The Anti-Zionism of J Street

Aiden Pink

Aiden Pink

Reporter and editor at The Forward

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The biggest problem with the controversial group isn’t its bullying, mischaracterization of opponents, outrageous lobbying positions, or childish huffing and puffing. It’s their implicit rejection of everything Zionism stands for.

Why does the Zionist movement still exist, while the Women’s Suffrage movement has been gone for nearly a century?

Both movements were founded and led by utopian visionaries whose dreams were initially decried—both inside and outside their circles—as unrealistic, if not dangerous to their group’s well-being. Both based their claims on liberalism, dignity, and human rights. And, most importantly, both movements succeeded in their goals. The Jewish people now have a sovereign state of their own, while women have the right to vote in almost every country on earth.

It seems, then, that the questions of women’s right to vote and the Jewish people’s right to a state are both answered. The debates ought to be over. No one would seriously suggest that after nearly a century, women should now be disenfranchised. Similarly, the 66-year existence of a Jewish state is an immutable and irreversible fact, and no mainstream figure is arguing for its abolition. So why, and why now, is the American Jewish community undergoing such a storm of conflict and recrimination over the issue of Israel?

This internal conflict is occurring on three different levels. The first level relates to policy: What steps should Israel take in order to live in peace with its neighbors? This conflict is largely over, or at least overdone: There is now a consensus among American Jews that the Oslo paradigm of two states with a shared capital and border swaps remains the “best worst option” to end the conflict, but since by now everyone knows everyone else’s claims and counter-claims, these debates have become stale.

The second is a meta-conflict, an argument about arguing: When is it acceptable to publicly criticize Israel? Should we allow political adversaries the opportunity to use Jewish forums to promote ideas that are anathema to the majority of the community? In a world with over one billion anti-Semites, as an Anti-Defamation League poll just claimed, how should American Jews balance their support for the ideal of the Jewish state with their distaste for many of the current Israeli government’s policies?

Vice President Joe Biden speaking at the 4th National J Street Conference, September 30, 2013. Photo: Ron Sachs / flickr

Vice President Joe Biden speaking at the 4th National J Street Conference, September 30, 2013. Photo: Ron Sachs / flickr

The third conflict, however, has only begun to take shape. It may never reach the vituperative heights of the first two, because engaging on this level means opening the door to a barrage of questions that many American Jews don’t want to contemplate: Do Jews in the Diaspora have the right to influence Israeli policies? It’s one thing to complain about Israel’s lack of recognition for non-Orthodox streams of Judaism or the ignominies of the Occupation. Everyone has the right to complain, Jews most of all. But do non-Israeli Jews have the right to actively attempt to undermine and circumvent Israel’s democratic process and policy choices from afar?

Which brings us to J Street, the group most responsible for forcing these issues, especially following its rejected bid for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in April. J Street was founded in 2008 by the far-Left Israeli activist Daniel Levy and Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former Clinton White House operative, who felt that America’s traditional “pro-Israel” organizations were too right-wing and didn’t represent the “silent majority” of American Jews. Ben-Ami’s grandparents were Zionist heroes, fleeing the anti-Semitism of Russia to become founders of Tel Aviv. His father followed in their Zionist tradition, a leader in the movement to establish the first independent Jewish state in 2,000 years. Reflecting on his father, and betraying his own views, Ben-Ami blithely says, “He was a terrorist.”

In the years since its founding, J Street’s visibility has grown exponentially through its political action committee, lobbying efforts, and grassroots mobilization campaigns, especially on college campuses.

According to its website, J Street says it believes that “Israel’s Jewish and democratic character depend on a two-state solution, resulting in a Palestinian state living alongside Israel in peace and security,” and is working to create what Secretary of State John Kerry called a “great constituency for peace” that will give political cover to the Obama administration as it pursues a long-sought peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians. It calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”—effectively accusing anyone outside its circle of being either anti-Israel or anti-peace.

The real problem with J Street, though, has less to do with its specific political positions, or the identities of its funders, or its disturbing willingness to give forums to those who would be happy with Israel’s destruction. The problem is what J Street represents: The idea that American Jews have the right and the responsibility to “fix” Israel when it is perceived to have erred—to impose their ideas in contradiction to Israeli self-determination. This idea weakens Israel, weakens the American Jewish community, and—most problematically—contains at its heart an implicit repudiation of Zionism itself.

