I was debating with Jon Chait at a J Street panel this morning on the subject of “what does it mean to be pro-Israel?” As expected, we disagreed on a number of points, most of which I was right on and he was wrong on. But one thing he said in his opening remarks that I really disagreed with was that there was an ambiguity running through the J Street constituency as to whether the group was or should be pro-Israel at all.
That just struck me as kind of nuts. My J Street button said “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace.” It’s not a subtle aspect of the messaging. But when we moved to the Q&A time it became clear that a number of people in the audience really were quite uncomfortable self-defining as “pro-Israel” in any sense and that others are uncomfortable with the basic Zionist concept of a Jewish national state. I was, of course, aware that those views existed but it had seemed to me that it was clear that that wasn’t what J Street is there to advocate for. Apparently, though, it wasn’t clear to everyone.
(1) As I noted Saturday, JStreet is going to have to make it really clear that it is fact a “pro-Israel” organization, albeit a “progressive” and pro-peace one, if it is to gain any ultimate traction in the Jewish community. And that means making anti-Israel people like those Yglesias describes unwelcome. Meanwhile, it doesn’t help matters that the secretary of JStreet’s student division, Lauren Barr, announced that the division is dropping “pro-Israel” from the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” slogan of the broader group, so as not to make people uncomfortable. Memo to Ms. Barr: The job of a pro-Israel [political lobbying and organizing] group is [among other things] to make people who aren’t pro-Israel feel uncomfortable. Hopefully, you can get them to rethink their position, but, to the extent that they are against Israel, they are a pro-Israel group’s adversaries. By Ms. Barr’s logic, the NAACP should have dropped the second “A” and the “C” back in the 1930s.
(2) I get the sense that Yglesias is surprised that there are actually otherwise seemingly well-meaning progressive people out there who not only seriously object to the very idea of a Jewish national state (but not other national states, including the many others that have an ethnic basis), but that they would pay good money to come to what was billed as a pro-peace and pro-Israel conference.
I surmise that we have a disconnect here. The anti-Israel progressives believe that no right-minded progressive could possibly be truly pro-Israel, so that as a progressive group JStreet would inevitably welcome them (and JStreet has sent out enough ambiguous signals to make this plausible).
Youngish Jewish Progressives like Yglesias, on the other hand, haven’t taken the real anti-Israel sentiment out there on the left to heart; they assume that eliminationist and otherwise vituperative rhetoric against Israel that, for example, shows up in their blog comments sections, is somehow lingering hostility to the Bush Administration’s Mideast policies, or perhaps hostility to Israel’s “right-wing” government, or anger at Israel’s military actions in Lebanon and Gaza, or opposition to “the Occupation.” Yglesias, et al., have a hard time grasping that fellow “progressives “could really be (a) so naive as to think that a “one-state solution” would work in Israel/Palestine, when, as Yglesias says, it’s not clear it will work in the long-term in Belgium or Canada; and/or (b) so unreasoningly hostile to Zionism as to somehow think that it’s okay for everyone else in the world to retain their states, regardless of whatever historical injustices that state was guilty of, but that the Jewish people’s state, despite being clearly more “liberal” than all of its neighbors, is somehow uniquely awful such that it must not exist even if it otherwise pursued suitably “progressive” policies.
I perfectly understand the difficulty that one could have with these ideas, because when in my twenties, I remember arguing with members of the older generation that they were too paranoid about anti-Semitism, that Israel needs to be much more flexible to achieve a peace accord, and that the murderous rhetoric about Israel emanating from the Arab world and elsewhere would go away once the parties all recognized their rational self-interest and came to a peace deal. It took many years, and, among other things, an intifada that involved a remarkable number of “progressive” Western intellectuals apologizing for, or even justifying, blowing up kids in pizza parlors in response to a serious peace offer from Israel, and a series of modern-day blood libels in Europe during Operation Defensive Shield in 2002 to realize that I had been extremely naive. It’s not that I’ve given up hope; but I learned to take what seemed to a younger me like pure craziness that couldn’t possibly be serious–such as the continuing popularity of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Muslim world–very seriously.
UPDATE: A few days back, Yglesias wrote: “Israel has enough problems that discerning who’s for it and who’s against it shouldn’t be that difficult.” Yet he was shocked to find that J Street’s conference attracted people who were against it, even though the pro-Israel “establishment” he excoriated a few days earlier had been warning for months that J Street’s “pro-Israel” identity was ambiguous at best.