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J Street and the Israeli Lobby

“J Street supporters are pro-peace first and pro-Israel second” is the criticism of hard-line Zionists and their allies in Washington. It well describes the growing fault lines in the Jewish community with those who want peace for Israel’s and America’s own long-term interests. Aggressive new settlements, international opprobrium, and unending, costly conflicts have lost Israel most of its worldwide support. As all-powerful and intimidating as AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, still appears, Jewish attacks are weakening it, even as Congress still trembles and Republican presidential candidates grovel before it. Its power is now being challenged as never before. Indeed, AIPAC’s leadership already only speaks for a minority of Jews, especially old ones, according to many participants at the conference. Today it increasingly depends upon the support of two main allies, the military-industrial complex and Christian Zionist millenarians.

Polls already show that a majority of American and Israeli Jews want peace and the removal of most of the settlements, and they support a viable Palestinian state. Israel’s Likud government, which long viewed J Street as a nuisance, this time felt compelled to send an emissary, Deputy Head of Mission Baruch Binah, [1] to address its third gala dinner at Washington’s giant convention center  last March 26.

J Street’s motto of “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace, Pro-Two States,” its open discussion of Palestinian suffering and rights, its espousal of Jewish values of humanism [2]: they are all anathema to Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party, to the subsidized settlers on the West Bank, and to American evangelicals wanting chaos and wars to hurry up God’s agenda for destruction and their longed-for Second Coming. Many of the panels dealt with the conflicts among American Jews in criticizing Israel’s occupation policies. Author Peter Beinart, a keynote speaker, argued that younger American Jews are simply turning off from the unending conflict and brutalities of the occupation, which itself is severely morally corrupting for Israel, and that Zionism, to regain its moral standing and legitimacy, must reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. He states in his book The Crisis of Zionism that AIPAC’s first allegiance is to the Israeli government, not to the Zionist ideals upon which Israel was founded. He and other speakers warned that Jews never in their history have had such political power as in America, but that they need to learn how to use it justly and wisely. In Jewish circles there’s an expression, “Is it good for the Jews?” Unspoken is the fear that abuse of their power could backfire with untoward consequences, as history attests.

J Street, barely four years old, hosted a conference of 2,500 attendees. This compares to 50 year old AIPAC, the most powerful lobby in America, which had 13,000 participants at its recent meeting. J Street now counts 180,000 members. The conference was sponsored by 41 major Jewish organizations [3] and included students from 100 countries, 700 rabbis, and 60 members of Congress at the final banquet. There were some 30 panels, lectures, and training sessions [4].

“Strange Bedfellows: Neocons, Hawks, Christian Zionists, and Casino Magnates” was a panel that mainly addressed the support of Christian evangelicals for Israel’s hard-liners and ultra-orthodox. Author and columnist Michelle Goldberg [5] explained “pre-millenial dispensationalism,” a mid-19th-century Scottish theory that once a majority of Jews returned to Israel, it would bring about Armageddon. Then God would kill all the world’s non-Christians (very brutally, as described in the best-selling Left Behind book series). She explained how the Israeli government had given a jet plane to preacher Jerry Falwell to bring fellow evangelicals to Israel to spread the prophecy and promote support for its seizing Palestinian lands on the West Bank. She said that the theory was to make a nuclear World War III acceptable and how it viewed Palestinians, even Christian ones, as “troublemakers.”

Sarah Posner, another panelist, criticized John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel [6] and its influence over Republicans. Ari Rabin-Havt, vice president of Media Matters, said both sides had contempt for one another, each viewing the other as “useful idiots,” to quote Lenin. He quoted Hagee as once implying that Hitler had been doing God’s work by bringing about the return of Jews to Israel. Rabin-Havt said “they love us in a very strange way!” He added that mainstream Jews are “very far away” from the rest of the Christian Right’s agenda. The speakers also decried the fact that their American donations, millions of dollars, for illegal West Bank settlements, are tax-deductible.

“The Future of Pro-Israel” was a main session asking “What does it mean to be pro-Israel?” Rabbi Donniel Hartman explained “aspirational Judaism [7].” Panelist Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward [8], America’s largest Jewish newspaper, urged Jews to “use our power well, power comes with responsibility…. Historically, Jews used to be dominated by everybody…. Jews always fear that bad times will come again…. America is a fundamentally different place.”

Hannah Weisfeld, director of the British Jewish organization Yachad, [9] explained how most British Jews supported the two-state solution, had sympathy for Palestinian suffering, and wanted Israel to be a democratic state. A constant theme of many speakers was how Israeli democracy was being torn apart by the settler lobby and the ultra-Orthodox. Their policies include segregating women, silencing debate and giving government subsidies to religious schools which teach no history, math, science, or anything except religious texts.