Although its meaning has evolved over time, today being a Zionist—a believer in and supporter of the national aspirations of the Jewish people—means accepting four assumptions: that the Jewish people are a unique nation, like Italians or Egyptians (something the early Reform rabbis rejected); that nations have the right to self-determination in a sovereign nation-state of their own; that the Jewish nation-state ought to be in Israel, the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, rather than Uganda or Argentina; and that the right to self-determination, and the resulting freedom from Gentile majoritarianism, is especially important for the Jewish people, due to the twin threats of violent persecution and benign assimilation that have imperiled Jewish survival and continuity in the Diaspora for millennia.

Many Israelis would add one more assumption: Being a Zionist means working towards what even the secular David Ben-Gurion called the “messianic vision” of mass Jewish immigration to Israel. To Ben-Gurion, the ingathering of the exiles, a fulfillment of the traditional Seder promise of “next year in Jerusalem,” was “the central mission of our state.” The question of whether Jewish life can (and ought to) survive in the Diaspora is an especially complicated one now that the Jewish state has become a reality. One camp is represented by the Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua, who delights in trolling American Jewish audiences by proclaiming that Diaspora Jews are only “partial Jews” whose identities are akin to “a fancy spice box that is only opened to release its pleasing fragrance on Shabbat and holidays.” In Israel, he says, “our values are Jewish values, because we live here. It’s not what the rabbis say that defines Jewishness, but what we Israelis do every day—our actions and our values.”

Jeremy Ben-Ami and Martin Indyk, U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, at the 2013 J Street Conference. Photo: J Street / flickr

Jeremy Ben-Ami and Martin Indyk, U.S. Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, at the 2013 J Street Conference. Photo: J Street / flickr

Most committed Diaspora Jews could come up with many reasons why they stay as minorities in non-Jewish countries even though the long-term demographic projections are so demonstrably against them: A sense of loyalty to the country of their birth; personal and financial comfort in their current location; the difficulties of moving, finding employment, and learning a new language; fears for their safety in a war-torn region. But the most compelling case was penned by the Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan in 1948, as the Jewish state was coming into fruition.

As Jews, the very best we have to give is to be found in Judaism, the distillation of centuries of Jewish spiritual experience. As convinced Jews and loyal Americans, we should seek to incorporate in American life the universal values of Judaism, and to utilize the particular sancta of Jewish religion as an inspiration for preserving these universal values. To fail to do so would mean to deprive Judaism of universal significance and to render Jewish religion a mere tribalism that has no relevance to life beyond the separate interests of the Jewish group.

Though Kaplan forcefully argued that Judaism could be made more meaningful by living and practicing it outside the Jewish state, it’s hard to deny that in the present day, American Jewish culture and self-perception is highly centered on… Israel. According to the Pew Survey of American Jewry, 87 percent of American Jews say that caring about Israel is essential or important to what being Jewish means to them; 69 percent feel an emotional attachment to Israel. Israel-related organizations receive more in contributions than any other sector of the American Jewish nonprofit world, taking in $1.4 billion every year, more than twice as much as Jewish educational organizations. The great Zionist thinker Ahad Ha’am was pessimistic about the prospects of a Jewish state in Palestine, but he was right (almost too right) in one respect: The establishment of Israel strengthened and revitalized Jewish life in the Diaspora, as Jews took pride in the achievements of the early Zionist pioneers, the IDF, and the whiz-kids of the Start-Up Nation. But this revitalization has been almost solely in the “Israel sphere.” Since the last of the Soviet refuseniks were freed, American Jews have largely spent their psychic energy, and their dollars, on developing new ways to look eastward (towards Israel) or backward (towards the Holocaust—the most common and important touchstone of American Jewish identity).

