Courtesy of J Street
For the Jews who attended this year’s J Street Conference, the event was an expression of community, idealism and ideology. In a way, it was about how Israel was all about us, the Jews. It was about our values and our identity, which have been so inextricably intertwined with the state of Israel since 1967. And about how the re-election of Netanyahu, for a fourth term in office, was a turning point for liberal American Jews.
Even the panels that included Palestinians, whether they were citizens of Israel or from the occupied territories, were less about Palestinian rights and more about how realizing their rights would affect the Jews’ status in Israel.
This was understandable, since J Street is a mostly Jewish NGO that calls itself “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” and which has a mandate to work for a two-state solution — one for the Jews and one for the Palestinians. But it also made the conversation a bit stale. We have been over and over the questions of whether or not liberal Zionism is still relevant, or whether or not external diplomatic pressure on Israel will be effective in ending the occupation. It doesn’t feel as though there is anything new or insightful to say on that subject.
For me, the most insightful observations came from non-Palestinian Arabs who attended the conference, and from the responses they received to their questions, which illustrated a genuine curiosity about what Israelis thought of them and of Israel’s place in the Middle East.
Activists from Center for Jewish Nonviolence replant trees on the Nassar family farm / Courtesy
Nothing has more depressed American Jewish progressives than the recent revelation that Israel will be facing four more years of Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu’s renewed reign spells continued rancor between the two countries American Jewish progressives care about. It means more troubling conversations about Zionism for campus Hillels. Most conspicuously, it means four more years of occupation, oppression and denial of rights carried out in the name of the Jews. The question for progressive Jews is, now what?
Peter Beinart sat on a J Street conference panel on Sunday and gave some recommendations. In particular, he rang a bell for American Jewish solidarity activism. In his words: “We need to think very hard and very creatively about how we amplify Palestinian nonviolent protest in the West Bank…the best way we could do that is to be there ourselves.”
Yes, Beinart was suggesting that American Jews who oppose the occupation fly to Israel to stand in nonviolent solidarity with Palestinians in the occupied territories. What Beinart didn’t mention is that there is a new organization doing just that. It’s called the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. (Full disclosure: I have worked very closely with the Center and hold a position in its organizational structure.)
In the United States, Jews who seek an end to the occupation have tended towards various types of activism. At J Street, the discourse is political. At Jewish Voice for Peace, it’s international. This has left the grassroots nonviolent direct action model relatively unexplored by North American Jews. Until now.
Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
Years ago, I was on the National Executive of the National Union of Students in Britain, elected ostensibly to defend Israel against rabid anti-Zionists. I have also trained Israel advocates on Birthright tours and on yearlong programs in Israel.
I am an Israel advocate, and I remain dedicated to defending Israel against unfair allegations, double standards, and demonization. But something in me has changed. Something has broken.
In order to defend Israel against its critics, at school and university, I would find myself defending Labour policies one year, Likud policies the next, then Kadima policies after that. I sounded like I was contradicting myself, and, of course, I was, because I wasn’t really speaking for myself. I was acting as a self-appointed mouthpiece for whichever government happened to be in power. I saw that as my role, as a Jew in the Diaspora: to serve as an unofficial ambassador for a government I didn’t elect. It’s as if that role was part of what it meant to be a committed Jew in the Diaspora.
That is no longer the case. I’m now an Israeli citizen (albeit living overseas on a research fellowship in America). But the government due to emerge after these elections doesn’t speak for me. And I will not speak for it. In fact, I don’t see why anybody should.
This election has surely killed the myth that Israel advocacy demands defending a government; a myth that J Street was born to fight. Netanyahu won this election by taking peace off the table, and by racist scare-mongering. I will not sully my name in defense of this government and I don’t expect Diaspora Jewry to do so either.
So what becomes of Israel advocacy — this deep seated desire in the soul of the Diaspora Jew to speak up for Israel — when the government is so far away from representing your outlook and values?
A Yachad tour overlooking the South Hebron Hills at the southern tip of the West Bank / Yachad
In a historic move on Sunday, the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) voted overwhelmingly to admit Yachad into the umbrella organization.
