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Obama officials confess their sins on human rights at J Street

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At its just-concluded conference, J Street showed itself to be a potent lobby inside the Democratic Party dedicated to support for Israel and opposition to the Israeli occupation, to the point of cautious expressions of Palestinian solidarity. The lobby group is now The Address for politicians saying they want to condition aid to Israel because of the settlement project.

This spirit is in sharp contrast to years in which Democrats waffled on these issues, and J Street helped them waffle.

In fact, the most interesting moments at the conference came when Democratic officials had human rights epiphanies, expressing regrets about what they had not done when they had power to oppose those violations. One confessor, NY City Councilman Brad Lander, even read his epiphany from his smartphone!

Former Obama foreign policy guru Ben Rhodes said he regretted not doing more about the awful conditions in Gaza.

I’m glad you [Mayor Pete Buttigieg] brought up Gaza. Obviously, when we were in government in the Obama administration, the security challenge is well known, the threat posed by Hamas– well established– the Iron Dome system– very important I think in protecting Israelis against rockets fired from Gaza. At the same time, I look back on regret at the intolerable humanitarian situation in Gaza. Really just horrific conditions that people are living under. As you kind of alluded to.

Let’s reflect that Rhodes helped kill the Goldstone Report that criticized Israel for human rights crimes in 2008-2009 in Gaza, and formulated policy for an administration that expressed only mild criticisms of the Israeli blockade of the strip even as international bodies were telling us that conditions there are unlivable.

Tommy Vietor, a former Obama spokesman who now does a podcast with Rhodes, said that Obama was wrong to throw the country into the Yemen war in 2015. Vietor offered that confession in the midst of criticizing politicians and businessmen who visit Saudi Arabia and send the message that money is more important than values.

I say this with considerable humility given that President Obama went to Saudi Arabia mulitple times. He initially supported the civil war in Yemen, which was wrong and has proven to be a humanitarian disaster.

(Rhodes nodded during the first part of the confession, then went stony-faced on Yemen, which he justifies in his recent book as a fight against al Qaeda).

Frank Lowenstein

The most maddening confession came when Frank Lowenstein, a former special envoy for Israel/Palestine negotiations in John Kerry’s State Department, gave a wrenching talk about what the occupation is doing to Palestinians. This primer, which Lowenstein is said to have presented on Capitol Hill, is excellent.

It included his repeated outrage that there are “two different systems” in the West Bank for Palestinians and Jews, entailing separate roads and laws, and that is in essence apartheid, though he didn’t use that word. “You can call that whatever you want,” he said twice. Lowenstein also said he had taken John Kerry in cognito to a checkpoint outside Ramallah (presumably Qalandiya) so he could experience what Palestinians do; and he and the secretary spent an hour and a half waiting to great frustration.

The idea that Palestinians can have economic development under this system is “a joke,” Lowenstein said.

“We fought them on settlements every day,” Lowenstein said.

Really? During the Obama administration, settlements just kept increasing all the time and the Obama administration increased military aid to Israel to an all-time high.

Lowenstein’s outrage is a bit like Rhodes repeatedly bragging during the conference about the Obama administration abstaining on UN Security Council Resolution 2334 condemning settlements– in December 2016, at the very end of the administration. Even when John Kerry gave his famous speech at the end of the administration damning settlement expansion and warning about the end of the two-state solution, he left out what he and Lowenstein saw and knew about checkpoints and apartheid. Lowenstein has sure waited a long time to bear witness.

Lowenstein also said, “I believe very strongly in a Jewish state,” and it would be “unfathomable to me” if Israel ceased to exist as one.

The most poignant confession of all came when NY City Councilman Brad Lander, a tiger for Israel in New York, apologized for not having been where he “should have been.” as J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami put it, on the Israel Palestine question. Lander read his confession from his smartphone:

I’ll try to be really honest here. For elected officials and definitely for Jewish progressive Democrats like me who on the one hand consider ourselves progressive Zionists and believe proudly in Israel as a Jewish and democratic state on the one hand and who on the other hand hate the occupation and care deeply about the human rights of Palestinians, the political incentives are just to keep your mouth zipped tightly shut, and that’s really what I did for most of a my decade in office– to try to calibrate every tweet so carefully that you say almost nothing at all. And I will say and I am grateful to both J Street and New Israel Fund for this, the progressive to progressive retreat [these organizations staged with Israelis and Palestinians and young non-Zionist Jews] was really an important moment for me in building relationships…

