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From Rabbi Don Quixote: Why the new Middle East peace lobby has a chance

The scoffers are coming out of the woodwork. After all the hoopla over the new J Street project, in separate conversations, two friends have expressed skepticism about the Jewish peace camp’s ability to offer more than token resistance to AIPAC’s lobbying juggernaut.

AIPAC has 100,000 members and its operating budget is somewhere between $40-50 million. The J Street organization has a comparatively paltry $1.5 million budget. Other dovish American Jewish groups –like Brit Tzedek v’ Shalom, Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, Meretz USA and Ameinu– have a fraction of the resources and membership that AIPAC and Jewish groups even further to the right can deploy.

So who in their right mind can believe there is even a slight chance that we can change anything? One of the scoffers called me “Rabbi Don Quixote.” Perhaps he’s tagged me correctly. But here are some reasons to believe:

1) First of all, the dovish Jewish organizations pushing for balanced, fair and creative American diplomacy in the Middile East are not alone. As I have pointed out a number of times in this space, they have increasingly worked in tandem on legislative initiatives with Churches for Middle East Peace -which represents most of the mainline Protestant denominations as well as other Christians- and Arab American organizations, including the American Task Force on Palestine and Arab American Institute.

That is a splendid development. This not just a Jewish issue or a Muslim issue or an Arab issue. This is an American issue, as Philip Weiss keeps insisting. (I disagree with much of what my old friend Weiss writes about American Jewry, but he’s certainly got that one right). Likeminded people from different faith groups who see no contradiction in being pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian and pro-American should be working hand in hand.

Moreover, every once in awhile, the great battleship of the Jewish Reform movement, the Religious Action Center, joins these little skiffs, and the armada becomes a bit more impressive.

2) An untold number of Congresspeople and their staffers are fed up with AIPAC. I know this because the information comes from someone who understands more about the agendas and moods of Democratic Representatives and Senators than anyone: Victor Kovner.

Kovner is the former Corporation Counsel of New York City under David Dinkins, one of the most active fundraisers for the Democratic party in New York City, a fellow board member of Americans for Peace Now and one of the key advisors to the people at J Street. At breakfast last week, he told me, “Some Members of Congress have felt intimidated and resentful, and have been forced to take positions against their better judgment, out of fear of retribution….”

Then this careful attorney, who does not say anything without carefully weighing its impact, uttered something delightfully bold, knowing full well that I would probably use it here and in my forthcoming book: “I would like to restore the First Amendment rights of Jewish Americans and non-Jewish Americans to speak their minds on Israel-Palestine issues, without being subjected to baseless, vicious calumnies.”

His comments gibe with my own observations as well as those of a former Congressional aide, who told me, “There is a lot of pent-up anger. Lots of staff and some Members curse the box that AIPAC puts them in. They feel like they are forced to take positions that they don’t believe are in the best interests of the U.S. or Israel…I don’t think that progressive voices in the Jewish community have demonstrated the ability to deliver political and financial support for people who step out.”

Asked what would happen if they did provide that support, the former aide, who is still a player in Washington, said, “It might really change the atmosphere around here because they would find Members welcoming them.”

I suspect this means that we don’t need to make nearly as much noise or donate nearly as much money as the conventional Israel lobby. The angry waters have been rising steadily, lapping against the dam, and perhaps it won’t take as much effort as is commonly assumed to open the floodgates.

3) If all goes well, at least within a few years, politicians will think twice before crossing the passionate moderates who want to give the next president the political leeway to lean on both sides of the conflict, rather than just one side. Members of Congress already think ten times before crossing AIPAC, fearing its wrath if they don’t sign whatever outrageous bill or “Dear Colleague” letter is plopped in front of them. But everyone can play that game. Here is Kovner, softer and more politic: “When somebody who might otherwise think that they would receive our support disappoints us on a particular issue, notwithstanding our efforts, there is always the possibility of opposing them in a primary or general election…Such activities would be quite ambitious at this point, when we are just getting started. But it’s possible.”

Some on the left are uncomfortable with using America’s deplorable campaign finance system to promote reasonable policies. But it makes little sense to wash our hands of it, to be Pollyannas. Too many Palestinians are waiting at too many checkpoints, too many kids in Sderot and Ashkelon are worried about Hamas rockets slamming into their schools. We don’t have time to wait until the rules of the game change. I say, let’s put the fear of J Street into a few centrist, waffling legislators!

There are other signs of hope. Or at least there are signs that it is not inconceivable to build consequential political support for the next president to be more evenhanded, more active, less constrained by interest groups yammering at the edge of his or her ears. I will offer a few more next time.

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