Unlike the Holocaust, however, “Israel” is not a unitary idea, a discrete entity with agreed-upon borders. Like all other countries, Israel is imperfect, ever-changing, and incomplete—they’ll get around to writing their constitution someday, they promise. But unlike Ireland or Mexico or any other country with a significant diaspora, Israel needs to be perfect, or at least live up to the expectations of those who care for it, in order for Diaspora Jews themselves to be able to legitimize their identities. American Jews despair whenever the Jewish state fails to live up to what they see as “Jewish values,” but as the entire length and breadth of our disputatious history shows us, no two Jews can agree on what exactly Jewish values are and aren’t.

Jeremy Ben-Ami at the 2009 J Street Conference. Photo: J Street / flickr

Jeremy Ben-Ami at the 2009 J Street Conference. Photo: J Street / flickr

Nonetheless, when this dilemma occurs, when Israel makes the “wrong decision,” American Jews have three choices. The first option is to accept the messiness of geopolitics, and give the people of Israel the benefit of the doubt that their government will find the right path in a tough neighborhood and a world of moral complexity. The second is to grow jaded and disillusioned with Israel, and because Israel is so wrapped up in American Jewish identity, many who do become jaded and disillusioned with Judaism itself.

But rather than hope for the best or wallow in loathing, some American Jews choose a third path, preferring to take actions into their own hands. Citing Hillel the Elder’s famous dictum, “If not now, when?” they want to repair our broken world by repairing Israel, spurring changes in Israeli policy by, for example, pressuring the United States government to pressure Israel by threatening its financial aid, or urging the White House not to veto one-sided, anti-Israel resolutions in the UN Security Council.

The problem with this prescriptive approach, however, is that it forgets another part of Hillel’s saying: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” This group, in its wisdom, believes it knows what is best for Israel, and going beyond mere verbal criticism, actively works to mold Israel in its own image for its own emotional benefit. It is in this group that J Street finds itself.

Choosing not to make aliyah, to remain in the Diaspora, is a wholly legitimate choice—one that I, like many, have made. But in doing so, Jews waive the right to claim that Israel has “failed them” by acting in a certain manner. Israel, as a sovereign nation, is only obligated to be responsible and responsive to its own citizens. When Diaspora Jews fail to claim that citizenship when it is freely offered to them under the Law of Return, they waive the right to demand that Israel act in their name and meet their standards.

J Street’s underlying principles weaken Israel, weaken the American Jewish community, and contain at their heart an implicit repudiation of Zionism itself.

To be fair, Israeli leaders past and present have made this argument more complicated. The Israeli government helps protect Jewish communities abroad; Israeli prime ministers rely on American Jewish munificence and political support; they sometimes speak as if they were anointed King of the Jews. And of course, anybody has the right to criticize any other country’s actions or policies. This criticism can also be justified by appeals to Jewish tradition—reflected, for example, in the Jewish community’s tremendous mobilization against the genocide in Darfur. But when it comes to Israel, a Jewish identity alone should not and does not give you the right to a seat at the negotiating table—only the right to a plane ticket to the table. Diaspora Jews don’t pay Israeli taxes, don’t serve in the Israeli army, don’t send their children to Israeli schools, don’t have to put up with Israeli bureaucracy, don’t risk their lives driving on Israeli roads alongside hyperaggressive Israeli drivers—why should they get a vote in Israeli elections, or otherwise be allowed to influence Israeli choices? A common argument is that American Jews ought to have a say in Israeli policies because of the billions of dollars of American aid that Israel receives every year. But as former ambassador Michael Oren pointed out in an exchange published in Foreign Policy, “Americans expect no such probity from the Gulf countries, Turkey, and South Korea, which receive vastly more military support from the United States than does Israel.”

Arguing that Israel is making the wrong choices with regard to, for example, its settlement policy is a perfectly acceptable and rational part of the political discourse, both in the Jewish community and the American conversation at large. But for a non-Israeli citizen to claim the right to have a say in Israeli policy decisions, to game the American political system so as to pressure Israel into making a specific choice that the Israeli citizenry, in the form of its duly elected government, does not wish to make, is to deny Israelis the right to shape their state as they best see fit. It is arrogant and anti-democratic. It may well be a legitimate form of activism as an American citizen exercising free speech; but it must be simultaneously conceded that it negates the belief in Israel’s right to self-determination—which is the whole point of the Zionist enterprise.