I was pushed to find more courage. And I’ve been taking a really honest look at what I had been up to. and I feel like over the last decade, I have  spent more time policing the BDS line than I have opposing the occupation, standing up for human rights of Palestinians and building real solidarity with progressives in Israel and Palestine. And it is out of the set of relationships built there and in the past year that I feel required to and have committed to do more. So I wrote the piece in Buzzfeed you [Ben-Ami] mentioned calling for better relations between left and center left because we cannot let our divisions mean that authoritarian rightwing populists exploit them and build more power. Later when I saw Bernie Sanders stand before that Jews Against the Occupation sign that IfNotNow had out there, I knew I had to do that too.

Brad Lander reads his smartphone epiphany. Oct. 27, 2019. J Street. Screenshot. In foreground are Chen Arieli, deputy mayor of Tel Aviv, (l) and Rami Hod, an Israeli Laborite.

These confessions must be considered achievements of J Street. As maddening as they are given the Politician’s 20-20 hindsight on Not Bearing Witness, these statements are important reflections in the careers of Ben Rhodes, Tommy Vietor, Frank Lowenstein, and Brad Lander; and J Street deserves credit for staging them.

The natural question is, Why did this come about now?

The answer is threefold: Trump politicized support for Israel and allowed Democrats to become more critical of Israeli policy at last. The progressive base rose inside the Democratic left pushing Democrats to get more with-it; Lander praised AOC and Rashida Tlaib. And a Jewish organization arose, IfNotNow, that has been sharply critical of Israel on J Street’s left, but as a communal Jewish group– in essence the children of J Street’s board. Brad Lander also praised IfNotNow at length.

J Street now truly represents the American Jewish Democratic community on Israel: ardently supportive/ashamed. I’ll report more on J Street’s political culture in the next day or so.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-06.

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14 Responses

  1. Steve Macklevore on October 29, 2019, 5:18 pm

    This is pretty standard fare for the more humane American officials.

    I call it the “Golly Gee, I wish so much we’d done more for the Palestinians” atonement.

    It generally comes between two and five years after the official had any power to actually do something for the Palestinians.

  2. just on October 29, 2019, 6:52 pm

    With all due respect, Phil~ these words are hardly a confession of the myriad of sins past and present with regard to the treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis and blessed by the US and its allies. I hear the sound of self- serving handwringing. ‘See, I do have a heart after all’ kind of confession. They only want to remain relevant somehow.

    jmo.

  3. pabelmont on October 29, 2019, 7:04 pm

    We get so little from any Zionists, lib-Z or not, that these dribbles seem significant — they are significant of change — and valuable. They are really too little to be valuable except as signs of change. (Gee, these Palestinians are actually people with human rights? That possibility had never occurred to me before. Better think long and hard about that one. Because if that is actually true, and I’m not saying it is, then Israel has been and still is doing a lot of rather smelly things, and I could never say — or think — that, could I?)

    And the Biden-Clinton-Obama-Pelosi so-called Establishment Democrats are still hard-right arch-Zionists.

    • Keith on October 30, 2019, 12:28 am

      PABELMONT- “And the Biden-Clinton-Obama-Pelosi so-called Establishment Democrats are still hard-right arch-Zionists.”

      Amen to that! But that doesn’t seem to lessen their support among “Hillary/Democrats uber alles” Mondoweiss commenters.

  4. JWalters on October 29, 2019, 7:33 pm

    Thanks for this well-done article on this important development.

    More and more people see the impending deluge of truth about Israel. So more and more people will be looking for a way to jump ship, save some face, and perhaps clear their conscience to some extent.

    The statements of these people can serve as a model for others to step forward, to tell the truth about the Zionist project’s catastrophic, unjust effect on Palestinians, and on American politicians.

  5. Kay24 on October 30, 2019, 4:53 am

    They should all be ashamed. When Israel “mowed the lawn” and went on killing sprees, they consistently justified it, said Israel had the right to “defend itself” and even allowed it to use American ammunition to continue the massacre. No one, including their leaders, had the damn decency to condemn the violence against civilians, including those who took shelter
    in schools monitored by the UN. They did nothing to stop the aid and weapons flowing into Tel Aviv. No one ever said that these long suffering people had the right to protest, even violently, their brutal occupation, and the loss of their lands, the endless checkpoints, the blockades, their inability to move within the territories, and the killing of their children. They should all be ashamed of themselves and the part they played in supporting, protecting, and arming, the world’s most disliked occupier.
    They could have done better indeed.

