Matt Berkman has a great piece up at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, reporting on the screening last week in Philadelphia of a right-wing documentary attack on J Street, the liberal Zionist organization. Nearly 700 people went to the screening of The J Street Challenge at the University of Pennsylvania; Alan Dershowitz was the headliner.
It was widely expected that the battle that night would be between liberal Zionists and rightwingers over the fact that Jewish community organizations (the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life) were sponsoring an event trashing liberal Zionism.
But as it turned out, the main attacks that night were on Dershowitz, from the right, because he opposes some settlements in the West Bank.
Berkman writes that traditionally Zionist forces in US life were able to sustain a coalition between right and left wings, epitomized by Dershowitz himself. But that old coalition is falling apart, and Dershowitz is now in a middle ground, assaulted by the rightwing donor base. And J Street may also be marooned in the middle, Berkman says, as young Jews abandon Zionism altogether.
Some of his report on the screening:
The film in question, “The J Street Challenge,” is a slickly produced far-right assault on the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization. Produced by Americans for Peace and Tolerance, one of a growing number of right-wing Zionist groups with Orwellian names, the film mostly showcases the perspectives of hardcore Jewish ethno-nationalists….
What transpired—the intermittent pandemonium and racist hysteria of the Q&A session, the evident tensions between Dershowitz and his co-panelist [presumably Charles Jacobs], and the fact that it all went down under the auspices of mainstream Jewish community groups—is the best evidence yet that an increasingly panicked and isolated right-wing donor base is waging a scorched earth campaign against the very foundations of contemporary American Zionism….
Speaker after speaker stepped to the mic to lambaste Dershowitz, often in the most abusive terms, for a wide variety of crimes: for referring to the “West Bank” instead of “Judea and Samaria”; for Dershowitz’s anti-Semitic denial of the right of Jews to colonize the Palestinian city of Hebron; for encouraging his followers to vote for the Jew-hater Barack Obama; and, of course, for his failure to comprehend the savage, homicidal nature of Islam. Dershowitz attempted to defend himself, comparing his assailants to Meir Kahane and denouncing their racism. But his appeals were barely audible over the shouted cross talk and frenzied cheers of the audience.
“If you don’t want people like me defending Israel,” he told them, “then you’re in serious trouble.”
To anyone not hermetically ensconced in the far-right moral universe engineered by wealthy activists like Jacobs and billionaire Republican financier Sheldon Adelson (and few of the hundreds in attendance were not), the whole scene was insane. It was a topsy-turvy world where Alan Dershowitz and young AIPAC devotees represent the despised far left wing of the “official” Jewish conversation about Israel. But this was not the meeting of some fringe group in a synagogue basement. It was a big, Federation-sponsored production at a prestigious university.
Young American Jews are getting off the pro-Israel bus, and the fury of the right-wing donor base—its uncalculated reaction to the sudden loss of control—is poised to further erode the historic bargain between Zionism and liberalism that kept the wheels in motion for so many years. As J Street members move further to the left and the Jewish world turns bimodal—pure universalism vs. pure ethno-nationalism—we’re likely to see more of these insurgent encroachments by the far right into mainstream spaces. With the Dershowitzian compromise on life support, the internal dynamics of Jewish institutional life are about to get very, very interesting.