Public Comment

Great Battalions of Jewish Doves Languishing in Voicelessness

Joanna Graham
Friday June 13, 2014 - 06:51:00 PM

On the weekend of June 7-8, J Street—“the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”—held a “summit” in San Francisco, attended by about 600 people.

J Street, a lobbying organization dedicated to the two-state solution in order “to preserve the Jewish and democratic nature of the state of Israel,” was founded in 2008 by Jeremy Ben-Ami with start-up funds from George Soros. Ben-Ami’s biography includes both Israeli and American elements. His family goes back 130 years in Palestine; his grandparents helped found Tel Aviv; his father fought with the Irgun, a pre-state right-wing militia. Ben-Ami, who is in his early fifties, was educated in the U.S., served in the Clinton administration (domestic policy), and has since had a Democratic Party-aligned kind of inside-the-beltway career, mostly doing consulting for political campaigns and NGOs. In the late 1990s, he lived three years in Israel and started a consulting company there. No bio I have found makes clear whether he is Israeli- or American-born, how—since his family is so deeply rooted in Israel—they (or he) came to live in the U.S., and what citizenship(s) he currently holds.

One question about J Street that I and others have is this: since the West Bank settlement project began in 1967, the moment the territory was conquered, and since, if one definitive statement can be made about it, it’s that the more time passes the less likely it can be stopped, then why, if Ben-Ami cares so much to preserve “the Jewish and democratic nature of the State of Israel,” did he wait until 2008 to found his organization?

The answer provided by a suspicious and cynical left is that J Street is a response to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which was founded in 2005 and has been gaining ground ever since with rather astounding rapidity. In other words, the left sees J Street as the kinder gentler face of AIPAC, designed to keep liberal American Jews within the fold; to make them feel like they’re doing something without doing anything really; and to keep them from bolting into truly threatening organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace or, on college campuses, Students for Justice in Palestine, both of which support the BDS campaign. 

On the other hand, I will point out that J Street has been in some battles with the American Jewish establishment. In the most recent brouhaha, its application to join the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations was rejected this past April. This rejection, which was referred to often at the summit, can be seen, of course, from a number of angles. Let’s just say that in many ways, the application was a win-win for J Street: with this outcome, J Streeters got the precious gift of being officially outsiders. Now they know that even if they’re getting nowhere they must be on the right side of history. 

So is J Street left, as the J Streeters themselves believe, or is it right, as the left of the left dismissively claims? My tentative answer to this is that from the point of view of non-intimidated people, J Street is centrist, cautious, and under its own rules bound to be ineffectual. However, from within the American Jewish community, which at this moment in history is deeply intimidated, it probably feels like a brave spit in the eye to the status quo.As one woman remarked to me at the summit, the Conference of Presidents veto happened because J Street is providing a credible alternative to AIPAC. “Credible” is the operative word; if people in suits can sit in congressmembers’ offices and indicate to them that American Jews do not all speak with one voice, bless them for it. AIPAC did experience some stunning defeats in 2013. I have no idea if J Street had anything to do with these, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they did. 

So what was the sense of the summit on Sunday? My first fear—that I would find a group of people in total denial, chugging along with their two-state plans as if Kerry’s peace talks had not collapsed—turned out to be unfounded. Instead, the J Street panelists openly expressed discouragement and depression. They had come together not to celebrate any victories but to figure out what to do next—and pretty clearly they had at this time no great ideas. However, a possible future direction of the organization was implied by Ben-Ami’s offhand remark that the key lesson of Kerry’s failure is that American leadership is necessary but not sufficient. This implied, to my mind, an acknowledgement that Israeli intransigence is the obstacle but also raised the very interesting and problematic issue of what the hell American Jews are supposed to do about that. 

This question—essentially one of boundaries—provided the bass note of the entire conference. Furthermore, from what I’ve experienced, it permeates American-Jewish thought, not to mention world thought, for that matter. Example: I learned at the conference (and I always think I’m finished being shocked and infuriated but this is never true) that Israel has been long accredited at the U.N. on behalf of the Jews of Israel and all Jews everywhere. The first part was apparently recently changed to “citizens of Israel” (yay!) but “all Jews everywhere” remains. 

Excuse me, but would any other nation in the world be allowed to get away with this? It is irredentism raised to the level of holy writ and depends on a sleight of hand that Israel regularly employs to its great advantage. From one view, Israel is a country like the other 192 U.N. member countries—a constructed political entity inside of which ordinary people do as best they can to lead their ordinary lives. From another, it is a kind of shimmering spiritual utopia, eretz Israel, the Holy Land, the very place pledged to the great-great-grandfathers of God’s Chosen People, aka, Jews, by The Big Guy Himself. The tension between these two views underlay the day’s proceedings. 

American Jews were clearly taking the “holy land” approach. There was some hushed questioning as to whether non-Israeli Jews even have a right to form opinions, let alone take action, about Israeli policies. No one mentioned Israeli meddling in the U.S. nor the billions of dollars in aid that flows from us to them. Further, since J Street and kindred organizations forswear measures that might cause actual pain to Israel, such as BDS or withholding aid, they are limited to verbal persuasion. That persuasion can be gentle, such as Ben Ami’s suggestion that we talk to family and friends in Israel “out of love and concern” (and maybe mention BDS while we’re at it). Or it could be not so gentle, as Debra DeLee of Americans for Peace Now suggested when she said her organization was planning to use “harder language” and take a “tougher tone.” She drew applause when she said they were planning to “tell the truth about Israel.” 