It is, in other words, a form of anti-Zionism. And it is exactly what J Street does.

J Street says that a primary goal is opening up new channels of dialogue for the benefit of the American Jewish community, but its real raison d’etre is leveraging American political power to influence Israeli policy in a specific direction. It’s one thing to say that the discourse on Israel in the American Jewish community is stifled: As Rachel Lerner, J Street’s Senior Vice President for Community Relations, wrote in an op-ed for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, “A more robust and pluralistic discussion in our community about Israel” is needed. But it’s quite another to say, as Lerner repeatedly does in her op-ed, that this conversation ought to include the question “What kind of Israel do you want?”

In J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami’s recent op-ed in the Times of Israel, he says,

The wrongs [the Palestinians] have committed don’t give Israel a pass from choosing either to give up some of that land to create a separate national homeland for the Palestinian people or to sacrifice either the democratic or Jewish character of the state. At the end of the day, American Jews who care about Israel owe it to ourselves, our people and our history to have an open and honest discussion about that choice and the role we should play in how that choice is made. [Emphasis added]

And what does J Street do in order to influence how a sovereign foreign nation makes “that choice”? It donates money to American political candidates. J Street’s political action committee, JStreetPAC, has contributed millions of dollars to members of Congress and congressional candidates, hoping that once elected, they will use their—and thus America’s—leverage to influence Israeli domestic and foreign policy (as opposed to AIPAC, which is an organization of American citizens attempting to influence American policy with regard to Israel and the Middle East). Ben-Ami was much more open about this in an interview with Newsweek in 2008:

The United States clearly has a lot of influence on Israel because of the nature of the relationship and if you’re really serious about stopping the settlements and about what American policy is – American policy says no more settlements, no more expansion and take down those outposts – if we’re serious about it, then we need to start to act serious. And it’s time to act like the big brother or the parent and to say “enough is enough and we’re going to take the car keys if you don’t stop driving drunk.” We’re not talking about simply business as usual. There’s got to be some sort of intervention here where the U.S. says to Israel the time has come to finally do something.

Fast-forward to 2014, when Ben-Ami stated in the Times of Israel that “a quintessential characteristic of Zionism from its earliest days [has been] the need for the Jewish people to control their own destiny and not depend on others for our rights and freedom.” In other words, Jewish self-determination is the essence of Zionism, except when that self-determination leads to decisions that Ben-Ami disagrees with, at which point he and his followers, with an almost neocolonial sense of paternalism, will support American politicians who will punish Israel for its perceived errors.

It’s much easier to claim to know better when you don’t have to live with the negative consequences of a wrong choice. This conundrum has often puzzled J Street and its allies. Peter Beinart, whom Ben-Ami once hailed as “the troubadour of our movement,” was mystified when his book The Crisis of Zionism did not receive the flattering reviews he anticipated. As the political commentator Jeffrey Goldberg said to the reporter Jason Zengerle in Zengerle’s profile of Beinart for New York magazine:

Peter asked me why I dismissed his book but gave a very positive review to Gershom Gorenberg’s book… And I thought to myself, Do you really have to ask? One of you has skin in the game. If Gershom Gorenberg [an Israeli Leftist] is wrong, then his family might die. If Peter Beinart is wrong, well, Manhattan will survive. [Emphasis original]

The global consensus—in Israel, in the U.S. (both inside and outside the Jewish community), basically everywhere on Earth but the Arab world and certain American liberal arts colleges—is that the two-state solution is the best chance for a long-term peace between Israelis and Palestinians. There is a similar consensus over the five issues that are preventing such an agreement—refugees, borders, security, the status of Jerusalem, and mutual distrust. Knowing these challenges, as J Street’s leadership surely does, it takes a bit of chutzpah to say that Israel ought to simply “do something” in the pursuit of peace. It takes a lot of chutzpah to provide specifics on what exactly Israel should do. But it’s the height of chutzpah to make such demands from the comfort of a secure foreign country, without the risk of suffering from any potential negative ramifications of “doing something.”

It is also disturbing to consider that while J Street may be presenting itself as an organization representing the “silent majority” of the Jewish community, in fact it may be something entirely different.

