J Street Offers Alternative to AIPAC

Hundreds of Jewish activists from J Street visited congressional offices on March 1 to talk about Israel and the settlements and to present a pro-peace agenda against the dominant views of the most powerful lobby in Washington, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The visits followed their second major convention with representatives from all over America giving voice to Jews who want an end to the settlements on the West Bank and a viable peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. They also focused on Israel’s government being controlled by its ultra-Orthodox and hard-line, expansionist Likudniks against Jews with modern humanist values. A panel attended by leading Israelis decried the vitriol against them from fanatical fundamentalists in Israel who want more settlements. Indeed, a key panel was titled “Is The Settlement Enterprise Destroying Israel’s Democracy?”

Several members of Congress who participated in one of the panels all thanked J Street for presenting its case and giving those concerned for Israel’s long-term viability another position than that of AIPAC’s pro-occupation and settlement-expansion promotions.

At the closing banquet, founder Jeremy Ben-Ami stated that J Street is now the third largest Jewish organization in America, with chapters in 30 states and on 50 college campuses. Around 2,300 persons attended the conference, including 500 college students. Sixty members of Congress and 84 rabbis attended the final banquet. Just three years after its founding, J Street now has a staff of 50 and a $7 million budget. Ben-Ami stated that J Street was founded to “save the dreams of the founders of Israel.” He deplored how Israel’s government was bringing about ”international isolation and the loss of Jewish values,” a constant theme of speakers on the various panels. Over and over I heard from the panels how Jews should not be expected to “check Jewish values at the door” when it came to Palestinians, that they could not tell their children that Jewish values were dependent upon nationality and circumstance.

The worldly attendees and the fact that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed her support by introducing the keynote speaker all gave the group national credibility against those who vilify Jews who challenge the violence and brutality of the occupation as “self-hating Jews.”

At the dinner, I sat next to a young woman who had started the J Street chapter at Brandeis University. She told me how the group represented values she had been searching for on campus. She explained how most of her classmates opposed the settlements but feared that any criticism would reduce support for Israel. J Street argues that it is Israel’s actions that have already hurt its moral case and isolated it from most of the world.

A theme stressed in several panels was that the settlements were undermining the whole rule of law inside Israel. Michael Sfard, legal counsel in Israel to Peace Now, a very large group with offices in America, said that the police would not investigate or charge rabbis who ignored subpoenas and otherwise violated the laws and that Orthodox rabbis now say that working on the Sabbath is permitted if done to build settlements. They also are now demanding separate public buses for males and females. On the same panel longtime settlement critic Gershom Gorenberg urged Washington to stop financing the settlements and demand that Israel enforce its own laws.

A documentary film, Between Two Worlds, about the Jewish Film Festival in San Francisco, showed the conflicts among Jews over Israel’s policies. The furor came from the decision to show a movie about Rachel Corrie, the young American woman who was run over by an Israeli bulldozer when she tried to protest its demolishing of Palestinian homes and livelihoods in Gaza. The movie shows the evolution of a Holocaust survivor, his activist wife, and his modern American daughters.

Palestinian non-violent resistance (which is joined by many Israeli and foreign Jews) was explained as the most successful way of resisting the military occupation. A movie, Budrus, was shown about how non-violent resistance saved a small town in Palestine from being demolished by the path of the Israeli wall.

At the panels I attended, however, I heard nothing about the Christian Zionists in America who give political power and cover to AIPAC and the occupation. Surprisingly, at one panel, which analyzed voting patterns, the spokesmen were at a loss to explain widespread and deep support among Republican leaders for the settlements. Speakers concluded that it must be for campaign donations. They seemed oblivious to the tens of millions of evangelicals who give unstinting political support and generous funding to the most provocative settlements. Their love of Israel has a condition, though: they want Israel’s actions to help hurry up their God’s second coming, which will result in the deaths of all the world’s peoples who don’t convert to Christianity. At the same Washington Convention Center that hosted the J Street meeting, former Republican congressional leader Tom Delay several years ago attended a meeting of the group Christians United for Israel. Questioned about the “end times,” he answered, “Obviously, it’s what I live for. I hope it comes tomorrow!” For details on these fundamentalists’ thinking, see my article “The Strangest Alliance in History.”

A panel on the “Struggle to Protect Democracy” inside Israel featured several Israelis. Hagai El-Ad, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Israel’s ACLU, complained that “anti-democrats” had opened the floodgates in trying to intimidate and silence those opposed to unlimited government and the rule of law. He called them “proto-fascists” because they physically threatened their opponents who supported minority rights, democratic procedures, justice, and free speech. He said, however, that of 20 bills they introduced in the Knesset, all were defeated. He feared, however, for the future as they were growing more powerful and dangerous. Naomi Chazan, president of the New Israel Fund and former deputy speaker of the Knesset, warned that Israel was in a “democratic crisis” and would not survive if it did not sustain democracy. She referred to the demographics of extremely high Orthodox birth rates.

Orthodox Jews get generous government welfare and subsidies for every baby, and they need not work at jobs or serve in the military. Already 27 percent of Israeli children, according to speakers at the 2009 J Street conference, attend yeshiva religious schools that teachonly biblical texts, without any science, math, history, or foreign languages. This, according to a Los Angeles Times report, is done with the intention of “shielding students from secular teachings that might shake their faith.” The report explained how the Israeli government recently capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox and now subsidizes such schools.

Daniel Ben Simon, a member of the Knesset, elaborated on the fight inside Israel between those with Western and humanist values against those trying to turn Israel into a religious state. He said that Russian immigrants were the third largest party in the Knesset and that most were “not helpful” in sustaining democracy. He complained that Fox News only promoted one viewpoint and never reported on the issues he described.

J Street argues that what is going on inside Israel needs the light of day and full debate in America’s Jewish community, that the issues are vital to Judaism, and that the consequences will affect the long-term interests of Israel and America. It argues that Israel’s viability, freedom, and democracy depend upon achieving a two-state resolution to the conflict with the Palestinian people.

Author: Jon Basil Utley

Jon Basil Utley is associate publisher of The American Conservative. He was a foreign correspondent in South America for the Journal of Commerce and Knight Ridder newspapers and former associate editor of The Times of the Americas. He is a writer and adviser for Antiwar.com and edits a blog, The Military Industrial Congressional Complex.