Taking back the debate over Israel

Sick of right-wing Jews speaking in their name, progressive American Jews have launched J Street to change the way the game is played in Washington.

Published April 29, 2008 10:24AM (EDT)

For years, liberal American Jews who have chafed under the taboo against criticizing Israel have dreamed of starting a political organization that would speak for them. Now, with the launch of J Street, that dream has become a reality.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group's founder, says that the incident that drove him over the edge took place when he was working as policy director for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign. Dean said the U.S. should take an "evenhanded" approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Ben-Ami recalled. He was immediately, and predictably, savaged as anti-Israeli and a coddler of terrorists. "All hell broke loose," Ben-Ami said. "And this from a man who's married to a Jewish woman, who's raising kids in the Jewish faith, and is extremely pro-Israel in everything he'd ever said and done. But to use that one word, and then to have that cascade into a torrent, was just amazing to me. And it's certainly been repeated and magnified with the attacks on Obama and some of his aides, some of them crossing any line that any of us should have about civil discourse."

There are few political relationships more fraught than that between American Jews and Israel. As the national emblem of Jewish identity, Israel is seen by many Jews as sacrosanct. Some Jews passionately identify with Israel and its policies and angrily reject any criticism of it, often attacking critics as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. But even those Jews who privately harbor misgivings about Israel's policies often keep their opinions to themselves because the subject is simply too charged. Anyone, Jewish or not, who dares to say or write anything critical about Israel quickly learns that they have poked a hornet's nest.

What makes the subject especially sensitive -- and keeps many people, including most journalists, from going anywhere near it -- is that, far more than any other issue, it splits the progressive and intellectual community. Speaking more plainly, it divides one's friends and colleagues -- sometimes even one's family. Jews have always played a prominent role in America's progressive and intellectual circles. And if you have a connection to those circles and you criticize Israel, you are almost certain to deeply offend or anger someone whom you respect, like, and have many things in common with. Small wonder that, as former Israeli official Daniel Levy told me, most people, Jews and non-Jews alike, "decide to sit this one out. It's more of a headache than it's worth."

The taboo isn't only enforced by such personal matters, of course. It's also aggressively enforced by powerful Jewish lobbies like AIPAC, mainstream Jewish groups and leaders like Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who claim to speak on behalf of all Jews. Congress, intimidated by the moral authority (or moral blackmail) and political clout wielded by these organizations and afraid of offending Jewish donors who are a major force in Democratic fundraising, invariably falls into line. The fact that Congress has staked out a position on Israel to the right of the Bush administration's pretty much says it all. The default right-wing position on Israel is holy writ in American politics, and explains why Hillary Clinton can pander to the right-wing pro-Israel lobby by casually threatening to "totally obliterate" Iran -- vaporize 70 million men, women and children who have nothing to do with their leaders' anti-Israeli posturings -- without paying any political price for such irresponsible statements.

Nothing is more urgently needed in our political discourse than for the taboo against speaking forthrightly about Israel to be overthrown. After all, notwithstanding its profound connection to some American Jews and its (partly justified) status as a beloved icon with whom we have a "special relationship," Israel is not the 51st state -- it is a foreign country, and one smack-dab in the center of the Middle East, a region in which we have some considerable national interest. The enforced silence about Israel has prevented us from thinking clearly about the Middle East, and helped enable both the disastrous war we are now fighting in Iraq and a possible future one against Iran.

But because of the highly sensitive nature of the subject, American Jews must lead the way.

Which is why the birth of J Street, whose goal Ben-Ami says is "to redefine what it means to be pro-Israel," is cause for unalloyed celebration. "Over the course of a quarter century of doing American politics, I've seen the way in which the Israel issue plays out," Ben-Ami said in a phone interview from J Street's Washington, D.C., office. "And it greatly disturbs me and it greatly disturbs a very large number of progressive American Jews, who believe very strongly in Israel but feel that the way in which the American Jewish community's voice has been expressed on these issues doesn't reflect our values or opinions. Only the voices of the far right have been heard. They've really hijacked the debate when it comes to Israel."

