Under attack by mudslinging Jewish conservatives, J Street, the 18-month-old pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy and lobby group kicks off its first annual conference tonight in Washington. The purpose of the conservative attacks, it appears, is to send J Street scrambling to defend and explain itself, enabling conservatives to label J Street’s inaugural conference a failure.
But it is the conservatives who are backed into a corner by J Street, not the other way around. Mounting evidence that J Street represents a growing segment, and on many issues a majority of American Jews, is driving the conservatives mad. The challenge to their long-standing monopoly on defining what it means to be a proper Jew and “pro-Israel” has unleashed vicious witch-hunting and guilt-by-association tactics to discredit a rival.
The conservatives, like Weekly Standard contributor Michael Goldfarb (formerly a John McCain campaign spokeperson), former American Israel Public Affairs Committee staffer Lenny Ben-David, and the Zionist group Stand With Us, have engaged in the worst kind of bogus litmus tests and smear tactics in their quest to undermine J Street’s credibility.
Goldfarb led the charge by questioning the involvement of members of Congress on the conference host committee, leading several, including both of New York’s Democratic Senators, Charles Schumer and Kristin Gillibrand, to back out.
The comments of Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, that J Street could “impair Israel’s interests,” followed by his refusal to attend the conference, fueled conservatives’ fire. Their zeal for tallying slights against J Street wasn’t tempered by Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni’s polite RSVP to J Street’s executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, which read, “the discussion within the pro-Israel community of what best advances Israel’s cause should be inclusive and broad enough to encompass a variety of views, provided it is conducted in a respectful and legitimate manner. Along the way, we may not agree on everything but I do believe that we must ensure that what unites us as Jews who are committed to Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, and democratic State is far greater than what separates us.”
Ben-David, the former AIPAC staffer, labeled any support to J Street from Muslim or Arab donors as an automatic taint, and launched a tirade against the support of J Street’s “allied organizations,” and in particular peace advocate Rebecca Abou-Chedid. It’s hard to imagine a more disgusting — and revealing — maneuver than to claim that Arab or Muslim support instantly undermines an organization’s “pro-Israel” credibility.
Stand With Us accused J Street of endorsing the premise of the book The Israel Lobby, which Ben-Ami flatly rejected in an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg last week. Ben-Ami dismissed calls for him to “renounce” the supportive comments of one of the book’s authors, Stephen Walt, saying that “it really smacks of witch-hunts and thought-police. It’s not my business to ‘renounce.'” And Ben-Ami added his own critique of the book, saying that “this notion that somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes, this is when you cross that line. I believe that the analysis in the Walt and [John] Mearsheimer book and article crossed that line, but this doesn’t take away from my view that this is an incredibly effective lobby.”
It’s the lobby’s effectiveness in monopolizing what it means to be “pro-Israel” that J Street was intended to counteract. That members of Congress are so easily swayed into believing that J Street is somehow detrimental to Israel’s interests is a testament to the “Israel lobby’s” ongoing effectiveness in shaping the thinking of elected officials, even if it’s out of step with most American Jews.
Goldfarb’s most recent calumny pits Armageddon-hunting pastor John Hagee and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel against J Street. For Goldfarb (whose former boss, McCain, was driven to reject Hagee’s endorsement because of, among other things, Hagee’s suggestions that the Holocaust was part of God’s plan for the Jews) Hagee’s fundraising for interests in the occupied territories is apparently evidence of his devotion to Israel’s survival. Goldfarb lauded Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, for choosing Hagee’s Christians United for Israel’s (CUFI) “Night to Honor Israel” over the J Street conference, and attacking J Street for questioning Hagee’s “pro-Israel bona fides.”
I’ve been to the Night to Honor Israel at Hagee’s church, listened to his sermons about why evangelicals should support Israel, and read many of his books. Hagee loves Israel as the site of a future kingdom of Christians, not as a Jewish democratic state. I’ve sparred with Jews who embrace Hagee’s support because, variously, Israel needs all the friends it can get, or Hagee’s apocalyptic visions are a fantasy that will never come to pass, but such head-in-the-sand alliances undermine peace and, contrary to CUFI’s talking points, hardly demonstrate love for Jews or a democratic state of Israel. Hagee believes that cycle of Jewish holidays is nothing more than a parable for the birth, death, resurrection, and return of Christ — and any peace plan with the Palestinians, in his view, diverts world events from this prophetically determined course.
I once sent a rabbi a transcription of the sermon Hagee gave on the Jewish holidays the morning of the 2006 Night to Honor Israel. The rabbi — only half-jokingly — pronounced it “Roger Rabbit midrash.” Hagee is no theologian, no peace partner, and no friend of Israel. I don’t know what Wiesel is thinking, but his attendance at CUFI should not be taken seriously as a measure of which organization is a legitimate supporter of peace.
I’ll be covering the J Street conference and blogging it right here. Stay tuned.