The author, center, addresses the J Street conference in Washington in 2013 / Rachel Cohen
I’ve watched as millions and millions of dollars have been poured into youth leadership programs, summer camps, Taglit-Birthright trips and other “big initiatives” to foster identity amongst young Jews. And I’ve grown up listening to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations worrying that the Jewish community will collapse when my generation comes of age.
Well, when my friends and I, many of us products of such communal initiatives, watched as the Conference of Presidents voted to exclude J Street from their membership, we heard a loud and unambiguous message: the voices of thousands of young Jews are unwanted. It’s not very complicated: The fastest way to get Jews to disengage is through votes like this.
The Conference of Presidents vote was not a referendum on J Street representing thousands of American Jews. It was, however, a referendum on whether the Conference of Presidents wishes to be a relevant and representative body to American Jews.
John Kerry with chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat and Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni at the State Department in Washington / Getty Images
What is J Street going to say if, after urging American Jews to support the Kerry peace mission, that mission wins the support of the right-wing Netanyahu government — but not that of the Palestinians, who view it as the terms of their surrender? And what will J Street say if Western liberal opinion, and even much of Israeli liberal opinion, decides that the Palestinians are right?
This is a question that J Street and all American Jewish liberals supporting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts should ask themselves now, because all indications are that within a few weeks, Kerry is going to present a “framework agreement” for a peace treaty that the Israeli government would be crazy to reject and the Palestinian Authority crazy to accept.
This week, Israel’s Channel 10 news ran a report saying “the emerging framework document is so unthreatening even to Israeli hardliners that it is unlikely to prompt any kind of coalition crisis.” At the same time, the report, citing sources close to the negotiations, said “Kerry would now face an even greater challenge to persuade the Palestinians to accept it.”
To anybody who’s been following the news of the peace talks, the story made perfect sense. Kerry reportedly has given in to Netanyahu’s demands to the point that the framework agreement is shaping up to be not only more “pro-Israel” than the 2001 Clinton parameters, but even more so than Ehud Barak’s offer to the Palestinians at the 2001 Taba talks or Ehud Olmert’s at the 2008 Annapolis talks.
Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013 / Getty Images
Efforts to pass a new Iran sanctions bill have not only stalled in the Senate, but appear to be slowing even in the House. Perhaps predictably, given the focus on AIPAC as the primary driver of the bill, observers are now wondering whether AIPAC has “over-reached” and been “weakened.” While the failure of any lobby group to pass signature legislation dents its reputation, presumptions about AIPAC’s coming vulnerability betray fundamental misconceptions about how foreign policy is made.
Foreign policymaking in the United States is an executive privilege. Presidents typically have a lot of leeway in this area. This is the result of constitutional authority, judicial reinforcement, and a general acceptance among lawmakers that presidential predominance in foreign affairs is both necessary and, by now, traditional.
Under these conditions, lobby groups have always had much more success with Congress than with presidents. Congress is a fractious body, with over 500 individual targets; the president is a single individual. Failures in Congress are more setbacks than anything else, given the multiple access points and the rolling nature of elections; failing to convince the president is a very public event, harder to overcome.
Well, I certainly never had that happen before. In years of moderating sometimes heated public conversations, never has a panelist just walked off the stage. But that’s what Commentary editor John Podhoretz did Monday night. And I’m still trying to figure out why.
Of course, I expected a feisty evening when the venerable 92nd Street Y asked me to moderate a panel about what it means to be “pro-Israel” (their words), with Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street; David Harris, executive director of American Jewish Committee, and Podhoretz. And from the outset, it was clear that Ben-Ami and Podhoretz were going to disagree about everything, with Harris positioning himself — literally and figuratively — in the middle.
We talked about the latest controversy at the Swarthmore College Hillel, and who should or should not be invited to speak at a Jewish institution.
J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby that was shunned in its early years by Israeli government officials, is now making another step toward the acceptance by Israeli politicians.
This coming September, J Street will host, for the first time, a member of Knesset from the ruling Likud Party and a member of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party at its annual conference in Washington.