Peter Beinart said Israel’s founder, David Ben-Gurion, opposed taking over the West Bank. Beinart decried the loose charges of “anti-Semitism” and “self-hating Jew” for anyone who questions Israeli government polices; he said such charges were an insult to Jews who suffered throughout history. Beinart, former editor of The New Republic, argued that Zionism and democracy must be made compatible again, or else Zionism will die. The issues are “not just Jewish safety, but also Jewish honor.”

change_me

A constant theme of the conference (and last year’s [10]) was about Israel’s Likud government trying to outlaw freedom of speech and legislate more of the ultra-Orthodox agenda, e.g. sex-segregated buses. Israeli writer Gershom Gorenberg argued that, to save itself, Israel must end the occupation, separate state from religion, and create a new civil society that can be shared by Jews and Arabs. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel [11] passed out a pamphlet showing new government-sponsored laws. One would ban foreign funding of Israeli NGOs and/or tax donations to them at 45% if they criticize the government or expose atrocities in the occupied territories.  Another would allow crippling lawsuits against NGOs “that provide information on human rights violations and alleged war crimes committed by Israeli soldiers.” Other bills limit the power of the Supreme Court on matters where the government claims state security.

A fascinating panel was about the growing appeal of 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, [12] who was excommunicated for challenging the Jewish establishment. He was called “the first secular Jew in modern Europe” and a formative influence on the Enlightenment.

Three plays about him have been shown at Washington’s Jewish Community Center, including an all-day Sunday program [13] about him. At the conference, lines were read from the plays. Spinoza was called the “first modern Jew.” In one reading, Spinoza is asked, “What do you want to be?” “A Jew,” he answers. “Then you must be silent,” warns his friend, because the Jewish establishment feared his free thinking and unorthodoxy. Another play at the center, Return to Haifa, was about a Palestinian baby abandoned by his parents when they fled Palestine. He was adopted by Jewish parents and later served in the Israeli army. The controversial play gained funding from the Israeli government, though the embassy in Washington was dead set against showing it in America. Jewish theater is full of challenging plays. Last year’s J Street meeting discussed the showing of a film at the Jewish Film Festival [8] about the American Rachel Corrie, run over by an Israeli bulldozer while trying to block it from destroying Palestinian homes in Gaza.

The keynote speaker at the final banquet was former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of the Kadima Party [14], which actually won a plurality in the last election.  Olmert promoted the Geneva Peace Agreement recognizing the 1967 borders, joint sovereignty over mutual holy places, withdrawal from most settlements, and Palestinian independence, but without heavy weapons. Kadima is still a strong party that gained more votes than Likud in the last election, but it was unable to establish a parliamentary majority to form a government.  Its newly elected leader, former Army Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz, [15] criticized the Netanyahu government for its obsession with Iran.  Instead he said his Party would address domestic issues including peace with the Palestinians.  Large demonstrations last summer protested the high spending on occupation rather than addressing inflation and domestic problems.

Speakers opposed an Israeli or American bombing attack on Iran. Resistance as described above to militant Zionism and the West Bank occupation is widespread in the Jewish community, although rarely reported in American media. The largest American Jewish newspaper, The Forward, and Israel’s leading paper, Haaretz, respectively, are moderate, don’t demand wars as the first “solution,” and publish much about the debate within the Jewish community. Silence about the Jewish peace movement really reflects a still-extant fear among journalists of the “Israeli Lobby” and the dominant power of Washington’s pro-war establishment allied with the military-industrial complex. [16]

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#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 9, 2012 @ 9:53 am

I would say the critics of J Street are actually “Pro-War First, Israel Second.”

Would that those who are “pro-war” for idealistic reasons would take retreat from the madding pro-war crowd for a day or two of contemplation, after reading Nicholson Baker’s “Human Smoke.”

#2 Comment By Stephen On April 9, 2012 @ 10:10 am

Israel will not be able to attenuate their exercise of power in American politics, nor their behavior in the Middle East. The only way for them to get out of this dilemma (misusing power) is to give some part of it up.
The predominance they hold in American politics would be a good place to start because when it becomes, or if it becomes, understood by the majority of the voting population how much sway AIPAC has there will be predictable hell to pay.

#3 Comment By Bird Col. On April 9, 2012 @ 12:46 pm

Forgive me total, unalloyed cynicism regarding J Street.

J Street is the Israel Lobby’s fall-back position in case something bad happens to AIPAC – like its officers or members being hauled in for questioning about espionage, as has already happened several times.

The problem for the United States isn’t the character of its policy toward Israel and the Middle East, it is the obsessive, disproportionate quality of it. Israel just isn’t that important to America or Americans. J Street only serves to foster the illusion that it is so vitally important as to justify yet another lobby supporting it, only, of course “different”. New Coke? Classic? What a stupid, pointless, nearly meaningless choice, like the one between neoliberals and neoconservatives.

