Last Sunday night I went to hear a J Street director speak in Cape Cod, in a community with many Jews, and I kept looking around the room for ones I knew from my childhood summers. Only one—and afterward I had a fight with my mother about the issue. Which is really all I’ve asked for, a battle inside the Jewish family over Zionism. I will get to the fight with my mama before long but meantime it is important to relate what Steven Krubiner, the young well-spoken J Street man had to say. For it speaks to the backwardness of the American Jewish community on the Israel/Palestine issue and underlines a theme here, we Jews fell in love with Zionism some time ago and it will take a long time to break up the romance, and it is very hard to make any progress if the conversation is only inside the Jewish community. No, we Jews must open our ears to the likes of Ali Abunimah and John Mearsheimer and Andrew Sullivan.
Krubiner’s message was the urgency of the U.S. pushing Israel to come to the two-state solution. The only way Obama will do so is if he feels political able, and the only way he will feel that political comfort is if the Jewish community doesn’t abandon Congress and the president over the issue. So Krubiner’s talk was directed at Jews: The hour is getting late, this is an existential crisis for the Jewish state, and you must allow Obama to pressure Israel or Israel is lost.
To make headway with his presumed Jewish audience, Krubiner began in a place of love and fear. He told us that he had been taught to love Israel as part of his Jewish identity – like all other Jews, he said and reader, I did not projectile vomit—and had not even realized there was a conflict over there till his 7th grade social studies teacher was killed in a bombing in Israel, evidently in the early 90s, and this had jarred him. Then Krubiner had helped lead a tour of Jewish communities in Europe and realized there were no thriving Jewish communities, they had been wiped out, an experience that convinced him that Israel was necessary for Jews. After college he had defied his parents to move to Israel. Again, not my storyline, nor the storyline of most American Jews. Zionism calls on a conservative impulse in the Jewish soul.
Krubiner is a liberal, surely thinks of himself as a liberal, but his messaging was very conservative. As I noted earlier here, he never talked about the occupation and didn’t mention settlements until the Q-and-A. Settlements isn’t J Street’s agenda. There was a lot of unpleasant demographic talk. If we make a 6 percent land swap, the state of Israel will go to 86 percent Jewish (yes, and what about the Palestinians dealt out of Israel into a Palestinian state, on ethnic transfer terms, will they dig that?). Or: If you put a GPS device on everyone in Jerusalem and made the Palestinian dots green and the Israeli ones blue, you would find that it’s very “clean,” Jews move around in West Jerusalem and Palestinians stay in East Jerusalem.
Mr. Clean! Not for me!
Krubiner said, “Ideally, especially for American and Israeli Jews they would want… all of the land… of Israel,” from the river to the sea. But they can’t have that without either sacrificing democracy or giving up the idea of a Jewish state. And therefore because J Street is “unconditionally” for a Jewish state in Israel, we must give up the land so that the inevitable Palestinian majority will have a place to go.
The revelation in these statements is that Krubiner is doing outreach to a very conservative community. You can talk all you like about secular Jews, but American Jews believe in a way that can only be called religious (because most have never seen the West Bank) in their right to the “Land of Israel.” And so when asked about settlements, Krubiner was somewhat apologetic about J Street’s backbone moment of February, when it criticized Obama for voting against the U.N. Security Council’s resolution opposing Israeli settlements. Yes, our position didn’t play very well in the Jewish community, Krubiner said. I.e., this community is behind the times, and it is driving policy.
Now as I have pointed out earlier, Krubiner is a smart guy who gets the story. He knows that the occupation is destroying Palestinian souls, as he stated in the one-on-one by the lectern after the speech. And when a questioner asked about democracy without regard to race in Israel and Palestine, Krubiner acknowledged that democracy was a virtuous thing, but he then said that it would take a “sad rollercoaster of violence” to get us to that place. A legitimate point of view of course. Though not in itself a justification for slavery. Remember: an American rollercoaster of violence, the Civil War, is justified historically on that basis, it was worth it to end slavery.
But generally speaking, Krubiner was addressing Jewish fears. He said that the longer we wait on the two state solution, the more frustrated Palestinians will come round to the view that we can just wait the Jews out, we will be the majority in this land in a few years, and “we’ll have the whole state to ourselves.”
I don’t know about that. I am not opposed to partition, but I don’t think that Palestinians want the whole place to themselves. The one-staters in our community want a democracy for the people who were born in that place–and for the people whose grandparents were born there. By playing the fear card, I think Krubiner is trying to get Jews off their butts and energize them politically.
Why doesn’t J Street take its teachings to a non-Jewish audience and try and energize them? The reasons are several. A, the Jewish community is where the Democratic money is and J Street is playing a Washington insider game, B, If you are a Zionist, well, you don’t fully trust the goyim with your fate– so how can you work with them, it goes against the Zionist understanding… C, And how could you trust American non-Jewish liberals anyway? The non-Jewish audience as soon as they become informed will question the right of Jews to have a Jewish state in a land that is not historically ours and at a time when Jews are way safer in the west and there are Jim Crow conditions across the West Bank and a ghetto in Gaza.
On the other hand, the problem for J Street in working inside the Jewish community is, their views are to the right of Atilla the hun. You can’t even talk about settlements. Krubiner made a point of bashing the neocons, saying they had driven policy in this area, so evidently neoconservative has high negatives even for Jews. But it’s not like liberal Jews are all that much better.
I want to conclude on the secular point. We grew up thinking that we were secular Jews. That’s the big category of Jewish cultural life: east coast secular Jews. But as Krubiner proves, there is a large percentage of secular Jews who believe in a religious idea: our right to the West Bank. Ed Koch believes it, it’s why he’s savaging Obama. David Mamet believes it, he doesn’t want to give an inch. We have the right to the Land of Israel. An idea we read in a book with leather covers and God inside, for which we have no evidence. A year or so back I heard that peace processor Aaron David Miller was speaking at a synagogue in Cleveland and said we have to give up the land and the rabbi said, But God gave us that land. Joke was on Miller.
I am saying that intolerant religious attitudes on Israel/Palestine are deeply embedded in the Jewish community. So what progressive would want to move policy forward by working only in that community? It would be like trying to wage the battle for abortion back in the 80s by organizing in the Catholic church. Or waging the battle for women’s lib by organizing in the Muslim community, which tends to be very traditional. All these communities can be moved on these religious questions. But it requires an outside force.