Last week Thomas Friedman dropped an elite bombshell when he said that the two-state solution is dead, and the world and Washington should start figuring out the one-state reality. It’s not as if others haven’t been saying this for years; but Friedman personifies the establishment, and he was amplifying more tentative statements by John Kerry and US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro that the one-state reality is upon us.
The liberal Zionist group J Street promptly denounced Friedman’s announcement in a Say It Aint So, Tom column. J Street president Ben-Ami issued a “call to arms” to all those who believe in the Zionist dream of a nation state for the Jewish people, saying that failure “to realize the vision of two states is the single greatest threat to the survival of Israel.”
For nearly two thousand years, the Jewish people lived in other people’s lands, often as an oppressed minority.
In exile, we dreamed of being a free people in our own land. We developed a marvelous code of ethics about the treatment of the other, rooted in the principle that one should never treat another people the way one didn’t want to be treated oneself.
Those dreams became reality thanks to an optimistic, can-do spirit whose anthem is “The Hope” (HaTikvah) and whose motto is “if you will it, it is no dream.”
Ben-Ami’s statement aroused Stephen R. Low, a member of the Boston Jewish community and founder of Gordian Concepts and Solutions. He wrote the following piece, which he is allowing me to share. –Weiss
I was a strong admirer of J Street when it was founded in early 2008. Jeremy Ben-Ami and his members were pioneers—beacons of hope—in trying to bring the Israel-Palestine discussion to a new audience and at a different level. They had the right goal: focus on converting American Jews to understand the importance of ending the Occupation and bringing peace to the region while preserving a “Jewish State.” They built an organization of the highest possible quality. They raised money. And they raised consciousness.
Only four years later, Harvard students organized the well-known “One State Conference.” At the time, my daughter worked for an organization promoting two states, and when she attended the Cambridge conference, I told her she was nuts and repeatedly told her to get a job at J Street! She told me that I was one who didn’t get it, and that I was the one who was nuts.
Two years later, I took my first “extended” tour of the West Bank. My daughter was right! I returned twice in 2015, and she got “righter” each time!
I was stunned when J Street’s December 20 newsletter began with these words: “Only two groups can possibly take pleasure in touting the growing consensus that there won’t be a two-state solution in 2016 or even soon thereafter.”
While all of us glibly use the phrase “growing consensus,” in the dictionary “consensus” is defined as “a general agreement about something; an idea or opinion that is shared by all the people in a group.” So, while a consensus can develop or emerge, the only way “unanimity of opinion” can grow is if people with no opinions get them!
With that rare rhetorical slip (rare, because J Street’s communications have consistently been carefully crafted), it acknowledged that reality, but misled its members and supporters into believing it could be reversed.
I’ve never seen anyone visit the West Bank for personal inspection and conversation who fails to conclude and understand why two states are no longer possible. Add one or two fact-based presentations for a coup de grace.
If personal fact-finding isn’t enough, nearly fifty years of successive Israeli governments have left a trail of evidence and remarkable admissions that reveal the country only pretended to be pursuing a two-state separation to deceive or placate critics while continuing to undermine the possibility. This was achieved not just with settlement construction, but by imposing oppressive polices that undermined the development of responsible, self-sustaining Palestinian institutions; stifled the Palestinian economy; blocked creation of an independent—not NGO-propped—middle class; and from time to time incite some Palestinians—especially the young—to act out their misery and frustration with aggression.
On a hunch, I called J Street to ask whether it organized member delegations to the region and was told, “Mostly because of capacity, we do run trips but only for our top leadership.” Most organizations reinforce support for their messaging or as fundraisers and are eager to send their constituencies to the region. In J Street’s case, I’d suspect that it’s not “capacity” that’s the problem, it’s the risk of either being called out for avoiding travel to the “what-is-there-to hide” West Bank or the fear that if delegations are taken there for personal inspections, meetings with “ordinary” Palestinians and interactions with their families, that they’ll return home knowing exactly what Friedman has finally realized.
That’s when I began to think in terms of fraud, and anyone who commits fraud makes me angry.
Of course, I understand the importance of founding J Street with the two-state mantra. Not only was that consistent with American policy, it was probably the best if not the only way to build a constituency of “responsible,” temple-going American Jews. A great strategy!
What’s upsetting is that Jeremy Ben-Ami, after building such a powerful, top-notch organization, failed to adjust that strategy as conditions in the region changed (i.e., deteriorated), and as informed skepticism morphed into the irrefutable conclusions that became the new reality.
How ironic that by continuing to lobby for two states and not confronting the egregious human rights issues more aggressively, J Street simply reinforced Netanyahu’s dual, “deceit and deploy (settlers and security)” West Bank strategy. Rather than being the intended AIPAC alternative, J Street unwittingly became AIPAC’s ally–even if neither would ever admit it!
What Went Wrong? How To Make It Right?
For years, Israeli prime ministers have pretended that there was an opportunity for a two-state solution. The strategy worked beautifully, and duped or gave cover to world leaders and the public, while the “Jewish Democracy” gobbled up more land, drove non-Jews out, forced thirst upon the Palestinians who stayed, and created the system that incites the “I-always-told-you-they’re-savages” kind of violence. Now, the veil was lifted with both Netanyahu and Herzog, the leader of his opposition, refusing to consider a negotiated two-state solution in the foreseeable future.