#4 Comment By KXB On April 9, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

AIPAC’s lobbying efforts, and consistent record of success, is comparable to other lobbying groups, like the NRA, NEA, the Business Roundtable and Cuban exiles. It is Olson’s “Logic of Collective Action” being put on display. While J Street may be doing admirable work, unless they make their presence felt in the campaign donation arena, they may not have much impact. Hell, we still have embargoes against Cuba, which have been in place since the Eisenhower years.

#5 Comment By Marko daBeast On April 9, 2012 @ 10:29 pm

To Stephen’s point, I know several people who have awoken to AIPAC’s control of our Mideast policy, and they’re beginning to get very angry.

#6 Comment By Joe Cloud On April 10, 2012 @ 8:53 am

Marko, you are right. However most of them are readers of TAC and the like. A drop in the bucket. As long as AIPAC controls funding and the useful idiots of Christian Zionism, and pretty much controls the narrative, what is to be done?

#7 Comment By Stanley Heller On April 11, 2012 @ 7:08 am

This article is delusional. How can it mention Israeli PM Olmert without recalling his monstrous attacks on Lebanon (over 1,000 dead, over a million cluster bombs) and Gaza (over 300 children dead, the massacre of the policemen, the al-Samouni massacre, white phosphorus, etc.etc. And Shaul Mofaz who authorized the bombing of an apartment house that killed 9 children. There are many good forces in the Jewish community but J-Street is not one of them. J-Street is AIPAC lite. See

[17]
Conference Votes to Criticize Groups Taking Part in J-Street Gala
and

[18]
J Street Participants Listen to Killer Olmert

The purpose of J-Street type groups is to entrance people with the hope of change while stopping them from engaging in anything meaningful

#8 Comment By Matt Giwer On April 11, 2012 @ 7:27 am

Seems to me much headway could be made by simply calling things by their real names. For example, the West Bank is ruled by a brutal, military dictatorship. When one uses the title Prime Minister it should include and Dictator of the West Bank. These are correct descriptions. There is no point in calling it an occupation thus engaging in debates of lawful and unlawful. Even it lawful it is a tyrannical dictatorship.

#9 Comment By Michael Hamrin On April 11, 2012 @ 7:41 am

Thanks for introducing me to Michelle Goldman’s work. I would consider St. Augustine of Hippo’s “City of God” to be the seminal work on the Two Kingdoms separation. John Calvin’s “Institutes” seconds the importantance of not mixing the two realms. The problem with pre- or post-millenial dispensationalism (popularized by J.N. Darby and Charles Schofield) is the way that they read and understand the bible. The “Israel of God” is neither national or ethnic Jewry, but rather today’s Christian. Falwell and Hagee are just whacked and poor biblical exegetes.

#10 Comment By Sim City On April 11, 2012 @ 8:40 am

J Street just perpetuates the grossly overvalued importance ascribed to Israel by the media and policymakers.

#11 Comment By CDK On April 11, 2012 @ 8:58 am

I’m confused by this article, which strikes me as a little bigoted. I grew up in a evangelical denomination that constantly expected the apocalyptic return of Christ, but I did not detect that anybody was “wanting chaos and wars”–there was just the expectation that such events were inevitable given the state of the world. No one, by contrast, accused our educated classes of wanting nuclear war in the 1980’s simply because they were sure it would happen if we did not seek peace; likewise, evangelicals see portents because we do not seek repentance. Prophecy is not necessarily covert fantasizing.

The idea that the second coming is some kind of 19th century theory invented by a Scotsman is laughable (and ignorant) beyond measure. Apocalyptic thinking is everywhere in the prophets as well as the New Testament. That said, I cannot speak for the delusions of evangelicals who somehow identify the Second Coming with the mission of Zionism, which itself is a primarily a secular movement (at least in the recent incarnation which was actually able to re-establish a Jewish state). If they took their religion seriously, they would be intent, as were their fathers, on converting the Jews to Christ, not somehow exempting them from the final judgment based on their bloodline (a theory Christ explicitly rejects).

The references to Spinoza as the model secular Jew is quite telling: Spinoza was an atheist, and thus denied the foundation of Jewishness itself. Building an identity out of persecution is a losing proposition in the long run: after a certain point, you have to say what defines you positively. Who are the Jews without their God? Nobody, an ex-nation. I’m not sure American Jews have really faced up to that, and maybe not the Israelis either.

#12 Comment By PeterGrfx On April 11, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

CDK: The author didn’t call “the second coming … some kind of 19th century theory invented by a Scotsman.” He was, I believe, writing about a specific version — requiring an in-gathering of all Jews to Israel and their conversion to Christianity under penalty of hell-fire before the second coming. Please don’t play the victim card: even if the author did criticize a religious idea you hold dear, that does not make him even “a little bigoted.” If you assert the right to advocate religious ideas in the public and political marketplace, you can hardly expect a special right for such ideas, and only such ideas, to be immune from criticism.