  6. genesto on October 30, 2019, 12:43 pm

    I think we would all be better off if J Street, and all of its liberal Zionist buddies, would just disappear.

  7. James Canning on October 30, 2019, 1:41 pm

    Israel nearly made a peace deal with Syria in 2008, and the deal was wrecked by Israel’s attack on Gaza shortly before Obama entered the White House. Was the Israeli attack encouraged by people connected to the incoming Obama administration?

  8. Rusty Pipes on October 30, 2019, 3:03 pm

    I don’t give either Rhodes or Lowenstein much credit for courage and I have serious disagreements with some of Obama’s foreign policy. But Obama did try to make some changes in the I/P policies in his first few years: he was slapped down hard by AIPAC and when push came to shove, JStreet did not have his back. Up to the 2012 convention, the Lobby was working against his re-election because of his timid moves on Palestine. Congressional Dems remained so cowed by AIPAC that they signed off on a condemnation of his UNSC abstention. In fact, they’re still so afraid of AIPAC that they didn’t even mention its name at the JStreet conference. In 2006, Carter wrote that the window on the 2SS was closing and the Dem establishment shunned him because he uttered the warning: Apartheid. Now that that window has been nailed shut, JStreet and some allies have finally found a little courage on the 2SS. Too little, too late.

    • Rob Roy on October 31, 2019, 10:53 pm

      Rusty Pipes,
      Yes. Too little, too late.
      It is baffling to me that people in the public eye can be such cowards. It’s easy to speak up for the Palestinians and against Israeli apartheid. Yet, Obama, who knew what was happening, was a coward, giving Israel billions just as he left office. 99% of politicians are cowards. They won’t speak up for Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, John Kiriakou, and all other whistleblowers, let alone Palestinians. Yet they are gungho to “protect” the whistleblower(s) slinging dirt against Trump. Liars and cowards. A puzzle. Must be the power and money they may lose. But afraid of AIPAC and Israel? Whatever for…those two are criminal and bullies.

  9. tamarque on November 3, 2019, 4:09 pm

    While I agree with those comments that criticize these johnny-come-latelies mia culpas, I think all these comments miss some core points, if not the core point. Let me try to explain what I see:

    There is a double standard that is never addressed. We get a lot of talk about the human rights of Palestinians and how Israel’s trashing them has been supported by cowardly Dems. The poor Palestinians who have been ignored. But then there is Hamas and that is why we needed to support the abuse by Israel of an entire people. Before Hamas there was the PLO and Arafat that was THE enemy. Now the PLO/Abbas is the good guy and Hamas is used to blame the Palestinians for their misery. This is the focus of this articles reporting and the focus of many weak-kneed liberal Dems, both Jews and non-Jews.

    However, never spoken about is the reason Israel really exists and what purpose it serves the Western White supremacist countries like the US. Remember Israel and Zionism is a product of racist European white people, Jews and non-Jews alike. They came with the White supremacist Colonial Settler mindset and condescension for the ‘native ‘ people living on the land. Like Europeans in North America native peoples were seen as fodder for cheap labor at best, information on survival on a new landscape and then slated for annhilation/removal.

    The idea of Palestinians reclaiming their own land, developing their fisheries again, as well as that big gas supply discovered a few years back in Palestinian waters is not allowed in this discussion.

    The real issue is what this new dialogue is really about. I see it as an attempt by the centrist to control the dialogue before progressive folks explode it into the media. This is what the J-Street talk is all about. Nothing more. It is more of the same propaganda. More of the same manipulation of the public dialogue. And no one here has even mentioned it.

  10. dudu440 on November 3, 2019, 11:30 pm

    Phil, you’re giving J Street credit it doesn’t deserve for pushing the more progressive Dems in the right direction. If anything, it’s the other way around. In all its existence, J St. wouldn’t tough the issue of U.S. aid to Israel, but now Bernie and a couple of the others are forcing it. Why? Well, partly because of reality staring them in the face, but also due to some groups that have consistently raised it as part of their support for human rights for all. The demand to condition U.S. aid on ending occupation was what set JVP apart from the proto-J Streeters when it first began 20 years ago. We’ve all moved to more complete and better positions, but with very little thanks to J Street. It remains stuck on “two state solution” despite reality, giving too many politicians a way to pretend they’re OK because they repeat that mantra and tsk tsk at Netanyahu/Trump.

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