Tuesday, March 1, 2011

J-Street, and the Popular Art of Not Seeing Israelis

J-Street has just had its second annual shindig. Most of the observers saw it through the lens of their expectations. Compare, for example, right-wing Jennifer Rubin with Haaretz reporter Natasha Mozgovaya. They were both in the same room, listening to the same speech, and we don't even know if the audience responded warmly when Dennis Ross told of America's steadfast support for Israel. Mozgovaya says the response was warm, Rubin says it was actually cold. This may well be representative of journalism in general these days; as regular readers of this blog will be only too aware by now, I don't often feel we're really being told reliable facts; the problem being that there's no obvious alternative to consuming media reports if we're interested in the world, short of traveling all the time and knowing all the languages and informing ourselves.

I've been at AIPAC shindigs before, and some differences are so obvious they can't be obfuscated away. First, the big ones are big. I was at one with 6,000 participants, and I'm told they're still growing. I was once at a smallish one, open only to major donors (and Israeli types) - even that one probably wasn't much smaller than this one seems to have been, but AIPAC would never have allowed themselves the mistake of holding a conference in a venue with room to spare for other parallel events. You organize whatever event you have in a location which makes it appear crowded. Elementary.

A second difference seems to be that AIPAC, being a lobby, puts the politicians very much in the center. They're paraded, lauded, honored - so that their constituents who like AIPAC will know they're on the right side. In all the descriptions I read this week about J-Street (I admit, I didn't read that many), no-one seems clear which politicians were there, if at all. On the contrary, some of the reporters seem to be saying J-Street isn't really a lobby, it's a Jewish organization where certain sorts of Jews find like-minded folks. Is this what's really happening?

A third difference, either a tiny detail or the entire story, depending on how you understand the world, is that the J-Street conference apparently either offered no kosher food, or people had to go looking for it (again, who do you believe?). At the AIPAC ceremonial dinners everyone, including the top-level national politicians such as senators or cabinet officers, all eat kosher because that's the only option on the menu.

Before explaining why I think the kosher thing is central, here's a rather fawning article about J-Street published by the NYT way back in September 2009, when the world was younger and different. How different? This different:
During the July meeting, held in the Roosevelt Room, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Obama that “public disharmony between Israel and the U.S. is beneficial to neither” and that differences “should be dealt with directly by the parties.” The president, according to Hoenlein, leaned back in his chair and said: “I disagree. We had eight years of no daylight” — between George W. Bush and successive Israeli governments — “and no progress.”
Uhh huh. Meanwhile, we've had two years of daylight, and no progress. Arguably, we've had quite a bit of backsliding though. Anyway, the article held out all sorts of promise for the young J-Street, partly because it was going to address a new constituency among America's Jews:
The average age of the dozen or so staff members is about 30. Ben-Ami speaks for, and to, this post-Holocaust generation. “They’re all intermarried,” he says. “They’re all doing Buddhist seders.” They are, he adds, baffled by the notion of “Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you.” 
As an aside: if you're trying to attract non-Jews to supporting Israel, why not start with the tens of millions of them who already have very strong feelings on the matter?

The feeling "they might come to get you" is actually not a one-timer generated by the Nazis. The genius of the Jews is that though many of them lived under persecution far greater than most people today can imagine, or its plausible threat, they generally didn't allow themselves to wallow in self pity, nor be distracted by useless acts of revenge or histrionics, preferring instead to get on with things, including creating a magnificently rich culture. Although the Haredi rabbis today won't admit it, many of them also did what one might call "Buddhist seders", in the meaning that they incorporated all sorts of things into Judaism along the way - tho they kept the seders kosher at all times, indicating they had no feelings of Jewish inadequacy, merely honest curiosity.

It's the lack of respect, perhaps even the embarrassment of things Jewish. Mozgovaya starts her reportage with a fine example, though she imbues it with the wrong significance:
Aaron Weinberg, a 20-year-old freshman at Brandeis, stood up Saturday night with others to clap for Peter Beinart, one of the three people honored at J Street's national conference in Washington, when Beinart remarked that "Israel cannot be holy in the days of Bibi, Lieberman and Rabbi Ovadia." "There is no kedusha in Netanyahu's and Lieberman's conduct with peace process, and there is no kedusha in Rabbi Ovadia's monopoly on who is a Jew and his lack of engagement", agreed Weinberg, using the Hebrew word for holiness.
"When I was in high school, everyday I was coming home and telling my mom that I wanted to go to the airport, to make aliyah. I was making friends only with those who spoke Hebrew. But frankly, I feel very disenfranchised by the Israeli government and Israeli public voting for such a government. I think I would feel pretty uncomfortable to live with a group that holds such views," he said, explaining why he is still today in the U.S. 
There's much in Israel with which to disagree, but being uncomfortable with an entire electorate for "holding such views" is a bit beyond reasonable. It may, however, be standard fare for J-Street and its supporters. In everything we read about them, they seem in thrall of the double thesis that Israel's democracy is declining, and that there's no peace with the Palestinians because Israel prefers the occupation. An Arab journalist called on the audience to encourage revolution in Israel, and the public gave her a 20-second standing ovation.

Of some six million Jews in Israel, there are perhaps three thousand who subscribe to these positions. You can respect Israeli democracy for what it is. You can wonder why it makes the decisions it makes, and try to find out - to inquire, to empathize, to try to see the world from an Israeli perspective. Or you can bemoan the bad things that are happening to Israelis, because of their evil politicians, or some inexplicable madness that has descended upon them, or even worse, because they've willfully allowed themselves to become evil. The J-Streeters seem to prefer the last option, which has the added advantage of making them feel real good about themselves.