I imagine this all sounds a bit inadequate to the issue but I would like to make clear the context in which these remarks were being made. To put it bluntly, there is enormous intimidation and fear within the Jewish community with respect to Israel. At the summit this came up over and over and over. Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund (a quite mainstream organization, which, in Israel, was recently subjected to a vicious McCarthyite campaign) said bluntly that everyone is afraid of the big donors. He told a story about being in a room with forty rabbis when he was director of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco all of whom were terrified to mention Israel. At one point a panelist suggested that the words “occupation” and “settlement” are prohibited. And Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who gave a lunchtime talk on conflict resolution, referred to the “death by Israel sermon”—in which a rabbi says the wrong thing and gets fired, or loses his major donor(s) and presumably gets fired later. Eilberg uttered my favorite sentence from the entire summit—and possibly the saddest—when she said, “‘Peace’ has become a polarizing word, but as a rabbi I still use the word ‘peace.’” 

There are about 12 or 13 million Jews in the world today, about 45% in Israel and 45% in the U.S. I am going to posit that the goal of both communities, as communities, is to preserve (secular) Jewish identity (religious Jews, obviously, do not have a problem.) The by-word for this is “Jewish peoplehood,” and the slogan is something like “Jews are a people and Israel is the sovereign expression of their identity.” Here in the U.S, one runs into it everywhere, spoken in reverent tones, inscribed on walls, etc. Here are the first four lecture titles of the “Engaging Israel” class I took this past winter: (1) From Crisis to Covenant, (2) Religion and Peoplehood, (3) Sovereignty and Identity, (4) Power and Powerlessness. You get the idea. 

“Jewish peoplehood” —or, as I prefer to say, “peopleness”—is the Zionist hook that keeps “diaspora” Jews so internally hushed, reverent, tactful, and subservient, even were they not being externally cowed, intimidated, and threatened. 

But does Jewish peoplehood really exist? My actual experience is that American Jews and Israeli Jews are currently diverging from each other so rapidly that sometimes they seem unable even to communicate with each other across an ever-widening abyss. Here are a couple of stunning examples from the summit. 

Ask an American Jew what is the most pressing issue in Israel and, like most other Americans, he or she will almost certainly say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But in Israel, as Israeli panelist Boaz Rakocz explained, nobody even thinks about it—any more than (most) Americans think about our ongoing militarism around the world. Like pretty much everyone everywhere, Israelis are focused on bread-and-butter issues, especially now that, like everyone else, they are being subjected to neoliberal austerity. 

Why do Americans Jews care so intensely about “the occupation” and they do not? Because “ending the occupation” is the only way to preserve, as J Street puts it, the “Jewish and democratic” character of the state of Israel, or to put it the other way around, it is the only way to prevent Israel from becoming, or more accurately, being perceived as what it already is, an apartheid state. Israelis do not care if they live in an apartheid state. Ben-Gurion’s great apothegm was, “It doesn’t matter what the goyim think but only what the Jews do.” One can indulge in such thoughts in a majority Jewish country but not in a Christian country where safety and comfort depend on constitutional protection of minority rights. 

Let me restate this. The entire raison d’etre of J Street is to arrive at a two-state solution in order to end the occupation. And they intend to do this by persuasion. A very nice Israeli man sat on the stage at the J Street summit and said as plainly and clearly as he could, “Israelis don’t care.” 

Here’s an even deeper example of the divide between the two communities. The speaker I enjoyed the most was Merav Michaeli, an astute, outspoken, and funny Israeli woman who was a journalist in both print and broadcast media until last year when she was elected to the Knesset (Labor). 

All day long I had been listening to American Jews discussing how they can influence the government of Israel to change its ways and even agonizing over whether they have a right to try to do so. Over and over I heard them declaring their great love of Israel. I heard them fail to make the distinctions I believe they ought to have made between themselves as Americans and Israel and Israelis. Along comes Michaeli and says Israeli Jews don’t care about diasporic Jews. To the extent that they think about them at all, they don’t consider them to be real Jews. Only Israelis are real Jews because they are…Israelis. She said that to Israelis there are only two kinds of diasporic Jews: those who give them money and the rest. How much more clearly can one say that “Jewish peoplehood” is for propaganda purposes only? It is to keep the money flowing. 

A member of Michaeli’s panel, undeterred, UCLA history professor David Myers, professing his love of Israel, explained he meant not the government but the land, the people, the culture. Michaeli said, “I don’t want you to take this amiss but you’re reminding me of Moskowitz.” 

Irving Moskowitz is the Jewish-American real estate mogul (hospitals and gambling) who devotes himself to judaizing Arab East Jerusalem by buying up property and funding housing projects there. He is anathema to liberal American Jews! He is part of the problem! And yet an acute Israeli heard in Professor Myers’s declaration of love for “the land” an echo of Moskowitz’s right-wing Zionism. 

Of course Myers immediately backed off. When he said “the land” he meant a different “land” from Moskowitz, not “Judea and Samaria” but Israel within the Green Line. But what Michaeli heard, I think, is the romanticism that has characterized Zionism since the first travelers from Victorian Britain and America tramped around the Holy Land—a refusal to recognize Israel as a separate nation with its own history, government, and problems galore, not an eternal projection of our mythical imaginings. 

There is a much more important conference coming up June 14-21. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church will be considering three divestment motions. The Israel lobby, as you might imagine, is out in force. If this is an issue you care about, you might consider sending the Presbyterians a note of encouragement—or to use the Palestinian watchword, sumud. Steadfastness.