J Street is seductive. Americans have been bombarded with propaganda about Israel ever since the foundation of the country over sixty years ago. More recently, the United States has been designated by the media and the chattering classes as the protector of the Jewish state with little regard for those actions undertaken by Tel Aviv that impact negatively on US interests. This is because the Israel Lobby is the most powerful foreign lobby in the United States by far. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has become the ugly side of the Lobby, has rightly drawn criticism for its bullying tactics and its alignment with extreme right-wing parties in Israel. Progressives and some conservatives in the United States who support Israel as a homeland for the world’s Jews have been eager to find a more respectable alternative lobby. That alternative is J Street.
J Street, which recently completed its third annual conference in Washington, is a self-proclaimed kinder and gentler advocate of Israeli interests. It favors peace on equitable terms with the Palestinians and also with Israel’s Arab neighbors. It opposes expansion of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank because they are an obstacle to peace. It calls itself "pro-Israel, pro-American, and pro-peace." If one judges by the enemies it has attracted, including nearly all leading neoconservatives, J Street has to be considered a breath of fresh air and the best option for sustainable peace in the Middle East.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? But somehow the parts don’t quite add up. J Street really only differs from AIPAC in tone, not in substance. It advocates continued and unlimited United States support for Israel, militarily, economically, and politically. J Street wants Israel to have an overwhelming military advantage over its Arab neighbors and it wants that margin to be provided by Washington. It wants Republicans and Democrats together to provide political cover for Israel when it attacks Lebanon or bombs the Gazans. It does not object when Israel exercises a military option against its neighbors. In spite of the fact that the United States is in deep trouble economically while Israel is one of the richest countries in the world and is enjoying an economic boom, J Street was one of the first organizations to complain when Senator Rand Paul called for an end to all foreign aid.
J Street also believes that Israel is and should be a Jewish state with unlimited right of "return" for Jews from anywhere in the world and no such rights for Christians or Muslims who lived in the country before 1948. A Jewish state, by definition, would have limited rights for the 20% and growing segment of the current Israeli population that is Christian or Muslim. J Street quixotically supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, even though it knows that the half million Israeli Jews living in settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank cannot be moved and will make two states impossible. It does not accept a one-state solution, the only one likely to work, that would make the followers of all religions equal citizens in a unified state embracing both Arabs and Jews. J Street’s Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami has called a one-state solution a "nightmare."
J Street seems a lot better than AIPAC, but much of what it advocates sounds familiar. Ben-Ami has criticized the highly acclaimed John Mearsheimer-Stephen Walt book on the Israel Lobby for its scholarship and refers to the authors as anti-Semites. J Street opposed Israel’s bloody incursion into Gaza, but only because it was disproportionate, and then rejected the UN’s Goldstone report that detailed the war crimes that were committed. When Israeli commandoes killed nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza, J Street mourned the loss of life but blamed the victims for deliberately "using the media coverage to further damage Israel’s standing in world opinion." J Street supports military action against Iran as a "last resort" to incapacitate the country’s nuclear program and denies to Tehran the right to enrich uranium for any purpose.
Supporters of J Street claim that its positions will become more nuanced as its influence grows, but one of the panels at the just-concluded convention debated "Is the Settlement Enterprise Destroying Israel’s Democracy?" One might well ask why there was a question mark at the end since it is well documented that the settlements bring with them every imaginable evil. Fifteen months ago, J Street sponsored a speaking tour by an Israeli general Danny Rothschild who was advocating a two-state solution with the Palestinians. He made the rounds in Washington arguing that demographics and common sense dictate that Israel must come to some kind of settlement. But then, he added, there is "Islamofascism" and also Iran, genuine threats that must be dealt with by force. So what was the real message, peace with the Palestinians (on Israel’s terms, it might be added), or expand the war against extremism while bombing Iran?
But the real problem with J Street is that it exists at all. Why should there be a new and powerful lobby in Washington composed of American citizens arguing for a special relationship with any country? Why should the United States be providing unlimited support to a nation that claims to be a democracy but which limits rights based on religion? If J Street truly wants to fix Israel it should be working in Israel, not in the United States, because the settlers and hardline right-wing parties are Israeli problems. J Street knows perfectly well that Congress, the White House, and the media will not challenge the Israel status quo so, at best, it is a bit of scam designed to support Israel while making progressives feel more comfortable in lining up behind the effort.
The United States already has too many special interest lobbies promoting policies that do absolutely nothing good for the American people. If Israel has become a rogue state, which it has, the problem must be resolved by the Israelis themselves and the diaspora Jews who believe that they have a stake in the outcome. If the latter really want to have an impact, they should turn in their US passports and move to Israel. From the American perspective, which should be the only one that matters to US citizens, the best policy for the United States is to disengage from the Arab-Israel conflict, not to become even more deeply involved from another, slightly more palatable perspective offered by J Street.