#13 Comment By Matt Giwer On April 11, 2012 @ 1:16 pm

To call J Street’s opposition serious is sort of a joke. Its position can at most be called AIPAC-lite. All the tyranny with half the guilt. It can talk about the occupation until hell freezes over as Israelis have been doing since it began. Talk forever and keep building.

Shut off the power and water to the squatters and let them decide for themselves if they want stay. Order the IDF back inside 1948 Israel a week later. If J Street does not clearly advocate that, as it is the only thing that can work, all it wants to do it talk and get a share of AIPAC contributions to live on.

No opposition could say that and survive? So? What is the point of a feel-good opposition other than a share of the contributions? If it can’t succeed it is not an opposition.

Since when is praising with faint damns considered criticism?

Olmert’s propagandists said he supported a two state solution, perhaps but he did not support a two sovereign state solution. Palestine would not have been sovereign. Nor did he offer Jerusalem. Nor did he offer equal value and quantity of contiguous land in exchange. Nor did he come within a light year of anything Israel would have accepted were the roles reversed.

For J Street to misrepresent Olmert defines J Street’s idea of opposition. Opposition in the form of a non-starter that allows more decades to build squatter towns, steal land, and continue the sadistic pleasures of it tyrannical, jewish, military dictatorship over millions of non-Jews.

There is no excuse for it to continue for a moment longer. Creating any kind of opposition changes the subject to the opposition and away from the tyranny.

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 11, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

It didn’t matter to the German Nazis if Jewish people were atheists or even Christians – it still condemned them as Jews.

Nor did the Spanish Inquisition recognize, in the final analysis, Christian Jews as Christians – but still Jews.

Spinoza was as much a Jew, viewed from the perspective of non-Jews, as anyone, including his recent biographer, Rebecca Newburger Goldstein, raised Orthodox but rejecting that in adulthood.

There is a “support Israel no matter what” mentality among some modern American Protestant groups who themselves are highly militaristic in outlook, and to whom the destruction of others in war does not matter a whole lot, especially since they are resigned to it being “God’s Will” for the End Times. Been there, done that.

#15 Comment By James Canning On April 12, 2012 @ 4:39 pm

I think those who call upon Israel to end the occupation of the West Bank are doing Israel a service.

#16 Comment By Joshua Ashenberg On April 16, 2012 @ 4:37 am

AIPAC and JStreet are a single cartel, the same as the Republican and the Democratic party – two branches of the same (war) party; in our case, a single Israel-first lobby. In the best case it is a softer version of AIPAC (at least visually) aims to attract Democrats. JStreet takes advantage of the American binary political logic – they assume that one party must be mutual exclusive to the other; some support JStreet because it is not AIPAC and vice versa.
The basic problem is (and I’m saying it as an ex-Israeli who is disgusted with Israel cheer leaders) in their basic support of a foreign country. As Americans they act as a fifth column , and if they assume that Israelis respect their support, they are wrong; for most Israelis an act for a foreign country is consider treason (BGIDA in Hebrew), one reason why so-many Israelis object the release of Pollard, who is basically a traitor..
To conclude, AIPAC and JStreet are the same lady, in different clothes.

#17 Comment By James Canning On April 16, 2012 @ 11:36 am

Joshua – – Any polls showing how many Israelis object to the release of Jonathan Pollard? And American defence secretary said Pollard should have been executed for treason.

#18 Comment By Big Bill On April 16, 2012 @ 6:24 pm

Sorry, Bub, nice try with the “American Evangelicals” “second coming” stuff. But what about the Jews and their “first coming” stuff? You know? When Moshiach returns as King Israel and Jews rule over all mankind? They are still waiting for the Messiah to help them rule over all of us, just like they were in Jesus’ day. Only as far as the Jews are concerned it will be the FIRST coming (other than the Lubavitchers, that is!) Jews don’t need any Evangelicals. They have their own apocalyptic supremacist nutcases, AND they have nukes!

#19 Comment By Michael Nugent Moore On June 30, 2012 @ 1:31 pm

It very easy to cite the “Israeli Lobby” as the core of the problem, but when push comes to shove it is America’s cryto-socialist addiction to heedless military spending and overseas arms sales that is at the root of the problem. The Iraeli lobby (FLAME)now trumpets that it spends all of its US aid buying weapons from the US.

Another example, in March, the US State Department was forced to continue Egypt’s military funding, despite the fact that they have no idea who the government will be. The reason: It “could have shut down production lines in the middle of President Obama’s re-election campaign.”
-NY Times 3-24-2012