The following form letter has been circulating on an Israeli activist listserv criticizing J Street's leadership for their stance on the Berkeley divestment bill:
Letter from Israel to Jstreet: Please Do Not Call Me "anti-Israeli" !
Dear J Street folks
Calling the bill "anti-Israeli" amounts to no more than shallow fear-mongering, and it is also an insult to me, an Israeli citizen who supports morally justified sanctions against companies that sell or operate military equipment facilitating the occupation.
Please stop trying to gain political capital at the expense of dedicated peace activists, Jews and non-Jews. If you truly disagree with the proposed bill, please engage in a serious debate.
I contacted the organizers of the letter to get the story of why they felt it was necessary. I heard back from Ofer Neiman who lives in Jerusalem and is coeditor of Occupation Magazine, an Israeli website about the occupation run by volunteer activists. Neiman wrote:
When I received the first messages from J Street two years ago, I felt there was something to celebrate. It certainly looked like a grassroots initiative to afflict the comfortable ones at AIPAC and comfort the afflicted ones, like frustrated Israeli peace activists who are fed up with AIPAC's "pro-Israel" war mongering...
I am not an expert on the Jewish political arena in the US, but at that time I felt that there was something promising about J Street. Although they were not issuing poignant messages about the wrongdoings of the occupation, their cheerful bulletins about saying 'Yes' to peace and encouraging US involvement in the (so called) Middle East peace process seemed right.
J Street has grown since that time, and even held a festive conference with celebrity guests. With this came a more detailed agenda. We now know that J Street has failed to stand up for Richard Goldstone, an honorable human rights defender (and a Zionist), who has been vilified in an appalling manner by Alan Dershowitz and others. J Street has not criticized Israeli war crimes, and its representatives use very soft, whitewashing language, when they are asked to comment on the every day reality of apartheid in the Occupied Territories. Worse than that, J Street seems keen on smearing dedicated peace activists, like the staff and volunteers of Jewish Voice for Peace (and other groups!), labeling them as "anti-Israeli" (read their press release on the proposed Berkeley divestment bill). This is a nasty way of self-promotion. It's the AIPAC way.
The question begs itself: should we lovingly endure these cutthroat tactics, because that's the only way to win hearts and minds among the Jewish community? Well, perhaps not.
AIPAC sympathizers are unlikely to break ranks and support a group which may weaken the old lobby. Will progressives, especially young people, be inspired by J Street's policy? We have a counterexample in Israel. The ranks of Peace Now, once a mass movement, have dwindled drastically since 2000, when, instead of taking Ehud Barak on as a right wing menace and the most reckless Israeli politician of all, they resorted to banal "peace is the only way" or "a ceasefire is possible" sloganeering (with the exception of their good work on settlement monitoring). The tasks of calling Israeli war crimes by their name and organizing grassroots activities in the OT have been left to others, the "radicals". This pattern was repeated in 2005, when Peace Now volunteered to be a foot soldier for Ariel Sharon's destructive "Disengagement Plan", telling us that "This is the only game in town" (as if it's impossible to say "we support the dismantling of Gaza settlements, but beware the dangerous consequences of an occupation-perpetuating, thuggish, unilateral step". Peace Now does not inspire. It seems that J Street too does not inspire.
It's the "radicals" who are leading the Israeli peace camp these days, as anyone who goes to Bil'in or to Sheikh-Jarah can tell. These "radicals" are not horned, yellow-eyed beasts. They are ordinary citizens, many of them young, who have learned that they can only rely on themselves and on like-minded people abroad, like the Berkeley activists campaigning for selective, morally justified sanctions against the occupation and the cynical corporations profiteering from it.
Activists, in Israel or in the US, are looking for a political home, and for a big cause. A peace group which fails to address the most pressing issues on the agenda is not a political home, and a cause which amounts to no more than coy political maneuverings is not a big cause.