This is strongly suggested in a remarkable video, originally made public by the organization itself before being quickly removed from YouTube. Asked by a local J Street activist in a private J Street training session how to handle the fact that much of J Street’s local support comes from outside the Jewish community, therefore potentially undermining their claim to represent the real opinions of the Jewish community, Carinne Luck, J Street’s former Chief of Staff and Vice President for Field and Campaigns, offered a surprising answer:

Man: We have some support and interest in the Jewish community. We get much more support outside the traditional Jewish community. We know that for political reasons we have to be sensitive to the composition of the leadership. Can you address this very uncomfortable question?
Luck: Is this Jewish/non-Jewish? Is that the question you were going to ask?
Man: Yes.
Luck: Our theory of change and the one we’ve been told as what people on the Hill and in the administration, what they are looking to from us. It is very specific. And we are a primarily Jewish but not exclusively Jewish organization and they want us to see us primarily moving Jews. American Jews. And so that is where the bulk of our resources go…I think for us building power is “how do we build power in our own community?”…Even in our small Jewish community they are still looking to us to give them cover….But that is why for our leadership, you know we want our leadership to be comfortable going in and meeting with someone saying “as an American Jew I do this” and if that’s inauthentic, you know, I mean look I would never tell someone to lie. If they choose to, that’s their business….

Luck’s circumlocutions notwithstanding, she seems to be suggesting that the essence of J Street is not so much to represent the existing, if silent, feelings of the majority of the Jewish community. Rather, it is to “move” that community toward a certain set of opinions—opinions which certain influential people “on the Hill and in the administration” seem to really want pushed. And while she would never advise someone to falsely claim they represent the Jewish community if they do not feel comfortable doing so, “If they choose to, that’s their business.”

Again, there is nothing wrong with American citizens organizing to change the opinions of one group or another. But if your “theory of change” involves taking direction from Washington in order to change Jewish public opinion about the Middle East, can you still claim to represent Jewish communal opinion at all? Can you still claim to stand for Jewish sovereign self-determination in the Jewish state?

The great Hebrew poet Chaim Nachman Bialik is said to have once written that Israel “will be a normal state when we have the first Hebrew prostitute, the first Hebrew thief, and the first Hebrew policeman.” By that measure, Israel is more than a normal state: With a former president in jail for rape and a former prime minister in jail for corruption, it may be the most normal state in the world. But some in the Diaspora cannot countenance prostitutes, thieves, or settlers.
Peter Beinart speaking in Phoenix, May 21, 2012. Photo: Zócalo Public Square / flickr

Peter Beinart speaking in Phoenix, May 21, 2012. Photo: Zócalo Public Square / flickr

Whether they realize it or not, many American Jews are undermining Zionism by putting political processes in place that pressure Israeli citizens and the Israeli government to act in a certain way, thus implicitly disdaining Israel’s right to self-determination. This includes Americans who lobby Congress to pressure Israel to act the way they see fit; who give money to nonprofits that (by themselves or through proxies) lobby the Israeli government directly; or who fund outrageously partisan Israeli newspapers.

Just as importantly, though, all of the money and energy that these American Jews spend on shaping Israel in their own image is money and energy that isn’t being spent on truly revitalizing the American Jewish community. American Jewish life isn’t dead, as some are saying; but in the words of the famous Jewish sage Miracle Max, it is “mostly dead.” But with a little nudge and a bit of money, however, it could be on the rebound. The innovative future of Jewish life in America can be found in the pages of Tablet and at Moishe House events across the country. Imagine how much more effective these and similar endeavors would be if the energy spent fighting wars over Israel were instead spent on ways to replicate these successes.

Israel will always be an important part of the American Jewish identity, as it should be. But the sooner American Jews become less obsessed over what Israel could be, and accept it for what it is—the culmination of a dream shared in the abstract but contentious when it comes to specifics; an imperfect state, but a sovereign state nonetheless; a state that will accept help when it needs it, but has long since earned the right to make its own choices in pursuit of prosperity, peace and security—the sooner this happens, the sooner we can focus on meeting our own existential challenges.

Banner Photo: J Street / flickr