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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 […]

“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, 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: 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 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.

“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 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 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.” Panelist Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, 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, 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.”

A constant theme of the conference (and last year’s) 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 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, 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 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 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, 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, 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.