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Philip Weiss attacks J Street. Why he’s wrong.

Philip Weiss and I have been communicating after he attacked J Street on MondoWeiss. A good many issues were broached, but one of his arguments is that J Street ought to be appealing to a much broader constituency than American Jews who feel some attachment to Israel. Some of his acolytes, true to form, said there was no fundamental difference between J Street and AIPAC, we are all just racist Zionist Jews providing cover for Israeli oppression (and, true to form, some said we are all disloyal to America). Here is my response (slightly revised from the one I sent Phil):


The Israeli-Arab problem is America’s problem. Solving it can and should be a high priority for all Americans. It is critically important for a wider, more broad-based coalition of Americans –Jewish and non-Jewish—to counter the right wing Jewish and Christian Zionist furies. I completely agree with you. Church groups, Arab American organizations, unions, everyone who wants evenhanded American diplomacy should weigh in. Some of them already do, often working side by side with my camp: e.g., Churches for Middle East Peace, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, centrist and left wing evangelicals trying to show that John Hagee doesn’t speak for them, the Arab American Institute and the American Task Force on Palestine.

There is nothing stopping you and all of your fans from organizing all Americans. Go ahead, if you want to.

But you will notice that all of those other groups are organizations based on specific religious or ethnic identities. We all understand that it is in America’s interests to end the nightmare of the occupation, but we all bring other aspects of our identities to the table.

Some of your fans resent the whole idea of American Jews having ANYTHING to say about this issue. Do they also think those who are organized as Catholics, or Arab Americans, should have no say? Or should self-identified Jews just step back and shut up and let “real Americans” fix the mess the Zionists have made? Guess what? Even if that proposition weren’t offensive and racist, it would a disastrous political move.

Right now, the political reality is that the conventional Israel lobby in the Jewish community has persuaded politicians that it speaks on behalf of the only Jews who matter, and that retribution awaits those who cross it. (The Christian Zionists have had similar successes with some in Congress, so that evangelicals like the Sojourners also don’t get taken seriously enough).

One way to help change this political reality is to demonstrate that another, large, vocal, politically engaged part of the American Jewish community exists, and that it will support American leaders who don’t always do what the conventional lobby wants. That is not the only thing that needs to be done. But it is one of the things that needs to be done.

I can’t possibly convince the people who comment on your posts why there is a big difference between AIPAC and J Street or Brit Tzedek ‘v Shalom or APN. I, and others, have been trying to counter AIPAC and the right wing of the Jewish community for many years. We’ve lost. We’ve blown it. But we’ve tried. I was among those who called for the U..S. and Israel to talk to the PLO long before the Oslo years. APN, on whose board I serve, was one of the few Jewish groups that supported GH Bush on penalizing Israel financially because of its stance on the settlements. As far as I’m concerned, targeted financial penalties should be on the table now. Did I and others make mistakes? Zillions of them. But if people see no distinction between those positions and AIPAC’s, there is no sense in discussing it further.

Right now, though I have a very specific goal that J Street and others share. The specific goal is to help create a political environment in which the next president feels like he has the leeway to exert necessary pressures on both sides, rather than just one side, of the Israeli-Arab conflict. It is to give the president the sense that he will have broad-based support from a vocal, strong constituency if, for example, he tells the Israelis to stop the madness of continuing settlement expansion and, if they don’t, imposes real costs.

And yes, of course, just stopping expansion is not the end goal; getting the settlers out of there is the goal, but the freeze has to be the first step. The next step will be more difficult but that has to be taken, too.

The mission in life of some American Jews is to prevent American pressure of any kind on any Israeli government. All the other policy matters you are talking about –e.g, whether they want Jerusalem to be united or not—are important, but they are much less important than whether the U.S. has the diplomatic flexibility it needs to take a balanced approach instead of a one-sided approach.

As you know, I have been hard at work writing a book about all of this. And I can tell you that based on my own, rather painful experience in the American Jewish trenches and a good many interviews with members of Congress, their aides, and American officials from several administrations, I KNOW the following to be true: politicians need to hear from many more American Jews, including political contributors, who will say that AIPAC and the rest of the conventional lobby do not speak for them. That is the political reality. That is the battle J Street and its allies are trying to wage. But it is only part of the battle. I hope there is a broader coalition of Americans, speaking together as Americans, who press our government to get more engaged in this conflict and do what needs to be done in order to preserve the possibility of two states. Be my guest. Go out and organize!

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