For the past few years we’ve seen a sea change on the question of U.S. relations with Israel, both in the U.S. and in the Jewish state. In America, the idea that our "special relationship" with Tel Aviv dictates a policy of unconditional support has come under attack, not only from critics of Israel but also from some of its most passionate supporters.
In Israel, a wave of right-wing nationalism has installed a government viewed by many as extremist, and roiled relations with Washington. The election of President Obama has exacerbated an estrangement that was already developing in George W. Bush’s second term. We are witnessing an anti-American trend such as has never before been seen in that country. Obama may be almost as unpopular as the head of Hamas.
In the U.S., this turn of events has caused many American Jews to have second thoughts, not only about the government of Israel but also its defenders here, who have uncritically supported its policies to the letter. This evolutionary process has produced J Street, a vehicle for American Jews and their friends to advance a more reasonable agenda than that put forth by the traditional pro-Israel lobbying groups.
The occasion of J Street’s first national conference, opening this week in Washington, has put the group at the center of a furious debate, one that often seems obscure to outsiders, i.e., non-Jews. After all, J Street’s agenda is no more radical than that advanced by every American president since Jimmy Carter: a two-state solution, peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Arabs, and the tamping down if not the elimination of a conflict that has become a major detriment to U.S. interests in the region. Yet the organization’s very existence has caused a brouhaha of major proportions among those for whom Israel is an issue both political and deeply personal.
The reason for this controversy is simple: for many years, the pro-Israel community has conflated support for Israel with support for the policies of its government. Back before the rise to power of such Israeli demagogues as Avigdor Lieberman, this was hardly ever a problem, though there were a few rough patches. The sentiments of the American people were largely, almost reflexively pro-Israel, and the efforts of its government to ensure security in the face of what seemed from a distance to be a uniformly fanatical and violent Palestinian underground evoked much sympathy in the West.
More to the point, American Jews were not noticeably conflicted in their loyalty to the Zionist cause, which had started out as a liberal/progressive crusade for national self-determination. As the power equation changed, however, and the unchallenged military and economic might of the Jewish state made it virtually unassailable by its Arab neighbors, the tide of public – and Jewish – opinion began to turn.
Growing revulsion on the part of many if not most American Jews against the reckless militarism and moral vacuity of Israeli government policies peaked during the recent Gaza "incursion," in which thousands of defenseless Palestinians were killed and maimed [.pdf] – and the government seemed to glory in its own savagery. This, following on the heels of yet another invasion of Lebanon, in which civilian targets such as churches, hospitals, and water facilities were bombed, was too much for many of Israel’s American supporters to swallow. J Street was born out of a desire to provide an alternative to the view that support for Israel has to mean – by definition – support for the policies of the Israeli government.
This would normally seem like an understandable and mostly positive development, but the word "normally" cannot apply in this instance, because no discussion of Israel is normal, these days. There is so much emotion, mostly on the side of J Street’s very vocal critics, that rational discussion is almost impossible.
This is a deliberate tactic employed by the Israel-is-always-right crowd: by calling the legitimacy of J Street as an organization with a credible agenda into question, right from the start, the Johnnie-one-notes, such as New Republic editor Marty Peretz, and the discredited neocons over at the Weekly Standard, get to define the terms of the debate. Instead of talking about the rising extremism that is dominating the Israeli body politic and driving an increasing irrational policy of expansionism and perpetual war, we are talking about why J Street has Palestinian contributors and whether the participants in its scheduled "poetry slam" are too pro-Palestinian.
This peculiar atmosphere of inquisitorial hysterics is exemplified by an interview with J Street director Jeremy Ben Ami conducted by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic. The whole exchange has about it the air of an interrogation: the first question is not a question at all but a demand that Ben Ami "renounce" Stephen Walt, who has expressed some sympathy for the organization. Ben Ami, to his credit, demurs, adding:
"One of the reasons why I won’t answer your call to quote-unquote renounce him is that it really smacks of witch-hunts and thought-police. It’s not my business to ‘renounce.’"
Renounce this, renounce that, and pretty soon you’ve renounced your way out of existence: Ben Ami clearly understands this, and is having none of it. He doesn’t agree with Walt or his co-author, John Mearsheimer, who have written a book about the Israel lobby and how it has managed to distort U.S. foreign policy. He makes this unmistakably clear, yet Goldberg is unrelenting. The topic takes up a good third of the interview, going on for paragraphs: "Tell me," Goldberg demands, "about the problem with [Walt’s] thesis"!
This whole concept of renunciation of deviationists brings to mind the intellectual and political hysteria that characterized the "Red Decade" of the 1930s, when American leftists were relentlessly hectored by Stalin and his followers to denounce the Trotskyists as agents of Hitler and the Mikado. The similarities are structural, and striking: the Communist Party was, in fact, an agent of a foreign power, just as the Old Guard of the Israel lobby is today. As such, it had to hew to a particular line and defend a very specific set of policies, i.e., those formulated by whoever was in power in the Kremlin. This meant that you couldn’t just support the cause in general, while dissenting on this or that matter of secondary importance: the defense of the "workers’ fatherland" had to be taken up by a united front, and solidarity with the Soviet Union meant, in practice, solidarity with its government. Consequently, the Soviets used the American Communists as their American amen corner. When the Kremlin announced a new policy, the party duly saluted, no questions asked, and energetically began a campaign to sell it to the American people.