That debate has been skewed, Ben-Ami said, because most liberal American Jews have a broad range of interests and are not obsessed with Israel, whereas their hard-line counterparts tend to be focused on that single issue. This means that although the loudest voices on Israel come from the right, large numbers of American Jews hold much more moderate positions. "The policies we believe in -- a two-state solution with a broad-based land for peace agreement; pursuing diplomatic solutions with places like Iran before military ones -- are positions that are broadly held by large numbers of people, Jewish or not," Ben-Ami said. "I hesitate to quantify and say that a majority of American Jews would agree with our positions, but if it isn't a majority, I think it's a very large minority. And so at a minimum, what we can succeed in doing is busting the myth that people who think like this are all alone."

But J Street is doing more than providing cover for liberal American Jews: It's bringing money to the table. J Street is an advocacy and educational group, but more important, it is a political action committee -- a PAC. This means that, unlike the existing (and admirable) liberal advocacy Jewish organizations like the Israel Policy Forum, Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, J Street will be a true political player, able to provide financial support to members of Congress who dare to defy the right-wing Israel lobby and work to defeat others who support destructive Israeli policies. Equally important, it plans to educate politicians that many Jewish donors don't expect unquestioning fealty to Israel in exchange for their contributions -- what Ben-Ami calls "connecting the dots."

J Street's first-year budget is a modest $1.5 million, but the Internet revolution in politics has changed the rules of the game. Its founders hope to raise significant money online, following in the wildly successful footsteps of MoveOn and the Obama campaign.

M.J. Rosenberg, the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, a liberal education and advocacy group that he says will work "in parallel" with J Street, said he thought the new organization had a good chance of succeeding.

"They're primarily a PAC, so I think they can have success because they're tapping into politics," Rosenberg said. "Politics is very attractive right now. They're going to follow the Obama/MoveOn model, with a heavy Web presence, trying to create a mass movement. They're really going to go after the young people, which is something the mainstream organizations don't do."

J Street will release its first round of political endorsements in June. It will start out focusing on a few key, cherry-picked races, featuring progressive candidates running against vulnerable incumbents whom the new PAC deems irresponsibly hawkish on Israel. If its involvement makes a difference in even one race, it will send a powerful message to members of Congress that their positions on the Middle East will result in both carrots and sticks.

Rosenberg said J Street's potential ability to raise funds could make a crucial difference in Congress. "Take the example of Congresswoman Betty McCollum, from Minnesota," Rosenberg said. "She came out strongly against an AIPAC bill blocking aid to the Palestinians, so AIPAC attacked her in her district and said she was an apologist for terrorists. In the end AIPAC couldn't do anything. She prevailed. But now, the way it could work is, if she gets the word from some donor that 'you're going to lose $25,000,' she can pick up the phone and call J Street and say, 'I'm down $25,000 because I stuck my neck out on this issue.' And they'll say, 'We'll make it up, and you'll have $30,000.' I mean, that never existed before. And it really can make a difference.

"The other thing is, even some of these people who take a really hard line on these issues, when you wave $2,000 checks in front of them, they might decide that they don't really feel the necessity to say this crazy stuff," Rosenberg said. "There's never been a downside to Palestine-bashing on the part of members of Congress. And now they're going to be identified. It can only be good."

One of the things that frustrates progressive Jews, Rosenberg said, is that Jewish Democrats like Jerry Nadler or Barney Frank are liberal on every issue except Israel, I asked him if the existence of an organization like J Street might lead such politicians to moderate their hawkish line on Israel. "Oh, no doubt. I think they very rarely get challenged from the left," Rosenberg said. "They hear from the right-wing AIPAC crowd on this issue, but the people on the left talk to them about other issues. They don't talk to them about this one. So I think all it takes is them hearing that this is what their constituents want, and I think that they will moderate their positions."

For his part, Ben-Ami said politicians on the Hill had reacted extremely positively to J Street's launch. "It is remarkable, the level of enthusiasm that people have for the idea that somebody's going to step in here and stop the madness," he said. "Look, America is Israel's friend. It's pretty locked up. About the only thing that we can do to drive America away from Israel is to press our luck too far, keep on saying 'Is it pro-Israel enough?,' keep demanding that we have 32 preamble clauses that say how bad the Palestinians are." Ben-Ami said the politicians he spoke to wanted to make sure that the U.S.-Israel relationship was not damaged by such overkill, and were grateful that a new organization would "give them a little bit of relief from this constant pressure."

