Whenever I go to J Street I try and see the good side of its activities, and this time is no exception. I saw and heard a lot of great things at the J Street conference Sunday and Monday. Let me relate some of them before I move on to my (inevitable) criticism of the lobby group and its program.
The most moving moment of the conference for me was when an Israeli named Koby Huberman, in endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative, decried the statements that Israel lives in a bad neighborhood, that it is a villa in the jungle. Judaism is a religion born in the east, he said, and it shares many stories and myths with Islam — here Huberman noted the binding of Isaac– and there are many, many Arab Jews. Israel must stop facing west and start facing east to its neighbors, and please, learn Arabic. This speech brought a crowded room of Americans to their feet in explosive applause. None of us had ever heard it before. The audience seemed excited to have the stale prejudices of the US war on terror and the clash of civilizations exploded before its eyes. I had tears in mine. And the Egyptian on the panel merely gazed out at us as if he knew this a long time ago.
That is the greatness of J Street: it provides a forum for progressives to change attitudes inside Jewish life. The changes are baby steps, but they’re changes.
Peter Beinart is the soul of J Street and I saw him on two panels. He is bustling and friendly (and “the Jewish height,” as a friend put it to me, 5-10) and an eloquent and cogent speaker. Beinart is trying to break down some of the walls inside the Jewish communal conversation, and this is incredibly healthy. His best moment was when he objected to the red lines that the Jewish establishment in the person of Jeremy Burton of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston has imposed on the Jewish conversation about Israel– excluding supporters of BDS and Palestinian anti-Zionists. Burton responded that any community gets to set its redlines, we would exclude the KKK too. Of course, Beinart said, but you are setting them in the wrong place and doing so with redbaiting and bullying.
The crowd was completely on Beinart’s side. Beinart makes them feel OK about hearing a pro-Palestinian narrative. I sense that he is moving toward cultural Zionism himself, though it will take a few years for him to declare.
The second Beinart panel was one in which he hosted Marcia Freedman, the founder of Brit Tzedek (J Street’s predecessor), and Freedman took it further. She said her feminist activism informs her engagement with this struggle. BDS, she said, is a nonviolent form of protest that is “perfectly legitimate,” but the Jewish community has sought to make it “illegitimate by saying that it is beyond the pale to talk about.”
And she asked, “How do we think about what comes next?” How do we talk about the one state solution in ways that we can embrace it? We’re not dong that “except in very small circles. We need to be doing it in wider circles.”
(Freedman reminded me: you couldn’t be a feminist without taking on the patriarchy, and you can’t be a human-rights activist without taking on the ideology of Zionism.)
I tended to stick to inside-Jewish life panels because that’s my struggle. I did not attend the several Palestinian panels because I have just been in Palestine and don’t require a primer on Palestinian conditions. Still, I heard some Palestinian speakers, and they were quite good.
For instance, in a panel of new voices on the conflict, Riman Barakat, of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, brought up the red signs that you see on the roads in the West Bank warning Israelis not to enter Area A for risk of their lives. This elicited a wonderful moral response from Roger Cohen of the New York Times.
“How about getting those signs taken down. They’re terrible signs. Every time I see them I shudder. They’re outrageous.”
Yes: they are signs of apartheid. And when I saw Barakat later, she said it was up to Israelis to remove them– the occupier.
At a panel on water, two speakers from this project described a system that can only be called apartheid: Under Oslo, Israel can draw from the West Bank aquifer inside Israel without any regulation, while across the Green Line, Palestinian water use is regulated by an official body made up of Palestinians and Israelis. So two straws are drawing from the same bathtub but only the Palestinian one is regulated, with the result that Palestinians don’t have regular water supply, and all have tanks atop their homes. It makes me shudder.
To hear a narrative of persecution is far more compelling than a narrative of entitlement. Does anyone who cares about society want to hear a narrative of entitlement? That is another J Street achievement: it reveals the entitlement of Israelis. J14 activist and now member-of-Knesset Stav Shaffir was on the panel with Riman Barakat, and I can’t remember a thing she said beside exclaiming over her amazing career from journalist to activist to politician. Knesset member Ruth Calderon’s call on American Jews to volunteer for two years inside Israel if they are gong to assert their opinion was foolish. Shelly Yachimovich the Labor Leader said that the purpose of Labor is to be “a safety net” for Netanyahu so that he can cut a peace deal and stay in power. Now are you excited?
Netanyahu Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s appearance was all but thuggish. She said her parents had met in the Irgun, robbing British trains, and then denied that they were terrorists. Israel was a “miracle in the Middle East and it still is,” and she knows that some young American Jews “feel alienated” from it — well thank god, they are not here with us tonight. “They don’t understand what Israel is… they don’t understand the goal and the vision of the state of Israel. And what’s the use of saying that Israel is a Jewish state without creating a common vision for Israel and the world Jewry?”
Again, this is an unintended virtue of J Street: it is furthering the divorce between American Jews and Israelis with their accents and lectures. It is constituting American Jewish identity where it must be constituted, in a criticism of occupation. As I descended into the Metro last night, a conference-goer from Silver Spring said, “It’s really time we got to a recognition of what they call the Nakba.”
