Is J Street pro-Israel?
This is a bit like asking, Are Mormons Christians? Mormons emphatically say yes; non-Mormon Christians sometimes have their doubts. J Street-niks insist on their pro-Israel bona fides. Other Zionists are not so sure.
One of the skeptics is Los Angeles Jewish Journal columnist David Suissa. On April 11, Suissa debated J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami before a large crowd at Temple Israel of Hollywood. As host Rabbi John Rosove remarked: “Not to argue is not Jewish.”
Ben-Ami set out J Street’s five basic principles:
1. There can be no question that Jews are entitled to a nation-state of their own, like all other peoples. Moreover, Israel has the right to defend itself against attack.
2. Being pro-Israel does not require us to be anti-Palestinian. The Palestinians also have a valid claim to statehood. J Street supports the “two state solution.” Israel can’t (1) have all the land between the sea and the Jordan River, (2) be Jewish, and (3) be democratic. It has to choose two.
3. Being pro-Israel obligates us to engage with Israel, including being critical. This is not the same as delegitimization. Friends help friends by pointing out when they’re making a mistake.
4. “Pro-Israel” means being open to various points of view. Dissent is fundamentally Jewish and pro-Israel.
5. We have to root what we do in fundamental “Jewish values” (i.e., universalistic values). The question is, “Is the state of our people living up to those values?”
Then it was Suissa’s turn. He slyly claimed that he didn’t intend to bring up J Street’s BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) supporters, J Street’s support for the Goldstone Report (which even Goldstone doesn’t support anymore), J Street’s opposition to the US veto of a UN Security Council on the settlements. . . . But, he said, what he’s really interested in is what works. And J Street has failed.
While claiming to be pro-peace, J Street has a bad record. A few years ago, Israelis and Palestinians were actually negotiating. But after Obama followed J Street’s advice to make the settlements the main issue, the peace process is dead, for three reasons. First, it gave the Palestinians a perfect excuse to boycott the talks. Second, condemning settlements reinforces the notion that the land is “stolen,” rather than “disputed.” Third, the obsession with settlements obscures the real obstacles to peace, such as Hamas. Israel has shown that it will uproot settlments for peace–that’s not the main problem.
What’s needed is an “education process,” not a “peace process.” For a generation the Palestinians have been taught to hate Israel. J Street is fantastic at putting pressure on Israel–but not at pressuring the Palestinians, who really need it.
Ben-Ami admitted that J Street had erred by demanding a settlement freeze, because the big issue is actually the lack of recognized borders. He allowed that a reasonable deal would leave 70% of the settlers in Israel. But–the settlements are illegal. Israel should stop building settlements because they’re wrong, and not in Israel’s interests.
Despite Suissa’s pointed criticism of Ben-Ami (and some barbs thrown back), there were some areas of concord, in particular the need for dialogue. Ben-Ami invited Suissa to speak at the next J Street conference, which Suissa quickly accepted (then groaned “Oy!” after he realized what he had done).
The question of the pro-Israel-ness of J Street remains uncertain at best. The problem is that Ben-Ami says wonderful Zionistic things at forums like this one, which are undermined by what J Street actually advocates and does. For example, Ben-Ami asserted that J Street is best situated to oppose the BDS movement, because of its pro-peace credibility. That’s all very well, replied Suissa, but in fact a lot of the people at J Street conference actually favor BDS.
Suissa’s judgment of J Street is apt: you can call it “tough love,” but without the love, it’s just being tough.