J Street's founders boast strong ties to Israel -- essential to deflect attacks from the hawkish pro-Israel right. Executive director Ben-Ami, who in addition to working for Dean was President Bill Clinton's deputy domestic policy adviser, has deep ties to the Jewish state: His grandparents were among the founders of Tel Aviv, his parents were Israelis, his family suffered in the Holocaust, and he has lived in Israel, where he was almost blown up in a Jerusalem terror attack. Daniel Levy, who also played a key role in J Street's creation, is a former high-ranking Israeli official who took part in the 2001 Taba negotiations with the Palestinians and was the lead Israeli drafter of the groundbreaking Geneva Initiative. J Street also boasts the endorsement of some heavy hitters from the Israeli political, military and security establishment, including a former senior member of Mossad, a former foreign minister and the former chief of staff of the Israeli army.

I asked Ben-Ami if he really thought his organization could change a political reality that has endured for decades and seems locked in stone. "I am deeply optimistic," Ben-Ami said. In addition to the fact that many Jews agreed with J Street's policies, he pointed out that the "very visible" right- wing Jewish support for the Iraq war and for a possible future war against Iran was a powerful motivation for liberal American Jews to speak out.

"Some of the loudest voices that are beating the war drums are those of either neocons who happen to be Jewish, or established Jewish community leaders who happen to be neocons. This is very disturbing," Ben-Ami said. "And it applies not only to Israel but to the whole Middle East -- whether it's American policy towards Iran, or maybe it had some role in the leadup to the war in Iraq. And I think this has made people say, 'Wait a minute, I may never have been interested in Israel, I may never have been interested in the Jewish community, but these folks are speaking in my name and driving us towards wars and policies that I don't want to be responsible for.'"

Daniel Levy, the former Israeli negotiator, said J Street would also try to make hay off of mainstream Jewish organizations' cynical embrace of far-right Christian bigots like Rev. John Hagee. "John Hagee will be a bit of a poster boy for us, a very useful stick to beat the bastards with," Levy said. "There's a Jewish constituency out there that's extremely uncomfortable about making common cause with people like Hagee. He's a total bigot, anti-gay, anti-women's rights, anti-Catholic, and suddenly he's the best friend of the Jews? It's not like Israel and the Jews are some kind of hunted group, and but for Hagee America would be bombing Israel and cutting off aid. It's a disgrace, it's dangerous to make common cause with those people. They're not your real allies. The fact that John Hagee and Christians United for Israel, which has Gary Bauer and all the worst people in the world on their board, unite to 'honor Israel' around the country, should have the Jewish community up in arms."

Of course, the reason some American Jews have embraced the likes of Hagee -- or George W. Bush, for that matter -- is that they regard Israel's security as paramount, and feel that any criticism from the United States endangers it. Ben-Ami said he understood and sympathized with this attitude, but that it led to policies that were both unjust and ultimately bad for Israel. "Look, I lost my grandmother in the Holocaust, I've lost whole branches of my family. I understand that people come out of an experience that was searing. Literally. And that's something that would shape your mind-set as a community -- the desire for safety and a place where we would be free from that. But we're not doing a very good job at creating a secure home by conducting ourselves in this manner towards another people that are a minority, and that are powerless, and treating them in a way that forces them essentially to become terrorists, and leads to us being again in danger."

Another key reason that J Street is urgently needed, Ben-Ami said, is to heal a dangerous and growing schism in the Jewish community. "There's a real generational issue here," he said. "Look at the young people. The Jewish community is a fairly progressive community and always has been. If you look at the environmental community today, if you look at the people working on Darfur, on Tibet, a large percentage of them are Jews. So the question is what's going to happen to these people. If we say that in order to be tied to the established Jewish community, either through federations or synagogues or any institutional entity, you have to go through a litmus test of 'do you stand with Israel right or wrong on everything' before we'll let you feel comfortable in our institutions, we're going to drive all these people away. We're going to lose an entire generation."

With its small war chest and staff of four, J Street faces long odds. Its founders say that many American Jews, especially in New York and Los Angeles, have offered them support, but acknowledge that they're going more on a hunch that their time has come than anything else. The fledgling organization is challenging not only the vast institutional and financial muscle of lobbies like AIPAC, but a daunting array of psychological and emotional hurdles within the Jewish community. But if it succeeds, it could make an significant, perhaps even a decisive, difference in American Mideast policy. It could heal a growing rift within the American Jewish community. And it could help save Israel from itself. Stay tuned.

By Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

MORE FROM Gary Kamiya

Related Topics ------------------------------------------