Changing the Jewish State and the State of Jews: J Street and the Future of Israel

I remember as a young child sitting in my family’s synagogue during “High Holiday” services excitedly waiting for “the talk.” This was the moment when the rabbi stopped leading prayers and some obviously important person in the community would speak for half an hour about one and only one topic: Israel.

I’m not sure why I liked it so much. Even if I didn’t stay for the whole talk, I remember the pride I always felt hearing about Israel’s numerous accomplishments, coupled with the fear that it could all be wiped away in a matter of minutes if Israel’s enemies had their way. I didn’t really know who Israel’s enemies were, and I don’t think they were even mentioned by name. It was just accepted that Israel was under mortal threat (this was around the time of the 1973 Yom Kippur War) and could trust no one but the United States and the American Jewish community for its security. Without our constant vigilance and support, our Israeli brethren would surely be thrown into the sea.

As soon as the talk was done, all the adults would take a blue and white envelope with tabs on it featuring ascending amounts of money, to be donated to some Israel-related cause. My father always folded over one of the small amounts—not enough to seem cheap, since he was a doctor and a “respected member of the community” (as my mother described him), but certainly not the amount some of his friends and colleagues donated.

I didn’t understand it then, but I think my father—born of Lithuanian immigrants, child of the Great Depression, a no-nonsense person who disdained ideologies of all types and never had a bad word to say about anyone regardless of race, creed or ethnicity—was a harbinger of the increasingly noticeable trend in the American Jewish community to look more critically at Israel and stop defining one’s communal and religious identification through unhesitant devotion to the Zionist cause.

Having grown up witnessing a lot of suffering and broken promises, my father instinctively distrusted anyone who pressed their case too hard and painted too rosy a picture of reality. He also felt there were enough problems in his own community that needed to be addressed to devote too much energy to his ancestral homeland.

Pro-Israel and Pro-Palestinian requires a new Jewish Identity

My father would have been Michael Oren’s worst nightmare. Oren, the current Israeli Ambassador to the United States, is clearly very worried about American Jews losing faith or even interest in Israel. As an American himself, he knows that while support for Israel is extremely broad within the Jewish community, it is not necessarily that deep, and has to be reinforced continually to insure it is there when needed.

And so, since his arrival as Ambassador, Oren has had a sharp eye out for dissent in the Jewish community, especially if it comes from within the “mainstream.” And it seems that no one frightens Oren more than J Street, the recently established “political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement.”

Since its establishment in 2008, J Street has received increasing levels of media attention for positioning itself as a liberal alternative to AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which describes itself as “America’s pro-Israel lobby.” Clearly J Street is trying to position itself as supporting peace at a time when a growing body of global and even American opinion sees Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories as frustrating that end.

Such a potentially antagonistic policy position puts it directly at odds with AIPAC, which has long been considered among the most powerful lobbies in Washington and the spearhead of the “Israel lobby” more broadly in the United States. With extremely close ties to leading politicians and policymakers and the fearsome ability to elect or defeat candidates based on their positions on Israel, AIPAC has for decades been able to help shape US foreign policy in the Middle East, and toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular, to insure both that it agrees with (or at least does not challenge) Israeli policies and is based on massive military aid towards the Jewish state.

In contrast, J Street considers itself win-win: “pro-Israel, pro-Palestinian and pro-American.” During the much-debated Israeli attack on Gaza last winter, J Street criticized not only Hamas’ rocket fire into Israel, but equally Israel’s “punishing a million-and-a-half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.” It also refused to support the Congressional resolution condemning the Goldstone Report that sharply criticized Israel’s actions in the Gaza war last winter.

More broadly, J Street argues that being pro-Israel requires being pro-Palestinian too.

Nothing in this position is terribly new, even inside the American Jewish community. For more than two decades, Tikkun magazine has been at the forefront of the Jewish Left, and of the peace movement more specifically. It and groups such as the Shalom Center, Jewish Voices for Peace, and other groups are in fact far more critical of Israel than J Street; and this is precisely what makes J Street a potentially serious threat not merely to the current Israeli government, but to Israel’s decades’-old blank check in Washington. By positioning itself as a “moderate” and pro-peace it hopes to win the support of American Jews and politicians who shy away from groups whose positions are considered too extreme for mainstream Jewish opinion (indeed J Street didn’t even invite Tikkun founder Michael Lerner to address its first convention in October).

But by mainstreaming the idea that Palestinians can be seen as having, at least to some degree “equal” rights to Israel; by raising Palestinians discursively to the same level as the the US-Israel relationship, and by stating that American Jews need to have empathy for Palestinians and not accept Israeli actions against them uncritically, it provides space for many American Jews to begin to ask questions that have long been shunned in the organized community; from excessive use of force and the penetrations of the separation wall deep into Palestinian territory to the reason for continued settlement expansion.

Because the “facts on the ground” in Israel/Palestine (a.k.a. the settlements) increasingly challenge the legitimacy of many Israeli policies, legitimizing the questioning of settlements can lead relatively quickly to a more direct challenge to Israeli policies, and from there, to a loss of support by both the Jewish community and the US government. Because of this, J Street has to be described as “distorting” the “truth” and representing a “left-wing agenda” that is not both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, but merely the latter. Indeed, for most leaders in the American Jewish community the very idea of Israeli and Palestinian interests or rights coinciding at any fundamental level is impossible to imagine.