I said the Holocaust was recognized very quickly after the war, and it’s been 65 years since the Nakba. Well look at the Turks with the Armenian genocide, he said, they still don’t acknowledge it. I don’t want that company, I said.
That brings me to my criticism of J Street. Because it is inside the Jewish community, and the Jewish community doesn’t want to hear from voices outside the Jewish community except on its own terms, with cuddly Peter Beinart swearing his love for Israel, these are babysteps. Every step of the way the older organized Jewish community is fighting J Street on the babysteps, and they are in the house. In a day or so I will do a post on the Birthright criticism panel– a group of anguished young Birthright veterans criticizing this program that sends Jewish kids to Israel for 10 days for free for leaving Palestinians out of the program. Sage Lachman, a sophomore at Pitzer College, was floating in the Dead Sea next to her Israeli soldier minder and asked him about Palestinians and he said they are an invented nationality. Then she saw that Sheldon Adelson who funds the program says the same thing. It upset her. She and the other critics are like children waking up in their 20s or 30s to child abuse– in recovery, dazed. They affirmed their love for Israel but expressed their confusion.
And the older person on the panel, a professor at Brandeis named Leonard Saxe, insisted that Birthright is not political, it is merely community-building. What can you say about such an assertion? It is more evidence of the bomb of stupidity that Zionism dropped on the heretofore smartest people in the United States.
Because its focus is communal, J Street justifies and engages in tribal politics. Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s director, said that the age of universalism has not come to pass and tribalism is still alive, and so Zionism is therefore justified. Do young American Jews really want to have a tribal politics? Rabbi Danielle Leshaw, Hillel director at Ohio University, says the young Jews coming to her to apply to Birthright want to meet Palestinians, see the wall, see checkpoints, and have “solidarity with Palestinians.”
But J Street is part of the Israel lobby, and the Israel lobby draws its power from tribal politics. When Ben-Ami kvells about the congresspeople who will put forward bills affirming the two-state solution in Congress, he cites four Jews– Feinstein, Waxman, Nadler, and Schakowsky.
The reason Feinstein, Waxman Nadler and Schakowsky are taking the lead on the two state solution is they are Jews with communal cred among Jews, so they are not afraid of getting out front of the lobby. By contrast, Joe Biden was very careful in his speech yesterday to utter not a word of criticism of Israel. He mentioned none of the themes of the J Street conference: not settlements, ’67 lines, or occupation. Though he took a shot at Arabs, saying that Palestinians are “the least ideological and the least – the least sectarian group of Arabs in the entire Middle East.”
Biden is afraid to criticize Israel because he might run for president, and the lobby worked: it intimidated politicians. And J Street is locked into that communal lobby conversation. Peter Beinart was compelled to swear to Jeremy Burton that he understood the pain that Jews feel giving up the lands of the West Bank– if that ever comes to pass. As Scott McConnell commented to me later, most American Jews feel more attachment to Ebbets Field.
I take no pleasure in saying that realistically J Street can’t save the two state solution. Netanyahu won’t withdraw enough to satisfy the Palestinians, and J Street won’t apply enough pressure for him to do so. And of course we are in a one-state reality now and for the very long foreseeable future, despite the J Street “2 campaign” logo with the scary red areas for Palestinians. The communal lobby worked. It stopped the conversation in the U.S. long enough for the settlements to be entrenched, and Israel is now an intolerant rightwing society with a cultural politics out of the Jim Crow south.
It will take more than Peter Beinart to break American support down. Turning around the lobby is like turning around the Queen Mary. Joe Biden has yesterday’s talking points.
Hesham Youssef, an Egyptian adviser to the Secretary General of the Arab League, explained how difficult it is to achieve a two state solution with Israel. He said that the Arab Peace Initiative would normalize Israel, by forcing Israel to return to the ’67 lines in exchange for the Arab nations supporting Palestinian leaders in making concessions on right of return. But the Arab Peace Initiative is running out. The Arab Spring is undermining it.
“Sometimes this is lost perhaps in Israeli and American discourse, that we also have a public opinion, and our public opinion is telling us No,” Youssef said. “Our public opinion has been telling us for the last 7, 8, 9 years, when are you going to withdraw the Arab Peace Initiative? Not asking us when we are going to implement it. It is saying, Israel has ignored you, Israel has not taken a step to achieve peace. Tell us one step, one irreversible step, that Israel has given to the Palestinians to achieving peace.”
No, all Arabs have seen are Israeli wars on Lebanon and Gaza and the endless occupation.
The American Jewish community is waking from its slumber about the persecution of Palestinians in its name. J Street deserves endless credit for helping that process. But the reactionary forces are still too entrenched for the American Jewish community to be able to apply real pressure on Israel. It is all too little, too late.
Update: I removed “guttural” from a description of Israelis’ accents because several readers were offended. Apologies. The real point here is, They have accents and sometimes broken English because: they’re a different people from Americans, the Israeli people.