Before the settlements and all their consequences, the few hundred members of a sitting government could have scored two states with a slam-dunk compared to what’s become impossible today. Yes, it’s too late. That two-state slam dunk is ruled out by the physicality of a one-state reality. It’s virtually impossible to travel anywhere in the West Bank and not see at least one settlement (almost always on a hill) and more often two or more.
A great victory for the Jewish State? No, utter failure because by anyone’s definition, that one state is an apartheid state. What else would you call it when there are 12.4 million people living between the river and the sea, and 4.4 million (35%) of them are denied the right to vote for their government? The scourge of apartheid has no place in the twenty-first century.
Unthinkable, perhaps, but in Israel the only way to end its apartheid is to change the definition of a Jewish democracy from a democracy controlled by Jews to one gifted by Jews to all of Israel’s people. A just democracy would empower all of the region’s people as equals to craft a true democracy, in place of the artificial one imposed by the State for the benefit of its synthetic, engineered, mythical yet deeply-divided Jewish majority.
A definitional change like this sounds impossible. It would be difficult and it will cause great pain. It will take generations. It requires commitment to constrain angst and to restrain violence. It will require domestic and international patience with encouragement and support from the world community. And, of course, it begs for a constitution (there is no constitution now) that limits the power of narrow-interest factions while still protecting their constituencies’ rights and meeting their needs.
Reflect that had two-states even been possible, a deal would have left the one million Palestinian citizens of Israel at risk. Stranded with few incentives for equal even treatment by the unarguably Jewish state. After all, what would coax the Jewish state to address their need for their equality? (No urgency with the availability of an adjacent lifeboat.) Certainly not a sense of reciprocity, either, for presumably the Palestinian state would be Judenfrei.
I’d argue that the worst thing that could have happened to Israel’s non-Jewish minority would have been the establishment of that second non-Jewish state. Thank God (Allah) it didn’t happen.
J Street: What’s next?
In recent years, only delusion kept the two-state idea alive, but that’s now faded away as more and more opinion leaders, like Friedman, proclaim its death.
Sadly, a few days ago Ben-Ami’s double-down response to Friedman’s proclamation made it clear that he has no vision for how to deal with the new reality, making any redirection for J Street much more difficult and perhaps, for him, impossible. Jeremy was so blinded by reality’s illumination that he even recklessly invoked Hatikvah, the national anthem that cannot and never will be sung by 20% of 48 Israel’s population! (What kind of authentic ADL/ACLU-sympathizing American Jew could stomach the thought of singing Onward Christian Soldiers, a Hatikvah analog before a first pitch, opening tip, or kickoff?)
Jeremy’s message ended strongly with a “call to arms” for two-state advocates. Who’s he talking to? The most right-wing, exclusivist coalition in Israel’s history? An Israeli society revealed by survey after survey to be more fearful and hateful than ever before? Don’t depend on Israel’s youth, because while America’s younger generation is becoming more progressive, Israel’s youth, militarized since birth and carefully prepped for conscription, are becoming more aggressive. Or is he calling for distant, cash-rich, American Jewish civilians to take up arms against Israeli Jews (many of them our relatives!) who placed themselves in harm’s way through their intensifying belligerence and bigotry?
Each of us can make up our own mind about Ben-Ami’s sense of reality and vision, but most J Street staffers, whether in DC or regionally dispersed, surely understand that justice for the Palestinians—not separation—will always be the key to Israel’s security.
It’s got to be tough going for the staff forced to defend a stream of not just deceitful, but impotent, messages headquarters sends to the membership. From the personal experience of watching my own daughter deal with a parallel struggle, I imagine that most of them remain at J Street waiting for something better to come along. Meanwhile, they can continue to clock and accumulate experience, remain current in the Palestine justice/Israel peace movement, expand their activist networks, and do whatever they can to attack establishment thinking, educate the public, and influence the conversation.
Continuing to promote a delusion contributes to the futility of Israeli and American policies that delay progress in bringing justice and peace to all people in the region. Isn’t it time for J Street to acknowledge that its pitch has become disingenuous?
Kenny Rogers, singing about The Gambler, had it right when he wrote:
You’ve got to know when to hold ’em.
Know when to fold ’em.
Know when to walk away.
And know when to run.
For Jeremy Ben-Ami and J Street, don’t walk or run away! Gather and stack the cards on your table, reshuffle the deck, start a new game, and deal a new hand. Do it now, for there’s no future in pursuing an impossible dream.
I think about how hard it would be for anyone to start fresh and build a J Street replacement from scratch, but I also understand how hard it will be for J Street to explain a completely new reality to its existing and targeted constituencies. Yes, in hindsight, it would have been so much better to have migrated the mission gradually over the past eight years, rather than to slam on the brakes before making such a sharp turn today. Sadly, though, that’s now the only honest option.
For J Street, as in Israel, there are no easy answers.