American Jews Israel J Street Jewish identity Palestinians Philip Weiss Progressive Jews

MondoWeiss assails Jewish identity politics, again

Several recent posts on MondoWeiss decry the fact that the overwhelming majority of attendees at the recent J Street conference were (horror of horrors!) Jews, or that they looked at the conflict through a distinctly (gasp!) Jewish prism and dared to discuss (how appalling!) Jewish values.

Lynn Gottleib asks “do we really need another Jewish only road?”

J Street was a place where Jews talked to Jews about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Few Palestinians were present. Apparently they didn’t make it through the checkpoint. The narrative of J Street, like most Jewish narratives about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, reflects the nature of the conflict as seen through a Jewish lens: Palestinians are physically absent. A Jew who seeks to express her activism in solidarity with Palestinians is in danger of loosing her ‘I love Israel’ card at a mainstream Jewish checkpoint. There were checkpoints at J Street.

…How can we think that calling together 1,500 Jewish progressives with few Palestinians present will yield a realistic picture of how and what kind of struggle we might conduct in the name of peace? Only in partnership with Palestinians can we ever hope to transform the current conflict.

Philip Weiss concurs:

[T]his conversation (Israel/Palestine) also taps into Arab-Americans’ deepest personal feelings of family, history and community, as Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb reminded us. But they had a lesser role in the conference, just as they have no role in the political force that J Street says it’s taking on…I remember that American blacks played a key role in ending apartheid in South Africa, out of solidarity. J Street is not including the Palestinian solidarity folks this time around. And just imagine if Palestinians were included. J Street would have to change its line on Goldstone.

How can I count the ways in which this premise is wrongheaded? It ignores the political reality in Washington, where, like it or not, identity politics is a game that must be played. For years, the political elite believed that just one segment of the American Jewish community –the conventional Israel lobby– was politically consequential. To develop a political counterweight, it is essential to show them that there are Jewish voters and Jewish donors who disagree with that lobby on some–although not all–points. That was the purpose of the conference. It was not intended to take on the MUCH harder task of forging a broad-based movement with Palestinians. These criticisms are the expressions of people who have no practical responsibility for organizing anything other than their own thoughts. Their complaints boil down to the idea that the J Street ccnference, one of the most ambitious political undertakings in my memory, was simply not ambitious ENOUGH!
Of course a broader-based movement of Jews, Muslims and Christians is vitally important. But you need to organize the union in your own industry before you can be in solidarity with workers in other industries.

Also, Weiss ignores the fact that, just before the conference, American Jewish leaders under the auspices of J Street met with Arab American leaders gathered together for a conference of the Arab American Institute. I was there. There were heartfelt pledges to work together. It was stirring. It offered hope for just the sort of “movement” Weiss wants. Would he also criticize the AAI for meeting separately?

These objections against a conference of Jews betray something deeper, I think, something more than just a practical objection to the organizing principles of one event. They betray a discomfort and sometimes even an outright hostility to the very idea of a Jewish people, of Jewish community, of Jewish bonds. That is one of the recurring themes in Philip Weiss’ commentaries and in the expressed sentiments of too many far leftists when they look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In other commentaries on the J Street conference, Weiss complained about all the “handwringing” and the agonized conversations about the impact of events in the Middle East on “Jewish identity.” He and his fans have no patience or tolerance for anyone who cares about Jewish identity while Palestinians are stranded at West Bank checkpoints or boycotted in Gaza. Figuring out who we are, and our place in the cosmos, and the nature of our own community, is treated as a kind of bourgeois indulgence rather than a critically important step in the process of making common cause with others.

I’ve noted this before. One of the best posts on this blog was an early one called “The far left’s discomfort with Jewish identity.” A brief excerpt:

Identifying oneself as part of the Jewish people is an expression of a simple, deep-seated human yearning for community, for ties with those outside of ourselves. What is wrong with that?…

…To most American Jews, the quest to define their Jewish identity and find solace in Jewish community is one way to remain sane and whole. To many of them, it also involves an embrace of principles rooted in ancient texts that, in fact, were the first to articulate many of the values that Phil Weiss and the modern left also embrace, including the injunctions to welcome strangers, pursue justice and “seek peace and pursue it.”

Much of my own Jewish identity is defined by an effort to fix what is broken in Israel and Palestine. This effort involves participation in a global community of progressive Zionists who are fighting settlement expansion, urging the Israeli government to stop taking steps that could preclude a 2-state solution and trying to build alternatives to the conventional pro-Israel lobby in America. If the price of building a community that can achieve those ends is a certain amount of parochialism, I’ll pay it.

Without a certain amount of parochialism, in fact, without the angry sense that human rights violations in the territories are perpetrated in our name, without the conviction that the Jewish community–OUR community–has been misrepresented in DC for far too long, the movement to circumvent the conventional Israel lobby would be less motivated, less effective. And, in the long run, that will hurt the Palestinian cause.

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