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J Street rejected from the imperial court of contemporary Jewish life

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J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami. (Photo: Alon Ron)

J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami. (Photo: Alon Ron)

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?

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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13 Responses

  1. weareone
    weareone on May 1, 2014, 10:20 am

    “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 fact, all Zionist organizations are now irrelevant, as the world has moved past Zionism. Israel’s fate is being and will be determined by international opinion, international organizations and sanctions. Zionist organizations, including J Street don’t seem to understand that they are already anachronisms. Actually, how could they? Sociopaths rarely have insight into their own pathology.

    “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” – as J Street bills itself “–an oxymoron

    Can we please move on MW from discussing these organizations? Why give them more oxygen?

  2. JeffB
    JeffB on May 1, 2014, 10:27 am

    @Mark

    The “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans” – as J Street bills itself – survives to fight another day. The question remains – for what?

    There are 3 main war ideas in the USA.

    a) Realists: who view foreign policy as a contest for resources and power. War is a very expensive option but key to effective diplomacy. Example: Nixon, Bush-41, Obama

    b) Eschatologicals: who view foreign policy as a clash between the forces of good and evil. Examples: Bush-43, Reagan, Wilson.

    c) Catastrophists: who view peace as the objective, “you can’t win a war anymore than you can win a hurricane”. Examples: american antiwar / peace movement, civil rights movement, paleo-conservatives.

    The Republican party used to be Realist and has been moving for the last 20 years towards Eschatological view; with that view now pretty firmly entrenched. The Democratic party used to be divided between Eschatological (i.e. fight for Democracy, human rights organizations….) and Catastrophist but with the Iraq war the Democrats have picked up the Realists and that now represents the dominant party ideology. As AIPAC moves firmly into the Republican party and the Republican party is unifying around Eschatological views AIPAC has had to represent them. An alternative Jewish lobby needs to exist for Democrats who among Jews are are foreign policy Realists. J-Street is mainly representing that group. J-Street is becoming firmly realist allowing groups to their left to occupy the Catastrophist position.

    That makes a lot of sense but since I assume you are a Catastrophist I doubt you’ll see either AIPAC or J-Street as representing you.

    • Nevada Ned
      Nevada Ned on May 1, 2014, 11:17 am

      Oh, please.

      When the government makes an important decision (e.g., to start a war), the public justification of that decision is one thing. The real reason for the decision is often different.

      These “three war ideas” only represent the public reason, not the real reason.

      E.g., the main goal of US policy is to maintain control of the oil of the middle east. This control gives the US control over Europe, China, and anybody else who needs the oil.

      The main threat to US control is Arab nationalism. So to counter that threat, the US supports
      (1) conservative pro-US arabs, e.g., Saudi Arabia, (2) Israel, who have their own reason for opposing Arab nationalism, and (3) religiously-based (Islamic) forces, e.g., Al Qaida and Osama Bin Ladin, the Saudis, etc.

      The US has no vital interest in Afghanistan, but wants to avoid the growth of anti-US forces, and build US military bases that can threaten Iran.
      The US has no vital interests in Gaza or the West Bank, but wants to avoid the development of a revolutionary Arab nationalist movement, driven by opposition of Arabs to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Hence the US has supported the Palestinian “Authority” as a kind of Vichy regime.
      In Egypt, the US wants to avoid a revolutionary movement in the largest Arab state (by population). In fact, a movement succeeded in overthrowing the pro-US Mubarak dictatorship. The US then relied on the Egyptian military to seize power. Egypt is now an occupied country, occupied by its own military.

      The popular uprisings that swept the middle east in 2011 are exactly what the US wanted to avoid. That fact alone shows that the US ruling class is really against democracy. All the rest is ideological eyewash.

      • JeffB
        JeffB on May 1, 2014, 2:24 pm

        @Nevada Ned

        As an aside you are expressing the Realist view here. I happen to be a realist as well. I agree with most of what you wrote other than your casual dismissal of the idea that there are non-realist ideologies in Washington. For example:

        The popular uprisings that swept the middle east in 2011 are exactly what the US wanted to avoid.

        I don’t know about that. Rice and Cheney both spoke pretty explicitly about the doctrine of a “New Middle East” where the middle east would undergo what Western Europe did from the Reformation or Eastern Europe from the Napoleonic Invasions and the fall of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Borders that were sensible allowing for just governments that had popular support.

        You can just say they spent their whole lives lying about what they believed and there is no way to disprove such a hypothesis. Or you can believe they actually believed in what they were doing. That 2011 was the start of what they were aiming for. What’s happening in Egypt now where: Leftists, Nasrists, Socialists, Communists, Christians and Liberals have formed an alliance against extremism and are creating a semi-Western government that has broad (though possibly not majority) support is pretty close to what Rice / Cheney were talking about a decade
        ago.

  3. Marshall
    Marshall on May 1, 2014, 10:31 am

    Fantastic news! Heighten the contradictions!