Yachad was set up in 2011 to build support within the British Jewish community for a two-state solution. Its work involves both education and grassroots advocacy. Securing 135 votes in support, against 61 “no” votes, Yachad reached the two-thirds majority required for inclusion according to the constitution of the BoD.
The BoD is the British Jewish community’s official representative body. “Deputies” are voted in by their synagogue members, and from within the deputies a leadership structure is then elected, which includes amongst other positions a president and number of vice presidents. It is from this process that the BoD earns its title of being the democratically elected body of the British Jewish community. (Note that the community also has the Jewish Leadership Council, made up of the chairs and chief executives of communal organizations, more similar in nature to the American Jewish community’s Conference of Presidents.)
In more recent years, the BoD has created a provision for community organizations to be represented, recognizing that not everyone identifies with the community through a specific synagogue. Through this provision, Yachad applied to become a member organization.
It goes without saying that Yachad is delighted with the outcome. Having been established just over three years ago, Yachad has amassed a significant body of support within the community for its work. Our supporters want to have a seat at the community table — that’s why the application was submitted. It was in fact our supporters themselves who encouraged us to apply.
An Israeli soldier walks past a bus on which suspected Jewish vandals painted graffiti reading ‘Gentiles in the land are enemies’ / Getty Images
Young Israelis don’t want separate bus lines for Palestinians — and they’re asking American Jews to ensure segregation never becomes a reality.
That’s the nutshelled version of a letter sent today by Young Israeli Labor, the official youth branch of the Labor Party, to the leaders of major American Jewish organizations including Abe Foxman (Anti-Defamation League), Malcolm Hoenlein (Conference of Presidents), Jeremy Ben-Ami (J Street), Eric Fingerhut (Hillel International) and Rabbi Rick Jacobs (Union for Reform Judaism).
The striking thing about this is not just the willingness of Israeli youth to speak out against segregated buses, but the fact that they’re turning to American Jewish leaders to appeal, on their behalf, to Israeli leaders — specifically, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ya’alon. The subtext seems to be that they don’t feel they can make themselves heard (or heard successfully) in their own country without a powerful intermediary. We can chalk this up partly to their perception that “Ya’alon is caving in to a well-organized campaign of the extreme right, who hold powerful positions inside the Likud party.” Here’s the rest of their letter:
This unfortunate decision is a disastrous one in any respect. Apart from being a severely miserable decision in every moral aspect, it also adds a very powerful weapon to the arsenal of those seeking to undermine Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.
Side by side with you, we, the Young Israeli Labor, the official young branch of the Labor Party, lead an uncompromising struggle on Israel’s international standing. Exactly because of our love for Israel, we must at present do whatever it takes to stop this poor decision from realization.
I call upon you to turn to Israel’s Prime Minister, MK Netanyahu, and demand that he interferes in this matter and prevents Defense Minister Ya’alon from surrendering to the extremist right-wing in Israel, which is jeopardizing our continuing existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
Activists, including former J Street staffers, protested the Gaza war on July 28 under the name #ifnotnow. Jewish Voice for Peace is also looking to attract J Street supporters./Martyna Starosta Photo
As J Street and other liberal Zionist groups continue to support Israel’s war in Gaza, Jewish Voice for Peace is seizing an opportunity for gain new supporters at their expense.
After the Forward published a story this morning charting how J Street has taken a far more moderate approach to the current Gaza war than it did to Operation Cast Lead in 2008, JVP put a link to it on their Facebook page, with the tagline: “Our door is always open”
Jewish Voice For Peace takes positions outside of the American Jewish mainstream. The group backs aspects of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and was influential in supporting the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s recent decision to divest from three companies alleged to profit from the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, a move strongly opposed by mainstream Jewish groups. In the current conflict, the group has been staging protests against Israel’s attacks in Gaza.
No mainstream Jewish groups have voiced similar condemnation of Israel in the current Gaza war.
“We have seen an enormous number of people flocking toward us right now,” said Rebecca Vilkomerson, the group’s executive director. “I think more and more people are coming to us who want to express their opposition.”
According to figures provided by JVP, the group’s Facebook page has gained 50,000 “likes” since July 21.
J Street did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
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.