J Street leaders praise IDF, but audience cheers BDS

Israel/Palestine
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Tzipi Livni speaking at the 2013 J Street conference (Photo: J Street)

Tzipi Livni speaking at the 2013 J Street conference (Photo: J Street)

This is the year that the Israel lobby group J Street became part of the Jewish establishment. It has announced this fact in Washington with a conference demonstrating that it has the ear of the American president and also of the rightwing Netanyahu administration in Israel. Its program is crowded with Israeli members of Knesset, including one from Likud and Netanyahu’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. And Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador who once bashed J Street, has a fulsome letter to the group in everyone’s packet.

J Street still can claim to be a liberal Zionist organization that wants to pressure Israel to leave the settlements. But more than that it wants access to the Israeli establishment, and it is not going to alienate that establishment by advocating any measure that will isolate Israel or put real pressure on it.

So the conference has often sounded as if J Street is, like AIPAC, an agent for a foreign country. The first three of four main speakers Saturday night had Israeli accents. Tzipi Livni wore a tight black dress that looked like a form of body armor, and she scolded American liberal Jews. I know you don’t care about us any more, she said, in so many words–then she said Fine, just so long as the American Jewish community never criticizes the Israeli army. Dror Moreh, director of the Gatekeepers, bragged that both his children are in the Israeli army. Yesterday the chic-est Knesset member here, Ruth Calderon of Yesh Atid, said that if American Jews wanted to have a say over Israel they have to send their children to volunteer in service for the state of the Jewish people.

Clueless, yes. But it has long been the spiritual position of religious Zionists that Israel is higher – aliyah—than the diaspora. So the diaspora must defer to Israeli political thought. In its soul, J Street seems to have that orientation. When speaker after speaker describes the land of the West Bank as the land of our forefathers. When Livni brags that her parents were in the Irgun and denies that they were terrorists. When a rightwing member of the Knesset says that the Arab Spring is a disaster. When Livni and J Street’s leader Jeremy Ben-Ami say that Palestinians must forget about the right of return, and when Ben-Ami says the world is a tribalist place, so get used to that… you are seeing an organization shaped by Israeli values and not American liberal ones.

These insensitive statements reflect the great disjuncture at J Street, as every year, between the rank and file idealists and the leadership. J Street’s young recruits and a lot of its older ones cheer whenever the occupation is criticized, when the word persecution is used, when the checkpoints and unending settlements are cited. But then the next speaker in a Hebrew accent brags that his son is an officer in that occupation. J Street is trying to balance both elements. I don’t see how they can get away with it, except by an elaborate form of lip service, i.e., selling out liberal Jews.

The balancing act crumbles when a strong Palestinian speaks to the group. A year or so back Mustafa Barghouti was the rock star of J Street. The young liberals and old dreamers were captivated by a man of soul and eloquence. You could hear a pin drop when he spoke. And there were 500 people in the room. This year that role has been filled by Husam Zomlot, a Fatah man and official in the Palestinian Authority. Yesterday he stole the show. Because when you put any thoughtful  Palestinian up against the thickskinned Israelis, there is no contest. It is  like the difference between Muzak and Bach.

So while J Street’s leader and the keynote speaker Israel’s justice minister decry the Palestinian right of return as a fantasy of Israel’s destruction, Zomlot explained why it is a right that it is impossible for any Palestinian leader to sign away. It is the right of two thirds of the Palestinian community, he said. He himself is a refugee, born in a camp, and his parents were expelled from Israel. And these Palestinian rights were not incompatible with Israeli ones.

Some of the refugees might want to stay where they are, he said, as the audience went stone silent. Some might want to resettle in third country. Some might want to return to their original homes. Some want to go to Palestine.

“All of them want one thing. Full recognition of the Nakba that has befallen on them. All of them.”

Zomlot can’t imagine that his father would want to leave England for a country where people speak Hebrew, but: He has to be given the option, it is his right to choose to return.

Zomlot’s statements drew strong applause, even as you saw old Zionists shaking their heads in disbelief and anger. Just as Zomlot and Riman Barakat of Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information both got applause for praising BDS as the nonviolent tool of the Palestinian people in their struggle.  Zomlot called BDS a “gamechanger,” and said, “How do you discomfort the very comfortable status quo”?

It is of course remarkable that an Israel lobby group would cheer the right of return and BDS, or that a great number of them would do so.

But as Zomlot himself said, this is a group that has come to talk about values and rights, and values cannot be subdivided.

That is J Street’s crisis. It has organized to support Zionism in the United States. But the community it claims to speak for, liberal Jews, are sure to undermine that agenda by embracing a language of Palestinian rights. And in the end, J Street will not abandon the IDF.

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