Tzachi Hanegbi, a hardliner turned peace supporter, will be the first member of the Likud to participate in a J Street event. Hanegbi is the son of Geula Cohen who was a fighter in the Irgun underground organization operating before the establishment of the State of Israel and who later became a right-wing politician.
Hanegbi’s first steps in politics were as a pro-settlers activist and he was one a handful of Israelis who refused to evacuate the settlement of Yamit during the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai which was part of its peace agreement with Egypt.
He was also a vocal critic of the Peace Now movement during the 1980’s.
In the Knesset, Hanegbi was first elected in 1988 as part of the Likud Party, but in 2005 he broke off with other members led by Ariel Sharon to establish the more moderate Kadima party. Later Hanegbi returned to the Likud and has since spoken in favor of a two-state solution. Still, in interviews and statements Hanegbi has stressed the responsibility of the Palestinians for the lack of progress in peace negotiations.
Hanegbi’s participation at the J Street conference, a result of outreach efforts conducted by the lobby’s office in Israel, is viewed by organizers as a mark of success. It is a sign, said Jessica Rosenblum, the group’s director of media and communications, “of the growing acceptance of J Street and the growing recognition of the common purpose,” of advancing a two-state solution.
J Street’s founding in 2008 was initially met with a cold shoulder by the Israeli government. Officials refused to meet with the lobby’s activists and the Israeli embassy boycotted its events. Since, however, the group established working relations with the embassy and an Israel senior diplomat delivered a speech at last year’s conference gala dinner. Hanegbi’s participation will signal yet another step by J Street away from its lefty image and closer to the Israeli mainstream.
Another first at this year’s conference will be the participation of Yitzhak Vaknin of Shas at the event. Shas, a Sephardic ultra-Orthodox party has supported in the past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations but has since shifted to the right. Currently it is not a member of the Netanyahu governing coalition.
Despite initially facing resistance from the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, student members of J Street at the University of Pennsylvania were able to host an event at Penn’s Hillel featuring Breaking the Silence, a group of Israeli Defense Force army veterans who speak out against Israeli military policy.
Thursday’s event drew about 60 people and there were no protests according to Akiva Sanders, a junior and co-president of J Street UPenn.
Shapiro, who noted that many Penn Hillel students would like to live in Israel after graduation, said that it was, “important for people to understand all the different details of the situation in Israel and the situation produced by the policies of a government that we give a lot of money to and we also support.”
J Street began planning to have a speaker from Breaking the Silence come to campus in October but was soon notified that Hillel of Greater Philadelphia would not allow the event to be held in the Hillel building. In January, J Street created a petition to support the event, which was signed by 27 Penn Hillel student leaders.
Sanders said the petition made the point that, “people across the Jewish community amongst my generation really want to have a kind of conversation that is supportive of Israel, loving toward Israel, but is thoughtful and can deal with the realities of the situation.”
Jewish professionals are known to play musical chairs and switch from one organization to another. It’s mostly institutional inside baseball, but some moves are more interesting than others.
Take the switch by Alan Elsner, who until recently was a top official at The Israel Project, a centrist organization devoted to the defense of Israel’s public image. Elsner has moved to the dovish lobby J Street, a group that challenges the notion that American Jews cannot be critical of the Israeli government and its actions.
Elsner, a veteran journalist and author, has been named J Street’s vice president for communications. He told the Forward that the move, which may seem like a sharp political shift, is a “comfortable ideological fit” for him.
“I believe that the way to improve Israel’s image is through reaching a two-state solution,” he said, adding that highlighting the “nice things” about Israel while ignoring the conflict will not get pro-Israel advocates closer to that goal.
Emergency Committee for Israel board member Bill Kristol told an Upper West Side audience last night that President Obama has “moved back to the center” on Israel.
The statement, one of a number of kind words Kristol had for Obama, came just two months after ECI released a video calling the president’s Israel policy “dangerous.”
“Barack Obama promised to be an unwavering friend and defender of Israel,” the ECI said. “It is deeply unfortunate and dangerous that he has failed to keep this promise.”
Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a board member of a number of right-wing advocacy groups, including the hawkish Emergency Committee for Israel, praised the president during a debate with Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of the dovish pro-Israel group J Street. Forward editor Jane Eisner moderated the discussion.
Kristol’s group ECI is known for its bombastic criticism of the president. The group raised $700,000 during its 2011 fiscal year, and has spent heavily on high-profile newspaper and billboard advertisements condemning Obama’s Israel policy.
But Kristol repeatedly praised the president during the Upper West Side debate.
“I am happy to agree with Obama to a considerable degree,” Kristol said, according to Chemi Shalev in Haaretz.
Liberal Jews have taken turns over the past few weeks whacking at the Emergency Committee for Israel’s advertisement alleging anti-Semitism at the Occupy Wall Street protests. Eliot Spitzer called the ad “despicable” on Slate; Richard Cohen called it “reprehensible” in his Washington Post column; and J Street said it “slandered” Occupy Wall Street.
A new wave of condemnations arrived in reporters’ inboxes yesterday with a press release headlined “Jewish Leaders Denounce Right-Wing Smears of Occupy Wall Street.” The release, signed by 15 prominent Jewish liberals, amounted to a renewed attack on ECI:
“It’s an old, discredited tactic: find a couple of unrepresentative people in a large movement and then conflate the oddity with the cause…One particularly vile example was a television ad…paid for by something called the Emergency Committee for Israel.”
As we get closer to September 20 and the opening of the UN’s General Assembly, all the various voices of the American Jewish universe are beginning to state their opinion about whether the Palestinian push for UN recognition is a wise or foolish step. We’ve actually got an editorial, stating our own position, which will be on line shortly.
For the most part, there are few surprises. Most mainstream (read: center-right) Jewish organizations oppose the move. But I couldn’t really guess what card J Street was going to play. Well, according to a JTA report, they’ve also decided to take a stand against the Palestinian Authority and its September gamble. “We believe that everything J Street stands for and what we do needs to promote the two-state solution and not just two states,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s director.
What they will not do, however, is support the efforts gaining steam to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority as a result. Here’s Ben-Ami again: “What the Palestinians are doing is legal, even if we don’t agree with it, and we believe it is against Israel strategic interests and U.S. interests to cut funding to the Palestinians.”
This seems sensible. J Street does stand for negotiations, and so, despite their more sympathetic approach to the Palestinian side of the conflict, it would not be consistent for them to support unilateralism. The group wasn’t around in 2005, but I have a feeling that they might have also opposed the way that Ariel Sharon pulled out of Gaza without any attempt at negotiation.
On the other hand, they have the good sense to see what other American Jewish groups are apparently failing to see, that defunding the P.A. would be disastrous for everyone involved — Americans, Palestinians, and, yes, Israelis. It would probably undo Mohamed Abbas’s leadership and create further frustration and despair among the Palestinians. What would follow, we can’t know for sure, but it’s safe to assume it would not be good.
The group released yesterday its own national survey of American Jews which reinforces the main findings of the Gallup poll — that Barack Obama still enjoys significant support among American Jews.
According to J Street’s poll, conducted by pollster Jim Gerstein, Obama has a 60% approval rating among Jews, a number consistent with previous polling done by the group. When faced off against potential Republican candidates Mitt Romney or Michelle Bachmann, Obama easily wins a large majority of Jewish votes.
The survey also dispelled claims that Jewish donors are turning away from Obama and the Democrats because of the president’s rocky relations with the Israeli government. A huge majority of those who made political contributions to Obama’s campaign in 2008 intend to do so again, just as a similar majority of Jews who gave money to John McCain in ’08 will contribute to the Republican candidate in this election cycle.
But not all is rosy for Obama with Jewish voters. The poll found that a majority of American Jews (56%) disapprove of Obama’s handling of the Arab–Israeli conflict. But despite this number, still a large majority of the American Jewish community, based on this poll, will vote Obama in 2012. According to Gerstein, this finding proves what Jewish Democrats have been saying all along — Israel is not a deciding factor for American Jewish voters.