Israel/Palestine,  Stateside

Street fight

Guest post by Judeosphere

Sometimes I hate being right. (No, just kidding. I love being right.) In early 2008, the media and blogosphere were abuzz about “J Street”—the new US lobbying organization that describes itself as a liberal alternative to AIPAC. There were lots of chirpy endorsements, such as M.J. Rosenberg, an analyst at the Israel Policy Forum, who declared: “Most Americans and most Jewish Americans support the two-state solution and are tired of having a Likud-oriented lobby speaking in their name.”

Still, I predicted that once J Street moved past the crowd-pleasing soundbites and got down to the business of trying to influence policy, some of the fiercest critics of this progressive Israel lobbying group would be….self-described “progressives.”

And that’s precisely what’s now happening.

The problem with J Street is that, although it is a liberal pro-Israel lobbying group, it’s still (gasp) pro-Israel. For instance, J Street opposes war with Iran and is a staunch advocate of diplomacy. Yet J Street also states: “The threat of a nuclear Iran, its destabilizing regional influence and the vile rhetoric of its President are all real.”

Such statements don’t sit well with the members of the Juan Cole school of “Hey, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was just mistranslated when he threatened to wipe Israel off the map!” And, at a time when groups are lobbying for a wide range of boycotts against Israel, J Street argues that “American assistance to Israel, including maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge, is an important anchor for a peace process based on providing Israel with the confidence and assurance to move forward on a solution based on land for peace.”

And, sure enough, J Street is already being condemned. Two illustrative anecdotes:

(1) J Street has endorsed 13 Congressional candidates “from all corners of the country, Republicans and Democrats, Arab-Americans and Jews, incumbents and newly minted challengers—all who share JStreetPAC’s belief in the strategic value of tough, smart diplomacy to help resolve conflicts in the Middle East.” Among those candidates is Democrat Tom Perriello. According to J Street: “He co-founded, an Internet advocacy group with a truly global reach, spent years waging peace in West Africa, and is a signatory to the ‘Responsible Plan to End the War in Iraq.’ Tom’s expertise in transnational justice also took him to Darfur where he met with rebel and civilian leaders to advance a new round of peace negotiations in 2005. He believes that a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is ‘key’ and that Congress should not tie the parties’ hands as they attempt to reach this goal.”

However J Street’s endorsements were reported in the Israel-bashing magazine, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, under the article title: “Pro-Israel PACs: Disguises and Permutations.” The magazine recorded JStreetPAC’s financial contributions to these candidates and concluded: “We took the opportunity of attending a Capitol Hill hearing at which Dr. John Mearsheimer was a panelist to ask him if, as a researcher, he would find it misleading if JStreetPAC were included among the other pro-Israel PACs. ‘Not at all!’ replied the co-author of The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy—and that’s good enough for us.”

Interestingly, just two months ago, when Mearsheimer was on a book tour in Dubai, the Gulf News reported him as saying: “The appearance of J Street is evidence that increasing numbers of American Jews understand that Israel’s policies in the occupied territories are going to have a disastrous outcome for Israel; that Israel is in effect is going to end up as an apartheid state.”

Apparently, in Mearsheimer’s view, an organization that advocates a two-state solution, opposes war with Iran, and describes Israeli settlements as “an obstacle to peace” is still, in the end, part of the nefarious “Israel Lobby.”

(2) A debate has erupted between Philip Weiss (part-time Nation correspondent and full-time “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theorist) and Dan Fleshler (a board member of Americans for Peace Now, who blogs over at “Realistic Dove”). Just a few months ago, Weiss was praising the leaders of J Street for specifically attacking “neoconservative Jews.” But now, reports Fleshler:

Philip Weiss and I have been communicating after he attacked J Street….A good many issues were broached, but one of his arguments is that J Street ought to be appealing to a much broader constituency than American Jews who feel some attachment to Israel. Some of his acolytes, true to form, said there was no fundamental difference between J Street and AIPAC, we are all just racist Zionist Jews providing cover for Israeli oppression (and, true to form, some said we are all disloyal to America)….I hope there is a broader coalition of Americans, speaking together as Americans, who press our government to get more engaged in this conflict and do what needs to be done in order to preserve the possibility of two states. Be my guest. Go out and organize!

Personally speaking, I think Fleshler will be disappointed. AIPAC, like all successful lobbying groups, has built up a wide coalition of strange and not-so-strange bedfellows, including: Christian Zionists, advocates of joint weapons development between U.S. and Israel, and foreign policy wonks who have supported the isolation of various Middle East regimes deemed hostile to U.S. interests.

But, in this polarized political climate, how many allies can a liberal, pro-Israel lobbying group find outside the progressive Jewish community? Two years ago, for instance, there was an anti-war demonstration in Connecticut. Jewish anti-war protesters chose to hold their own separate protest because of the hostility toward Israel among individuals organizing the demonstration. The New Haven Advocate reported:

Local Jewish antiwar activist Hannah Schwartz was cruising the lit area [and] was apoplectic over the imbalance at this rally between critiques of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli police-state tactics. She sees those Rachel Corrie postcards and wants to know where the equivalent postcards are that tell of how young Israelis face death every day on the beach, on the bus, in the clubs. She is critical of Israel, she said, “but it’s all just so one-sided here.”

It all comes down to one question: Can J Street find enough progressive supporters who recognize that “Justice for Palestine” and “Security for Israel” are not mutually incompatible concepts?