This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
When I read yesterday that J Street was denied admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, I thought of Noam Chomsky’s maxim: “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”
Then I added a line: “And keep everyone who wants to be anyone applying to join the (acceptable) lively debate.”
If we explore Chomsky’s thought in relation to the Jewish establishment and the question of Israel-Palestine further, the debate isn’t lively at all. What we have are a series of loyalty oaths and heartfelt confessions of love for Israel. Everyone who wants to be anyone on the Jewish establishment scene comes on bended knee.
Will J Street benefit from being excluded? There are some who think that might be the case:
For J-Street itself, the establishment’s brush-off is actually a godsend. Rather than getting sucked into the consensual machinery of the Conference of Presidents or being colored by its right wing-tinge, the organization is now the aggrieved party deserving of sympathy as well as the leading alternative to what many younger Jews see as the fossilized infrastructure of the so-called “Jewish establishment.” In the expected absence of a peace process, J-Street could be viewed as the last American Jewish bulwark against blind adherence to occupation and annexation.
J Street seems melancholic about the results. They didn’t fold their desire for a larger Jewish tent on issues relating to Israel. They didn’t signal a desire to break with the Jewish establishment. Instead they thanked their supporters, cited the 800 or so rabbis who support them and expressed concern and hope for young Jews affiliated with their cause.
J Street isn’t burning their establishment bridges. They’re ready for another inclusion round, sooner rather than later.
On young Jews rallying for J Street and against the Jewish establishment, I doubt this will be the case. The debate among young Jews has accelerated and become polarized in the Closed and Open Hillel imbroglio. Or, to be honest, sunk in an apathy toward all things Jewish.
What J Street’s exclusion goes to show is that when it comes to Israel, we’re all supplicants. Or we’re supposed to be.
So if admission to mainstream Jewish life adds up to this – convince the powers-that-be that you love Israel and that you’ll to do everything in your power to fight anyone to the left of you – why apply?
Then note the following: In relation to what Israel does or doesn’t do in the coming days, the barring of J Street is meaningless. The inclusion of J Street would have been meaningless, too.
In relation to what Israel does or doesn’t do in the coming days, the Conference of Presidents has no power either. The only power the conference has is to dole out – or refuse – credentials to Jewish establishment wannabes.
So should we care that J Street didn’t make the irrelevant Jewish establishment team? Not really – except for the fact that they wanted in. Because wanting to be in the mainstream of Jewish life at this point in history is to solidify one’s culpability in injustice. You surrender whatever dissent you proposed – if, in fact, you were dissenting in the first place.
This, rather than their exclusion yesterday, is the real issue with J Street.
Backing the Obama administration in the present – or just broken – peace process doesn’t qualify as dissent. Or lively debate. John Kerry’s rambling apartheid qualified retraction, or coming to Kerry’s support as J Street does, doesn’t qualify as lively debate either.
Backing the Obama administration seems to be the main and perhaps only reason for J Street’s existence. Rather than dissent, J Street represents the progressive wing of American and Israeli power. In this imperial territory, dissent is limited by definition.
No wonder J Street sought admission to the imperial court of contemporary Jewish life.
When it was formed in 2008, it was obvious that J Street was AIPAC-lite. That hasn’t changed. Yesterday even that wasn’t enough to be admitted to the Jewish mainstream.
The “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” – as J Street bills itself – survives to fight another day. The question remains – for what?