Ambassador Oren clearly shares this view, which is why he recently described J Street as a “unique problem” and “out of the mainstream” of organized Jewish life. Oren argues that the organization “not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments.”

His words are in fact not exaggerations. No Israeli government has ever considered Palestinians as having anything close to equal rights within the territory of Eretz Yisrael/Palestine, and none have condoned anyone, particularly from the Diaspora Jewish community, openly criticizing its policies and actions. What makes J Street a “unique problem” is that in order to be simultaneously “pro” Israel and Palestinian people have to fundamentally change the very nature of their Jewish identity.

For over a century, Zionism has defined itself as an exclusivist Jewish national movement whose realization demanded the replacement, or at least displacement, of the indigenous Palestinian population—the very opposite of recognizing them as an equal partner for peace and sovereignty. Since the occupation of the West Bank, Israel’s biblical heartland, and the rise of the settlement movement, Israeli, and Jewish identity more broadly, has increasingly been transformed into what Tikkun’s Michael Lerner describes as a “Settler Judaism.”

He and other progressive Jewish thinkers have long argued that this historically new form of Judaism is in fact a form of idolatry because it places territory over the core Jewish ethical values. In so doing it has distorted the prophetic vision that defined Jewish identity and political commitment during the previous century.

And so Oren and other critics of J Street on the right are correct—at least partly—in arguing that J Street’s positions put the very “survival of the Jewish state” into question. Recognizing the full humanity and national aspirations of Palestinians would require a radical transformation of Israeli and Zionist identity, and with it a redefinition of what a “Jewish state” means. It would have to move away from a state that excludes full participation of non-Jews in its political, social, and economic life, and toward a much more typically American model—that is, one that places common citizenship and rights ahead of any ethnic or religious privileges. J Street would never say this, of course, but it’s hard to imagine a different outcome (indeed, some of the most militant leaders of the settlement movement in the 1970s and 1980s argued that ultimately Palestinians would have to be given full civil and political rights).

This dynamic is also a major problem for Israel because the country is continually becoming more conservative and religious, even as American Jews remain relatively liberal on most issues. As Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy recently argued, Israel is already a semi-halachic state; that is, a state based around orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. Increasingly right-wing settlers are moving into senior positions of the military, which could make it practically impossible for Israel ever to withdraw from enough of the West Bank to enable the creation of a territorially viable Palestinian state. Violence against Palestinians, whether directly deployed by the state or by “uncontrollable” settlers, remains constant and is having a clearly dehumanizing—and one could argue from a progressive perspective, “de-judaizing”—effect on Israeli identity.

Anti-Israel, to Some Degree

J Street cannot and will not change these dynamics on its own. And indeed, many on the more openly progressive Jewish left, who exist on the borderlines between Zionism and some form of post- or even anti-Zionist philosophy, are critical of many of J Street’s positions and discourse. Some argue that J Street is not being honest enough about Israeli policies and the need, not merely to support the Obama Administration’s peace efforts, but to be willing to put teeth behind them by threatening to cut off military aid to Israel if it doesn’t stop and withdraw most settlements and end the occupation.

In fact, the reality today is that to be “pro-Palestinian” in the sense of supporting their right to a sovereign and viable state demands, at least to a certain degree, being “anti-Israel” because the entire fabric of the Israeli state and its policies continue to work towards making such an eventuality impossible. It is Israel that holds much of the power in this conflict and Israel that remains in constant violation of international law with its ever-deepening occupation, and Israel that will have to change its very raison d’etre in many ways in order for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be resolved.

Israelis of course know this full well. This is one reason why they distrust President Obama so much. While he hasn’t pushed them yet, they understand that to cross the precipice to peace will require Israel to radically change its basic political, economic, and ideological structure, which means changing their identity, and that of most of the world’s Jews as well. The growing dominance of the settler movement and its Judaism in the country’s life has meant that even as a majority of Israeli Jews support the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital and the return of some refugees within Israel—more or less the minimum acceptable requirements for Palestinians—they understand that the cost of bringing this about would be so high, in terms of internal conflict and the loss of national cohesion that for more than half a century has been defined by a common enemy, that the calculus points to maintaining an occupation that ultimately costs the average Israeli less than a cup of Starbucks coffee each day. 

In order to get Israel to agree to a viable two-state solution, President Obama will likely have to pressure it in unprecedented ways—ways that Ambassador Oren is naturally trying to stop. J Street has so far not advocated anything more than “urging” Israel to behave more responsibly, but if the situation continues to deteriorate and a larger share of American Jews start questioning long-held assumptions about Israel’s responsibility for the conflict, J Street might join its more progressive counterparts in calling for more direct pressure, which would throw Israel into unprecedented turmoil. This is precisely why, by a margin of 55 to 42 percent in recent polling, Israelis declared that Obama doesn’t support Israel, and by an even wider margin of 54 to 36 percent believe he “does not share” their values. 

That may be true; but he clearly does share the values of the majority of American Jews, if not their leadership. My father, who had little tolerance for propagandists and ideologues in his own or other communities, would have shared these values, and supported a more robust move for peace even as he derided Obama for his lack of backbone so far. If more American Jews start thinking like him, J Street and its comrades to the left might well move from a problem to a nightmare for Ambassador Oren and his superiors in Tel Aviv.