Praise for J Street

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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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.

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