palestinians — are going to be overcome, but there is a chance and there are people (like you, Mr. Weiss) who are pushing things in a good direction.

    • Shmuel
      October 28, 2009, 12:17 pm

      Chaos – A friend who was there tells me that the Palestinian and Arab presence was significant – both in terms of actual physical participation, and as the proverbial pachyderm in the chamber. That is already a huge beginning (well, not exactly a beginning because Jews and Palestinians have been cooperating for ages, but you know what I mean), even if non-Semites like your good self are still only grudgingly granted observer status.

      • Chaos4700
        October 28, 2009, 12:27 pm

        Fair enough, and perhaps I shouldn’t be downplaying the significance of that. Hey, I’m content to have an observer status on J-Street. Just as long as I reserve the right to comment. :)

      • Citizen
        October 28, 2009, 12:32 pm

        It’s true Rome wasn’t built in a day, so to say, as the suggestions on historical boycotts suggests. Nevertheless, the grudgingly granted observer status is
        annoying a tad considering all Uncle Sam’s enabling of the status quo.

      • potsherd
        October 28, 2009, 1:12 pm

        It does raise the question – where is the non-anti-Semitic anti-Zionist organization for the non-Israel lovers?

  7. Richard Witty
    October 28, 2009, 12:49 pm

    The difference in message between reform and revolution is slight on the surface, but reaches a qualitative shift.

    Humane Zionism is the answer to the next 100 year question. After that is an open question.

    • olive
      October 28, 2009, 1:35 pm

      We can grant your request , Mr. Witty , as soon as we start figuering out our plans for Humane White Supremacy.

      Humane Zionism: Where Ethnic Cleansing is Done With A Smile

      • Chaos4700
        October 28, 2009, 3:19 pm

        Yeah, really. “Humane Zionism” is a contradiction. How do you humanely bulldoze a Palestinian family’s home?

    • Mooser
      October 28, 2009, 1:56 pm

      Thanks, Richard! I will immediately take “Humane Zionism” and put it in my medicine cabinet, where it will replace ipecac. A more emetic formulation I have never heard of.

      • Dan Kelly
        October 28, 2009, 1:59 pm

        I still have brill cream…

  8. Mooser
    October 28, 2009, 1:09 pm

    Jeez, and I thought the question wasn’t “Can J-Street take Israel policy away from the traditional Zionist Lobby” but was instead “Can American Jews take their religion back from the Zionists” but I guess I was wrong.

    • Dan Kelly
      October 28, 2009, 1:38 pm

      No, you’re right. It’s just a roundabout way of getting there, unfortunately. Humanity will win out in the end.

      • Mooser
        October 28, 2009, 2:21 pm

        Unfortunately, American Jews taking their religion back from the Zionists is a pretty round-a-bout way of helping humanity, and ultimately, a side issue to those suffering now under Israeli intransigence, but, like chicken soup, “it couldn’t hurt”

      • Shmuel
        October 28, 2009, 2:26 pm


        but, like chicken soup, “it couldn’t hurt”

        Chicken soup hurts plenty – if you’re the chicken!

      • MRW
        October 28, 2009, 3:37 pm

        Mooser and Shmuel… :-)

  9. Mooser
    October 28, 2009, 1:16 pm

    . “It is about Jews feeling most comfortable talking about the politics of Israel/Palestine with other Jews, about limiting the discourse to Jews and acceptable non-Jews. It won’t work in the end. The limitations inside the Jewish discourse are just too great”

    What a kick in the gut! After all America has given us!

    Like I said, over to you, America First, and good luck. I’ll sit home and memorise Gilad Atzmon riffs.

    • former coMMenter
      October 28, 2009, 2:13 pm

      Good luck memorizing them, they’re pretty avant garde. I think John Zorn would probably be more your cup of tea, though, if we’re judging jazz by its sensitivity to Jewish identity, which is a perfectly sound criteria for judging just about anything, I’d say.

      • Mooser
        October 28, 2009, 2:18 pm

        Oh, I don’t know, Atzmon seems extraordinarily sensitive to the Jewish identity, maybe even oversensitive. He really needs to come to America and meet some of our finer right-wing and Dominionist Christian folks, so he has a sound basis for comparison.
        At any rate, Atzmon, I suspect, know all too much about the Israeli identity.

      • former coMMenter
        October 28, 2009, 2:24 pm

        Several really anti-Semitic notes at 0:34 here. Truly hateful saxophone.

      • Dan Kelly
        October 28, 2009, 2:46 pm

        I like some of Atzmon’s writing, but he falls into the trap that so many of these writers do: he becomes too damn enamored with himself. It’s a common theme among “intellectuals,” and I wouldn’t exactly describe Atzmon as an intellectual (his writing is more geared to the layperson than, say, Ward Churchill or Christopher Hitchens or even Noam Chomsky), but he nevertheless descends into the intellectuals’ game of back and forth criticism of one another, and taking themselves way too seriously. It takes away from the larger context of what they’re doing.

        Witness these two pieces he wrote in response to some guy named Tony Greenstein, who had smeared him. I understand the need to defend oneself against smears, but it seems to me Atzmon goes overboard, particularly in the second link, where evidently Greenstein had adopted some of Atzmon’s positions, yet Atzmon is unable to be gracious about it. This is a prime example of how these guys get carried away with themselves.

        link to

        link to

        I do like Atzmon’s response to charges of anti-semitism:

        “I am an anti Zionist and oppose the Zionist mindset. I look at questions of Jewish identity and I do question the ties between a Jewish world view and Zionism. I refute totally that I am anti-Semite. In fact I also believe that the current concept of an Anti-Semitism is meaningless.

