Some Friendly (Really) Advice to JStreet

JStreet, which bills itself as a “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobby, and aims to be a progressive counterpart to AIPAC, is having its convention starting tomorrow. Unlike some in the pro-Israel community, I’m not hostile to JStreet.  First, I know one of the bigwigs in JStreet, and though he and I don’t have much in common politically, he’s a good guy and certainly is “pro-Israel”.  Second, from approximately 1988 to Fall 2000, I held views on the Arab-Israeli conflict that would put me comfortably in the mainstream of the JStreeters.  Events in the Summer and Fall of 2000 led me to change my views, but I understand where many JStreeters are coming from, and I don’t think their views should be dismissed as “anti-Israel.”  Third, as a perusal of the comments on any major liberal blog will show, and as public opinion polls also show, Israel is quickly losing support on the American liberal-left.  It’s vitally important that pro-Israel “progressives” have a home in which they can advocate both for Israel within the left, and for peacenik policies within the general American political and pro-Israel contexts.

That said, I think JStreet has a few issues it needs to deal with:

(1) It needs to avoid being seen as an extension of the Democratic Party.  Many of the JStreet’s top people, including the guy I know, are bigshots in Democratic politics.  JStreet’s website repeatedly talks about how it wants to support “President Obama’s policies.”   AIPAC has been as successful as it has been in part because it doesn’t play favorites among the parties, but sticks to its pro-Israel knitting.  JStreet needs to show that it’s also even-handed, that it’s a lobby for what it considers pro-Israel, pro-peace policies regardless of who is advocating those policies, and not an effort to more generally support Democrats and the political left.  Another National Jewish Democratic Council would be pointless, but a lot of JStreet supporters specifically hate AIPAC because it supports Republicans who support AIPAC’s positions.   It will be interesting to see how JStreet squares that particular circle.

(2) During the Cold War, there were anti-Communists, and what one wag deemed “anti-anti-Communists.”  The anti-anti-Communists were people who purported to be against Communism, but they spent almost all their efforts denouncing the “right-wing” anti-Communists, and precious little effort fighting Communism.  Similarly, JStreet risks claiming to be “pro-Israel,” but really in practice being  primarily a lobby against pro-Israel people who are further to the right, and spending precious little time  battling truly anti-Israel folks on the Left.  (Would that make JStreet anti-anti-anti-Israel? Or just “anti-pro-Israel”?)  Most of its energy so far, from what I can tell, has been spent attacking “right-wing” Jewish groups and individuals, and even Israeli government policies, and precious little battling the extreme hostility to Israel one often finds on the progressive left.

Over the Summer, JStreet honored the so-called “Juicebox Mafia”–young liberal Jewish bloggers Ackerman, Duss, Klein, and  Yglesias.  Now, these youngsters may be Jewsh, progressive, and pro-peace, and in their hearts they may even be pro-Israel. But I’ve read many posts from them related to Israel over the years, and I can’t remember a single one that actually defended Israel from an unfair charge emanating from the left.  They attack Marty Peretz, attack AIPAC, defend Walt and Mearsheimer, and so forth, none of which necessarily means that they can’t also be pro-Israel.  But how does their pro-Israelness manifest itself?  Certainly not in their blogging (Duss and Yglesias have vigorously, defended Human Rights Watch, for example, seemingly on the sole ground that it was under attack from pro-Israel people).  And judging by their comments section, it’s not like they don’t have plenty of readers who are clearly not pro-Israel.  So exactly why did  JStreet honor them? (Yglesias is appearing on a JStreet panel Tuesday, “What does it Mean to be pro-Israel?”  I’d like to see that one…)

Similarly, last Spring, JStreet put out a press release defending Theater J in Washington, D.C., for showing the depraved, borderline anti-Semitic, and certainly anti-Israel, play, “Seven Jewish Children”:

The decision to feature Seven Jewish Children at Theater J should be judged not on the basis of the play’s content but, rather, on its value in sparking a difficult but necessary conversation within our community. To preclude even the possibility of such a discussion does a disservice not only to public discourse, but also to the very values of rigorous intellectual engagement and civil debate on which our community prides itself.

J Street takes no position on the content of Seven Jewish Children – it is, after all, a play, and not policy. We do, however, stand unequivocally behind Theater J in its decision to feature programming that examines different facets of this critical debate over how our community can best support Israel. Such an opportunity for individual and collective reflection is integral in informing our shared interest in bringing true peace and security to Israel.

This is bizarre and illogical on so many levels, I don’t know where to start, and I won’t even try.  But here’s my basic point: There was nothing pro-Israel about Theater J showing an anti-Israel play written by an avowed enemy of Zionism and Israel, and there was no reason for JStreet to involve itself in the controversy over the play, unless, again, it is trying to be “anti-anti-anti-Israel.”

(3) Related to point 2, JStreet has to have some implicit standard of what constitutes “pro-Israel.”  There is nary an anti-Israel Leftist (or American politician)  who won’t claim, no matter how ideologically hostile to Israel he is, that he is ultimately trying to help both the Palestinians and the Israeli people.  I can’t say that I can come up with a litmus test offhand, or that a specific litmus test is even necessarily needed.  But, to take a few examples of people I’ve written about on this blog, the definition of “pro-Israel” would have to exclude the likes of Joel Beinin, Juan Cole,Norman Finkelstein, Joel Stork, Philip Weiss,  and Sarah Leah Whitson, no matter how “progressive” and purportedly “pro-peace” they are (pro-peace, to some people, means “Israel surrenders”).

I think some of JStreet’s stumbles–-another one was a rather inartful press release condemning Israel’s incursion into Gaza when it started—have been a product of growing pains.  Others seem to be a result of a conscious choice to first establish JStreet’s “progressive” credentials before it establishes its pro-Israel bona fides.  But it’s going to have to do the latter at some point, and it’s going to have to anger some “progressives” while doing so.  For example, if even the head of the leftist Israeli human rights group B’tselem has concluded that the Goldstone report is biased and error-filled, that’s a pretty good signal that no “pro-Israel” group should express anything but contempt for it.

UPDATE: See this interview by Jeffrey Goldberg with JStreet founder Jeremy Ben-Ami.  Ben-Ami seems to identify some “pro-Israel” redlines: a two-state solution, the Law of Return, and embracing Israel’s right to defend itself, including via U.S. military aid.  He also notes that JStreet has refused to embrace the Goldstone Report, and hopes to be criticized by the far left for its “mainstream” positions.  All good.  But he doesn’t quite explain why he’s letting anti-Israel bloggers like Helena Cobban have a panel at the JStreet conference.