What’s wrong with JStreet

Checked Again: Still anti-J Street

Israelis know more about raising children to be moral human beings at time of adversity, more about respecting one’s enemy’s dignity, more about respect for law under extreme duress, than most American Jews can even begin to imagine

Yaacov Lozowick
Jerusalem, Israel
Historian, author of "Right to Exist, A Moral Defense of Israel’s Wars" and other works, former Director of Archives at Yad Vashem; owner of LeverEdge Ltd, a company that deals with advanced knowledge management projects

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A number of people, some quite thoughtful, disagreed with my position against J Street yesterday. Since I spent part of the day doing Pessach cleaning, I was able to listen to some of the sessions of the recent J Street conference. I heard Rabbi Saperstein, Jeremy Ben Ami, Peter Beinart, Bernard Avishai, Daniel Levy and Roger Cohen, and was also able to hear when the audience applauded for which statements.
Daniel Levy at one point made a statement about how if it were to be proven that the Arab world really isn’t willing to live in peace alongside Israel "then Israel wasn’t such a good idea, was it?" but then he went on to say that of course, the Arabs are willing. You’ll pardon me if I don’t feel compelled to regard Levy as a fellow Zionist in any form or way, even if he was once an aide to Yossie Beilin.
Apart from Levy, however, here’s what I found.
These J Street speakers and guest speakers are more or less aligned with the positions of Meretz, perhaps a shade to its left. Meretz, of course, is a legitimate Zionist party, even though it has lost almost all its Israeli voters and hovers near extinction. Yet J Street isn’t Meretz, it’s something much more troubling, and worthy of our disdain.
First, Meretz positions sound different and more acceptable from Israelis. The reason the party has lost most of its voters is that we’ve empirically tested its proposals, and lots of people have died as a result – not once, but repeatedly, in 1993-6, in 2000 (twice, once in Lebanon and once with the Palestinians), in 2002, in 2005, and in 2006; arguably also in 2008. Having its basic assumptions serially disproved has discredited Meretz, but if after all that some Israelis still wish to hang on, that’s their right; the rest of us don’t take them seriously, and that’s our right. It’s actually surprising how very little animosity Meretz generates these days, especially when compared to their heyday. They’re an oddity, and one doesn’t get aggravated about oddities; one pities them, or suffers them for the color they add.
The J Street people seem not to have noticed any of this, which is either very peculiar or very disturbing. If they’ve simply not been watching, what gives them the right to have an opinion about life and death matters they can’t make the effort to understand? If they’ve been watching and refuse to accept what is there to be seen, how exactly do they portray themselves as being on our side?
Second, there’s a consistent tone of disdain of Israeli society coming from these people which I find arrogant and very distasteful. Americans left and right have lost their civility in political discourse; Israelis, admittedly, never had it. Yet there are codes in language, deeper than mere words, and the subtext of these J Street spokesmen when discussing Jews from Russia, religious Jews and centrist Jews, is ugly. I find no other word for it. Just as their compassion for Israel’s Arabs (the citizens) is odd. There’s a level of identification with them which is totally lacking when they talk about the majority of the Israeli Jews. I say this as someone who wishes only the best for Israel’s Arabs.
Another widespread sentiment they’ve got about Israelis is moral superiority. We American Jews, we understand human rights, democracy, dignity and so on, not like our benighted Israeli cousins who need to learn from us because they’ve turned into an embarrassment. I"m not going to respond in detail to this, but it needs to be rejected vehemently. It’s the opposite which is true. Israeli Jews, unlike American ones, live in a hard reality which beats down on those admirable human values and could easily smother them. Yet it doesn’t. Israelis know more about raising children to be moral human beings at time of adversity, more about respecting one’s enemy’s dignity, more about respect for law under extreme duress, than most American Jews can even begin to imagine. How could they? When are they ever faced with true moral quandaries, or required to pay a price for preserving their values? Do Israelis sometimes fail? Of course. Are American Jews ever put in situations where they’re ever even tried? Perhaps, but they don’t spring to mind.

Then there’s the matter of having enemies. Nothing I heard in all those speeches gave any cause to believe the speakers understand what an enemy is; they certainly can’t imagine the Palestinians are such. To the best of my recollection, the word Hamas was never mentioned. The Palestinians, when they were talked about, are noble and suffering people who must be reached out to, must be embraced, must be comforted. I have Palestinian friends, and am seeking more of them; through them I try to understand how they see us and how they see themselves. Yet I never forget that so far, we’re at war. I’m convinced the ones I know personally are all right, but there are many in their society who would gladly kill me, my family, and my society. There’s a war on, it’s not over, and it’s not something that can be talked away with nice sentiments. War mean enemies: a concept – I repeat myself but it’s a crucial distinction – the J-Street people seem quite oblivious of. So far as I can tell, they can’t imagine an enemy, astonishing as that may sound.
All of this, serious as it is, perhaps still doesn’t justify the distaste I have for these people. So they disagree with me and with most Israelis on many matters: so what? You know how many things there are I disagree on with various factions of Israelis? Heaps and heaps.
The difference between those disagreements and J Street is in the reason J Street exists: to put pressure on the American government. I’d add, to put pressure on the American government to harm Israel, but my Meretz friends will tell me it won’t harm Israel. J Street isn’t a talk club, it’s a lobby, which intends to have an impact on policy.There’s an extreme irony in this, since what J Street is essentially saying – quite openly and explicitly – is that the sovereign political decisions of the Jewish State need to be upended. True, the Jews didn’t have the ability to make sovereign decisions until Zionism created Israel, but now that the Jews have Israel they’re making the wrong decisions and need the outsiders to correct their mistakes for them. If this isn’t anti-Zionism by Jews, I don’t know what it would look like.
Finally, to sum it all up, there’s the content of the pressure that needs to be put on Israel. All of the speakers I heard, and most of what I had previously heard and read about J Street, agree that the reason there’s no peace between Israel and Palestinians is that Israel isn’t interested, or isn’t serious. At the moment they blame "Netanyahu and Lieberman", but Netanyahu and Lieberman were democratically elected (not by me – but they do represent a real majority). Should it be a different Israeli government, however, the J Streeters will say the same about them (since that government won’t make any more peace than this one). So let me return to my paragraph yesterday about the Big Lie: I’ve marked the parts which the J Streeters clearly seem to accept, in bold; the parts in italics some of the J Streeters seem to accept.

The Big Lie of our day has a number or versions. The Jews are not a nation and deserve no state. The Jews have no historical rights to the land they call Israel, and even if they do, they’re anachronistic and cannot justify harming the Palestinians. The Palestinians have been in their homeland for time immemorial, and were pushed out by the Jews. The Jews continue to aspire to ever more control of the land, and to ever more oppression of the Palestinians. The Jews’ way in war is uniquely evil and cruel. The Palestinians yearn for peace, but the Israelis refuse to allow it, because they haven’t finished taking Palestinian land, or because they don’t recognize the Palestinians as equally human. The Jews protect their nefarious projects through sinister control of power-brokers, most importantly the United States.

I have no doubt many of the supporters of J Street mean well. Really and truly. But context is important, and when Jews say loudly that the Israelis are to blame for the lack of peace, or that they’re immoral or becoming so, and that foreign powers must restrain them: well, that’s anti Israel, and it plays into the lie of our day.

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