AIPAC American foreign policy American Jews Israel Israel lobby Middle East peace process Palestinians

Don’t just sit there and complain about American policy. Help J Street

At long last, the urgently-needed “J Street” project has been officially launched. It has generated a great deal of media attention, much of it positive, but the most important story by far was in yesterday’s Washington Post:

Some of the country’s most prominent Jewish liberals are forming a political action committee and lobbying group aimed at dislodging what they consider the excessive hold of neoconservatives and evangelical Christians on U.S. policy toward Israel.

The group is planning to channel political contributions to favored candidates in perhaps a half-dozen campaigns this fall, the first time an organization focused on Israel has tried to play such a direct role in the political process, according to its organizers.

Organizers said they hope those efforts, coupled with a separate lobbying group that will focus on promoting an Arab-Israeli peace settlement, will fill a void left by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and other Jewish groups that they contend have tilted to the right in recent years.

The fact that it passed the Post’s litmus test as a real story will prod the political elite to take notice, even before it accomplishes anything concrete. Of course, the fact that it is backed by some prominent Democratic donors and fundraisers is even more important.

I am forced to restrain myself from writing too much on this initiative. That is mostly because I am writing a book on the domestic political context of American Middle East policy, and I don’t want to give away too much of what I’ve discovered in advance. Even if I wanted to, my publisher, Potomac Books, wouldn’t let me. But I have been observing the various phases J Street has gone through and know something about the attendant birth pains. Jeremy Ben-Ami (its executive director). Daniel Levy (the tireless Israeli peace promoter) and others who have worked so hard to make this happen deserve not just acclaim, but gratitude from everyone who see no contradiction between being pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-American.

Gershom Gorenberg, the gifted Israeli writer, succinctly sums up why J Street is important:

Reading the front page of my Hebrew paper last weekend, I tried to imagine an American senator saying something like, “I have great respect for the Israel Defense Forces. But eventually Israel will have to leave the West Bank. In its heart, the Israeli nation has already decided. The Israeli army should not create a rift with Palestinians that haunts us for generations. Think of Palestinians stripped at the checkpoints only because there might be terrorists among them. Think of those who stand for hours at checkpoints because we fear that a booby-trapped car could pass through.”

I didn’t have to make up that speech from scratch, because I was reading about Ehud Olmert saying words very similar to a forum of IDF commanders in the West Bank. The prime minister could say that despite their short-term security benefits, West Bank checkpoints have long-term moral and strategic costs for Israel. How many pro-Israel members of Congress fear that if they voiced the same concerns, AIPAC would soon be encouraging donations to their next primary opponent.

One of the most daunting challenges facing the American Jewish peace camp is that it is very difficult to give supporters concrete and useful things to do, other than write a check to organizations within that peace camp, or support activists in Israel, or sign petitions and letters about legislation and other Beltway business. J Street is something else, something new. In addition to wandering around your search engine and reading all about it, please please please make sure to go to its web site and help it succeed.

Kevin, MM, John Sinclair, and all of the other contributors who have never met a Zionist you could tolerate, I don’t want you to feel excluded. Please tell us if you think this initiative is misguided. And if you believe it is, please suggest another political path, another way to get from A [the intolerable status quo] to B [an end to Palestinian suffering].

23 thoughts on “Don’t just sit there and complain about American policy. Help J Street

  1. I looked at the reactions on MondoWeiss. The J-Streeters are accused of all kinds of nefarious crimes, including “diversionary tactics” to prevent Zionists from facing the “truth” about themselves.

    The “truth” is that Israelis aren’t going anywhere. And, as you’ve said in the past, Dan, people who press for a one-state solution and an Israeli admission that they have no right to be there are doing more harm than good to the Palestinians they want to help…They have no political program, just a platform to scream from.

  2. That’s about what I’d figured, Teddy. The Zionist Power Configuration (James Petras’s phrase, just for a change of pace) is thought of as a loose coalition/multi-headed hydra. To an antisemite, one more head is going in the wrong direction. It’s Jewish Communism to compete with Jewish Capitalism. Coke and Pepsi, Sam Goody and Musicland, it’s an illusion of choice.

    I wish we could do better in explaining why AIPAC is AIPAC.

  3. How does this new group differ from Americans For Peace Now? If people are not rallying behind APN then why would they rally behind this new group?

    My late mother Elizabeth Wyner Mark was on APNs board.

    I am wary of forming a plethora of new groups when there are existing ones with existing infrastructures. Operating a single office can cost hundreds of thousands.

    Before anyone applauds this new group one ought to ask whether it is money effectively spent.

  4. The difference, so I understand, is that the new group is registered as a lobby. Apparently Peace Now and a thousand other organizations are merely non-profits. Why that matters so very much, I’m not the one to ask.