The same pattern holds for pro-Israel groups in the U.S., which, unlike the Communists, are not united in a single organization, but which are nonetheless part and parcel of the same movement, one that, historically, has spoken pretty much in a single voice. As Grant F. Smith has shown in his extensive research, the Israeli government directly sponsored and funded earlier efforts to lobby on behalf of Israel, just as Moscow’s gold poured into Communist coffers in this country. Any criticism of the Israeli government has been taken, in these circles, as an attack on the Jewish state’s very existence. The small – and, now, much smaller – Israeli peace movement was (and is) seen as the Enemy, objectively aligned with the Palestinians and their Arab state patrons.
The emergence of J Street as an alternative voice is, in part, a generational shift. The idea that Israel is a refuge for a group of people that is likely to suffer a pogrom at any given moment seems the stuff of fantasy to American Jews who reached voting age in Barack Obama’s America. They identify as un-hyphenated Americans and view Israel as a foreign country – one that doesn’t always live up to their own moral standards. And they aren’t afraid to say so, not just in private, but on the public stage.
As an American president puts pressure on Tel Aviv to moderate its extremist policies, mitigate its militarism, and make some meaningful concessions as the price of our generous support, these American Jews are asking why the Israeli government continues on its suicidal course. The founding of J Street gives them a voice, which is precisely why the dinosaurs of AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, and the extremists over at the Zionist Organization of America are beside themselves.
The trump card of the Israel lobby has always been the often bogus charge of anti-Semitism. Whenever a critic of the Israeli government dares to write a book, you can bet it will be compared to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – no matter how reasonable, how accommodating to the Zionist project, or how often the author denounces anti-Semitism. A spy is caught handing U.S. secrets to Israel, and within 24 hours a conspiracy theory positing a vast anti-Semitic cabal within the FBI is dutifully concocted. A U.S. president asks Tel Aviv to stop building "settlements" on Palestinian land, and he is immediately confronted with the charge of being a "secret Muslim."
J Street deprives the Lobby of its trump card by destroying the fiction that the latter speaks for all Americans of Jewish descent. Heck, I don’t believe the Old Guard speaks for even so much as 30 percent, yet it has the loudest voices and the biggest budgets. Well, that won’t last, because it cannot last. J Street’s bravery in confronting the problem of how Israel survives against all demographic odds is admirable, and one can only hope their brand of cool realism soothes the fevered brow of a movement in crisis.
American Zionism is currently undergoing a crisis of conscience, one that pits sympathy for the Jewish state against the historical Jewish sense of social justice. In his deliberately insulting interrogation of Ben Ami, Goldberg demands to know: "Are you a Zionist?" From what I can tell, what Ben Ami and a whole new generation of American Jews are saying is the following: Yes to a Jewish homeland, no to a militaristic garrison state. Yes to security, no to "settlements." Yes to Yitzhak Rabin, no to Avigdor Lieberman. If Goldberg doesn’t like it, he can lump it.
There was a contretemps over the invitation to Israeli ambassador Michael Oren to address the J Street conference, and in the end Oren said no. This was made a very big deal of by the Old Guard, which chortled gleefully that the young upstart had been put in its place. But Oren is really doing the new organization a big favor by not coming: his absence gives them the opportunity to distance themselves from the policies of a government that has become increasingly indefensible.
J Street is a heroic attempt to separate the idea of Israel from those who have usurped its government and are now in the process of undermining its very existence. Oren represents a regime that has arguably committed war crimes and is not only unapologetic but seemingly proud that it has violated moral norms observed by all civilized countries. Oren’s presence at a conference dedicated to pushing for peaceful solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have added nothing but a note of contention to the event.
The canard that to be an American Jew is to adhere to a dual loyalty was never true and not very convincing, at least to me, yet I get letters all the time from crazies railing on about Zionist control of the U.S. government and how "they" won’t let "the truth" come out because "they" control the government, the media, and the weather. I can’t communicate how tiresome I find this nonsense; suffice to say that I’m surprised anyone outside of an insane asylum could believe such things. Yet they exist in surprising numbers. Go to any comment thread about Israel, no matter what the context, and you’re sure to find this view represented. J Street refutes this canard, because they break the traditional mold of the pro-Israel lobbying community: there is no party line, and certainly not one laid down by Tel Aviv. In short, they are looking out for American interests, in tandem with their support for Israel, and don’t see themselves as agents of a foreign power – because they aren’t.
No, I don’t agree with all of J Street’s official positions, but that’s not the point. What J Street represents is glasnost on the foreign policy front, an opening up of the discussion, especially as it pertains to the U.S.-Israeli relationship. That alone is cause for celebration.