    (But seriously, this is pretty good news for left critics of J-Street. The organization’s entire raison d’etre was to make criticizing Israeli policy palatable within the status quo. It failed. Now the status quo will change.)

  4. brenda
    brenda on May 1, 2014, 10:44 am

    “.. 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?”

    J Street does seem irrelevant at this point, although I remember being excited about it when it started up. This latest foray by J Street does highlight just how right-wing the US Jewish power structure is. I almost wouldn’t mind it if Israel had as much weight in US politics if we heard from the progressive liberals in Israel — but we never do, what we get is Netanyahu/Likud. You can get a better spectrum of opinion in Israel itself.

    I’m also wondering about J Street aspirations related to MJ Rosenberg’s attack on Mondoweiss editors — did he have aspirations to re-join the Jewish mainstream and the attacks were an attempt to purify himself? He sits on the J Street board.

    • LeaNder
      LeaNder on May 2, 2014, 7:16 am

      Brenda, I agree. I even may well have been slightly excited about it. And I liked their polls admittedly. They were well done. To me admittedly that suggested they tried to pick up their potential supporters where they stood at that point in time. I vaguely remember I partly disagreed with Phil in this context.

      Goose steps forward no doubt. Considering what happened now, no doubt helps again to raise awareness about representation. As always Hostage has quite a good comment that seems to fit perfectly now.

      I have to admit no one has completely convinced me ever that the power of the lobby does not rest as much on the well established narratives, Israel and the Holocaust, Israel the phoenix born from the ashes, Israel the save haven, as on its financial power or perfect organization and support recruitment. Israel as a bastion against antisemitism out there.

      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.

      This passage reminded me that on the same day an alert by the Algemeiner showed up in my mailbox. Felt they too were looking for leadership trainees. But unfortunately I did not look at the mail.

      Algemeiner Editor Dovid Efune: Obama, Kerry Talk to Israel ‘Mafia Style’ (VIDEO)

      Look what video you’ll find to the right of this article: Netanyahu’s speech at Yad Vashem.

      Here is the Algemeiner’s article on the J Street decision. J Street Rejected by American Jewish Umbrella Group in ‘Big Tent’ Litmus Test

      I cannot help but consider many of the anti-J-Street-positions highly paranoid. And how can you explain it, other then considering the phoenix imagery above, Israel the bastion against gentile antisemitism out there? In other words if you really care about the Jewish people you have to love it unconditionally. Iran is simply another reincarnation of Adolf, or of Gog of Magog.

      By now I have to smile when Soros is mentioned again or all type of non-Jewish, worse Arab or Iranian institutions are suspect of being fronts for terrorism. And strictly, I don’t think these are pure Machiavellian maneuvers, I do think they mirror a stable hawkish mindset. Israel has to be protected at all means, and the slightest dissent in this context is considered suspicious.

  5. Citizen
    Citizen on May 1, 2014, 11:27 am

    MJR has become useless; he’s way too screwy these days. He lost his ability to reason from objective facts and principles. So, he sits on the J Street board? Wonderful. I’m sure that’s good for the USA, humanity, and long-term Israel.

  6. weareone
    weareone on May 1, 2014, 11:27 am

    JeffB – “I doubt you’ll see either AIPAC or J-Street as representing you.”

    Correct. You can assume whatever you like. I don’t define myself or other people by narrow labels.

  7. weareone
    weareone on May 1, 2014, 11:38 am

    Apologies, I think JeffB’s comment was intended for Mark.

  8. MHughes976
    MHughes976 on May 1, 2014, 12:11 pm

    I can see why an organisation claiming to rally what we call liberal Zionists would seek to be received under an umbrella where many Zionists are to be found: they claim to be authentic Zionists after all and they want that claim validated. If the people in control of the umbrella want to leave them out in the rain I don’t blame them either: they are pointing out that liberal Zionism, however well packaged, cannot conceal its contradictions – and perhaps they, of all people, should know.

  9. piotr
    piotr on May 1, 2014, 7:35 pm

    Concerning Kerry’s retracted “apartheid” prediction it reminds me when he muttered “productive?”. Back then I suggested a headline “SoS was honest for 0.1 second!”. Now a semi-honest period lasted hours! It truly reminds the struggle to obtain energy producing nuclear fusion: if a properly high pressure of plasma is maintained for a sufficiently long fraction of a second, energy-positive chain reaction will happen.

    Suppose that Administration is totally honest for a full week, 5 business days AND the weekend. Are we approaching this epoch making event?

  10. palijustice
    palijustice on May 1, 2014, 10:41 pm

    That the Jewish Establishment has left J Street out in the cold, shows how right wing the Establishment is on all matters of Israel/Palestine. J Street is hardly progressive. What would the Jewish Establishment do to groups like Jewish Voices for Peace? Burn them at the stake if they could.

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