  5. Jonathan, you’re right. All the left of center, pro-Israel groups “lobby,” especially Brit Tzedek, which has developed a growing, grassroots presence. But you are also correct that the amount they can do is “limited” and they must be cautious because of IRS restrictions. As I understand it, what is contemplated here is some of the same-old, same-old, working in tandem with existing groups, but also more of a digital, Moveon.org effort. That said, it is the PAC that makes this different, the ability to reward sensible politicians and chip away at their inhibitions, and fears.

    I must say I am surprised by the tone of your comment and question. The following sounds like you’re one of us, the pro-Israel peace camp that sometimes tries to counteract AIPAC and the more conventional Israel lobby. If so, I am glad to hear it:

    “I am wary of forming a plethora of new groups when there are existing ones with existing infrastructures. Operating a single office can cost hundreds of thousands.

    Before anyone applauds this new group one ought to ask whether it is money effectively spent.”

  6. I hate to say it, Dan, but it is hard for me to believe that a great deal of money donated to the existing dovish groups would be “money well spent.” You and yours have fought the good fight. Kol hakavod. But what, precisely, have these groups accomplished? I don’t mean to sound snide or hostile, just realistic.

  7. I will welcome any initiative that might counter the “pro-Likud” line that is currently in effect today in the US (and other Western nations). Daniel Levy is really on the ball with most of the developments in Israel and also how most American politicians respond to such policies so I am a bit optimistic, even at this early stage of J Street’s existence.

    Richard Silverstein had a post on J Street on Comment Is Free: that it will figure within AIPAC’s strategy but doing the opposite, ie supporting a candidate that is facing a weaker opponent. I do not believe that those other lobbies that has been spoken of can do this or is rather ineffective in doing so.

    What is also a difference is the list of names that is associated with J Street. This could be because of the current atmosphere of “change” with Obama and the recent publications of Walt and Mearsheimer’s book and essay. In addition, J Street is aiming at the younger generation that will provide a good counterbalance to the old guard that has had total control for decades. Zionism’s hold is tenuous at best for the younger Jews and J Street could be a great representative of that.

    Whether it will be effective or not is a matter for historians of the future. Right now I am backing it.

  8. I also welcome it, as a petulant non-Zionist 🙂 This does seem like the sort of endeavor that could get support from people with various levels of affinity with Israel, including no affinity at all (like Soros?). It will be a success if, when the time comes to oppose a one-sided bill AIPAC is pushing, they get many more Members of Congress to stand up and say, “Enough! No more!” Until that happens, the jury will be out…

  9. “””the pro-Israel peace camp that sometimes tries to counteract AIPAC and the more conventional Israel lobby. If so, I am glad to hear it”””

    Actually, I am not aware of anything that AIPAC has done that I disagree with.

    However, another pro-Israel group would be a good thing. Since I was aware of APN through my mother I questioned the need for another group that competed with it for the same resources.

    My father supports APN financially now. And I wonder why people who don’t support APN financially are going to support JStreet.

    Also, APN is one of 100 groups and individuals that have a seat on AIPAC. This year I was at an event it had in honor of my mother’s memory and don’t even recall AIPAC being mentioned.

  10. Jonathan,
    Hopefully, the new lobby can coordinate between its constituent organizations such as APN, Brit Tzedek, and Israel Policy Forum as well as MeretzUSA without competing with them. APN uses most of its funds to support settlement monitoring activities in the territories and other Peace Now activities in Israel. Brit Tzedek is in to building a grassroots peace organization. I’m not that familiar with IPF, and MeretzUSA mainly fundraises on behalf of Meretz. By coordinating among these organizations it can hopefully tap into their supporters for fundraising while using their memberships for countering AIPAC in lobbying Congress.

  11. Here is the thing. I myself, and a lot of people I know spend a lot of time and money supporting aipac and similar endeavors, Friends of the IDF, JNF, things like that. What exactly is this new group going to do or advocate that hasn’t been thought of or tried. They have exactly no leverage on the Arabs, none. All they can do is chip away at the Pro-Israel concensus in this country,. Their not for anything except some nebulous vision of the lions siting down with the lambs.

  12. Ben-Ami mentioned in an interview that J-Street is currently operating out of his basement, and online, so hopefully the ‘hundreds of thousands’ saved can be put to good use.

    The space J Street aims to occupy is related to the status of J Street PAC as a PAC and J Street as a 501(c)(4). IPF is more of a think tank, Brit Tzedek a network of the grassroots, J Street is explicitly political in ways the other groups can’t be.

  13. J Street is a maturation.

    An adult that has the resources to be ethically concerned beyond mere survival and tangible responsibility.

    What it means to BE Jewish.

  14. Bill, you wrote

    “Their (sic) not for anything except some nebulous vision of the lions siting down with the lambs.”

    They, and I, have a different definition of what it means to be pro-Israel than you do. Why is favoring U.S.negotiation with Iran or Israel talking to Hamas in order to work out a ceasefire “sitting down” with lions? You either whip and and starve a hostile lion or you talk calmly to it and try to give it incentives to be less confrontational. But if you try the latter, you keep careful watch on the lion. You are ready to defend yourself in case talking doesn’t work.

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