How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All
– Firesign Theater, 1969
J Street’s recent misadventure with an “anti-BDS” conference — J Street attends rightwing anti-BDS summit– and gets called ‘anti-Semitic’ — is redolent of struggles that other organizations in other times have had, trying by cooperation with Zionism to control its more nationalistic nature and steer it in a humane direction.
In a historical parallel, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) felt it must cooperate with the Zionist movement, in order to be within the tent when decisions were made. It participated in the formation of the Jewish Agency for Palestine on the understanding the Agency would be a joint Zionist/non-Zionist enterprise.
Beginning a long process of resolving conflicts between prioritizing the welfare of Jews in the diaspora versus building a Jewish homeland in Palestine, there was an initial founding meeting of the Jewish Agency in AJC President Louis Marshall’s home in 1924. The meeting, which included the Zionist Organization’s Chaim Weizmann, decided that in the executive committee of the Jewish Agency “50% will represent the Zionists and 50% the non-Zionists,” an arrangement that was finally implemented in 1927.
In the event, later AJC President Joseph Proskauer observed in 1943, “It was supposed to be composed of an equal number of Zionists and anti-Zionists. It was not supposed to be a Zionist body, and as always happens when a negative group is wedded to a positive group, the positive group ate up the negative group, and to all intents and purposes, the Jewish Agency became a pro-Zionist activity.”
Anti-Zionist Marshall had foreseen in 1918 the difficulty of resistance: “The Zionists, whether their views be sound or otherwise, are the advocates of an affirmative policy. It is one that appeals to the imagination. It is replete with poetry.”
Rabbi Elmer Berger, a founder of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, wrote in 1983 of familiar contortions of language that we still see in the Jewish community. Berger wrote that Chaim Weizmann created the term “non-Zionist” for those who supported the Zionist Agency in Palestine despite not being Jewish nationalists, so as to gain “the support and participation of the leadership of essentially anti-Zionist American Jews.” Berger continued:
To bridge the gap Weizmann coined the term “non-Zionist”. The nomenclature was intended to identify a Jew who was willing to contribute material aid to the building of the “national home” but was recognized as opposing the concept of “Jewish” nationalism…. The principal focus of Weizmann’s “diplomacy” were the leaders of the American Jewish Committee, in the mid-1920’s the most prestigious collection of American Jews, generous philanthropists, but anti-Zionist almost to a man. How this mesalliance was finally consummated is a story of naivete on the part of American Jews. They believed Weizmann’s tactically watered-down version of Zionist aspirations and relied upon the Mandatory [British authority over Palestine] to enforce the “safeguard” clauses of the Balfour Declaration, protecting both Palestinian Arabs and anti-Zionist Jews from any possible threats to their existing nationality status by any unrestricted Zionist aggressiveness.
From Israeli Independence Day in 1948 onwards, the AJC felt an essential ingredient to moderating Israeli conduct was from a position of solidarity with Israel — leading to texts that contained endless re-emphasizing of the AJC’s sympathy and concern for Israel, which softened their condemnations of expulsions, raids, and attacks on non-Jewish Palestinians.
J Street’s strategy of being the “anti-AIPAC” pro-Israel organization involves considerable re-affirmation of the dream of national Jewish sovereignty by President Jeremy Ben-Ami. This is the strategy that non-nationalist Jews also followed in an effort to leash the movement of political Zionism, to moderate the “excesses” that come with a politics based on ethnic ties.
J Street’s position allows being “for” something, as most don’t want to be “anti-,” especially anti a “mainstream” Jewish position. The strategy failed, when in 2014 J Street was declared “un-clubbable” — refused membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.
In his letter from Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King wrote of the hazard — to the cause of equality — of strategic “moderation”:
“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate… Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
J Street’s strategy to tout itself as a potent force to fight BDS, as a means of entrée into establishment American Jewry, has failed. Presumably it is serving an important function as a halfway house to Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow — when the reassurance that you are not “turning on Israel” is important, before it isn’t.
J Street is opposed to the occupation, and their strategy is that by being in the Zionist consensus they can oppose Israel’s regime of occupation, detention and mistreatment, including systematic humiliation and torture during interrogation.
(Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association reported in 2014 that “Since the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory in 1967, more than 800,000 Palestinians have been detained under Israeli military orders in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt). This number constitutes approximately 20 percent of the total Palestinian population in the oPt and as much as 40 percent of the total male Palestinian population. It also includes approximately 10,000 women jailed since 1967, as well as 8,000 Palestinian children arrested since 2000.”)
In an April 15 letter this year, Ben-Ami says of J Street, “As advocates of sane, compassionate and effective American leadership, we’re going to have to make it clear that there are no shortcuts to peace, security and stability.”
The envisioning of “sane, compassionate and effective American leadership” is an instance of irony– even before the inauguration of the current Administration, inasmuch as American leadership has been determined to blunt Israel experiencing any consequences for its conduct.
J Street has a beautiful vacuity: understanding the injustice but not the implications of that understanding.
The Jewish consensus that J Street wishes to be a part of does not prioritize Palestinian Arab suffering as a priority on par with Jewish determination to be a nation — so it avoids what Martin Luther King called “an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
J Street aligns with the anti-BDS position (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), and its website is now silent on the massive hunger strike of Palestinian “security” prisoners of the Israeli state.
As Israel strangles Gaza — or mows the lawn, in that grotesque phrase for military attacks on that captive city of 1.75 million — J Street will be there with faint condemnation sabotaged by reiterated sympathy for Israel’s “legitimate” fears.