        Once the Zionists had managed to establish their Jewish state, any form of anti Jewish sentiments should be comprehended either as a private case of xenophobia or as a political retaliation to Israeli/Zionist atrocities. In other words, the title Anti-Semite became an ‘empty signifier, i.e. a signifier with a vague, highly variable, unspecifiable or non-existent signified. It is an empty verbal utterance that exists merely to serve a political cause (very much like Blair’s WMD and Bush’s Axis of Evil). Because Anti-Semite is an empty signifier, no one actually can be an Anti-Semite and this includes me of course. In short, you are either a racist which I am not or have an ideological disagreement with Zionism, which I have.

      • MRW
        October 28, 2009, 3:44 pm


        “right-wing and Dominionist Christian folks.” Oh goddddd. I get the heaves. My throat starts to close. I can’t breathe. They’re like those 25-ft 8-inch thick Burmese pythons – currently over-running the Florida Everglades because people released them into the wild – squeezing all the air out of you.

      • Danaa
        October 28, 2009, 5:43 pm

        dominionist christians …..atzmon…..saxophon….pachyderms…..non-semitic anti-anti-semites…….creepy crawling pythons in the everglades……halloween!!!

        You guys are totally funny.

        I wonder what I should dress up as this year. Any ideas for a dominionist constume?

  10. GalenSword
    October 28, 2009, 1:38 pm

    None of the efforts are particularly important unless they are related to issues that affect Americans directly. There is good evidence that major factions of the Israel Lobby are poisoning the health care debate as I point out in Health Care, Obama, Israel Lobby.

    To have an effect, critics of the Israel Lobby must point out the skullduggery.

  11. Mooser
    October 28, 2009, 2:14 pm

    There is good evidence that major factions of the Israel Lobby are poisoning the health care debate

    I hope you’re happy now! My mood just went completely black, and my kishkas are in an uproar. Dyspepsia, here I come! Maybe that’s my promised land.
    Yes, I’ve read about that elsewhere, too (Israel and the Health Care debate, not my dyspepsia, nobody cares about that!)

    • Chaos4700
      October 28, 2009, 3:21 pm

      Not to put to fine a point on things, but I’ve got just two words for you that, unfortunately, may make your dyspepsia something a rather projectile: Joe Lieberman.

      • Danaa
        October 28, 2009, 5:47 pm

        Give me Iran – and I’ll give you options!!

        Anyone who thinks there’s no horse trading in congress lives in narnia!

        It’s just that some don’t do it by the rules and try to trade a herd of surly goats for a thouroughbred….

  12. pabelmont
    October 28, 2009, 3:40 pm

    Shmuel October 28, 2009 at 2:26 pm

    To Mooser’s observation “but, like chicken soup, “it couldn’t hurt”, Shmuel replies
    “Chicken soup hurts plenty – if you’re the chicken!”.

    Ah, gee, Shmuel, haven’t you heard (and don’t you believe) that “You have to break eggs to make an omelette” ? What is Zionism about, if not omelette-making? And aren’t metaphors a gas?

    • Dan Kelly
      October 28, 2009, 3:52 pm

      Fascinating idea: a “three-state solution.” I love that sort of thinking outside the box. I’m curious to see the maps.

      • Danaa
        October 28, 2009, 5:57 pm

        Three state solution? no can do – this is the ME we’re talking about. Try six state solution – coastal Israel (cannan?), jerusalem (judea?), gallil (edom/moav?), palibank (west/east banks), gaza (includes ashdod, BTW). Oops that’s only five. Who wants the negev/ red sea?

    • Shmuel
      October 28, 2009, 4:06 pm

      Metaphors are indeed a gas, Pabelmont, but aphorisms are better, and you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

  13. Citizen
    October 28, 2009, 6:53 pm

    Gee, how many are aware that Israeli jews have better health care than USA citizens as a whole? And that their military is top of the line, thanks to the USA also? It’s disgusting, not to wish the Israelis less, but the USA citizens more, since they pay for the Israeli life style, The UN General Assembly is now planning on debating the Goldstone Report and the HRC Resolution on it, beginning November 4th — weeks earlier than originally scheduled.

    And it is in the General Assembly, where of course vetoes do not apply, that a majority can if it so chooses invoke the “Uniting for Peace Resolution” (UNGA 377A), which gives the General Assembly the same enforcement powers as those normally exercised by the Security Council, where US vetoes have consistently shielded Israel. I do not know the precise procedural mechanism needed to do this, as I am not expert in the UN, but it is clear to me that now is the time for an all-out effort to encourage as many countries as possible to take a stand. It has worked before in extremely difficult situations, and it can work here and now.

    I am convinced that this is a unique opportunity to hold Israel and its indictable accomplices in Washington accountable for their actions. If this slips away, it will not come again soon, if ever. This is absolutely the drop-dead date of the anti-Zionist effort. Moment of truth, my friends — lobby and write and call as never before!

    • Chaos4700
      October 28, 2009, 10:28 pm

      I don’t like everything you say, Citizen, but I have to say on this particular post I agree with you 100%.

  14. Who booed Yoffie? linked to this.

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