Which brings me to the article in this week's New Yorker which a number of readers have called to my intention. I'll respond to it tomorrow, Insha'allah.


Anonymous said...

This article is fraught with inaccuracies. Here's a few, just to clear up the air:

Kosher meals were certainly available at the Gala dinner and anyway the reg. meal was vegetarian.

Your analysis of J Street based on an old NYT article is inaccurate as J Street now has over 50 staffers.

Members of Congress and Knesset were most certainly lauded (had you been there, you would have seen that - alas...).

And in terms of venue and the bone you pick with regards to the size - you're really getting in the weeds here. The 2000 folks who attended had a blast and felt part of a true community scene - there were nearly as many people as the AJC's General Assembly. So it doesn't matter that it was at the gigantic Washington Convention Center because the J Street conference was a smashing success.

Wish you could have joined us for it.

Anonymous said...

Let's all agree that J Street presents us with "a new way to be pro-Israel." And leave it at that.

Sérgio said...

Why bother with those types? They enjoy their role of alter-jews, the attention and approval they get. That´s their pathetic ego-trip.

Silke said...

Wer zählt die Anons, nennt die Namen, die gastlich? hier zusammen kamen (Schiller: Die Kraniche des Ibykus)

roughly: who counts the Anons, tells their names who showed up as guests around here

Saul Lieberman said...

J Street’s "new way to be pro-Israel" is to advocate positions which advance the comfort of J Street’s members in America at the expense of Israel.

In Jeff Goldberg’s interview of Ben Ami in June, Ben Ami explained that J Street’s members’ stake in what happens is Israel derives from the fact that how Israel is perceived affects their lives and that the rift identified by Beinart between Israel and the Diaspora are better understood as the difference between those who view Israel as the most important thing in the world and those who do not (liberal Jews, including J Street). [http://israelpalestineblogs.com/2010/06/16/video-jeremy-ben-ami-jeffrey-goldberg/, 19 min and 44 min]

J Street’s positions are driven by self-interest, not a love of Israel.

Rabbi Tony Jutner said...

I applaud J Streets new direction. At its inception, J Street was composed of the so called 2 staters, who wanted to retain the theft of 1948 and give back the theft of 1967, and the one staterts, who want to give back all of the theft. With my influence and support, the one staters are given the upper hand.I was thrilled to see Rebecca Villkomersen introduce the BDS movement to J Street, and I am confident that by next year, BDS will be a central tenet of J Street. I am also pleased with the involvement of Georg Soros with J Street, because he has the financial capability of causing a reverse aliyah to places where former israelis wont be so inflammatory. With every passing day, the principles of New Judaism, namely Economic Justice, Social Justice, and the Right of Return of Endogenous Peoples, especiaaly the Palestinians become stronger at J Street

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the satire, Rabbi Tony.

Yaacov -

I think the issue for J-Streeters is having a simple narrative they can buy into. As American Jews, we don't feel particularly discriminated against (b"h) and as part of a large, fairly homogeneous, country, we don't have the sense of distinct ethnic nationalities that was typical of the European experience where Zionism incubated. Nationalism and persecution are not part of our experiences and conscience. (of course I am speaking in very general terms, here.)

I think what does resonate for young Americans is "fairness." My generation and after have been proactively educated to expunge racism from our society, because racism is unfair. The effort has been hugely successful, in my opinion, although by no means complete.

The Arabs have managed to create a narrative that portrays them as the victims of "a great unfairness." This is why the "Israel is Apartheid" meme is particularly effective and compelling.

Unfortunately, too many young American Jews have no connection to Jewish ritual or Jewish culture. Their "Jewishness" consists of being non-Christian Americans of European descent. Their experience is of being the outsider, not of being connected to a Jewish people.

So, they are mostly ignorant of the history of Jews and of Israel. (For example, even I was not sure if Jerusalem was a majority Jewish city from pre-British times.) We don't have our own narrative to appeal to this generation. Instead, we react to the Arab narrative. They control the story.

Ok. That's just my 2 grush based on my experience. I could be totally naive.


RK said...

Well, you wouldn't have had to rely on the media and polemical bloggers if, like Tom Mitchell, you had simply watched the conference online. There were actually quite a few Israelis there, including four MKs from the party you voted for.

What really struck me, though, was the fact that you accuse "the J-Streeters" of moral vanity without a shred of evidence, beyond the fact that they disagree with you. Actually, some might sense a note of moral vanity in all that preening about how Jews were immune to self-pity and histrionics. But anyone who's cracked open a Gemara, sung Av Harachamim, or read Baron's Social and Religious History of the Jews ought to know that Jews handle lachrymosity and ineffectual acts of vengeance just fine, thank you.

Barry Meislin said...

An excellent point.

Far more effective to present---to certain audiences---Israel's existence as "unfair" rather than "criminal."

All the while clamoring continually---for other audiences---that Israel's existence is "criminal."

To be sure, if something is touted strongly enough---and long enough---as "unfair," it inevitably becomes "criminal."

So that attempting to destroy Israel has now become not only "fair" but a "moral necessity."

(But don't tell Peter Beinart, et. al....)

Yaacov said...

RK -

Why would I wish to find time to watch the proceedings? As for the 4 Kadima MKs, I've already blogged about them.

To your main point, however, I thank you for agreeing with mine. Of course Jews felt sorry for themselves, sometimes with reasonable cause. So they wrote books about it, prayed that God would revenge them, and that sort of stuff. What they didn't do was blow up buses or rocket schools where children of their enemies were certain to be killed, nor develop a narrative about how everything that was wrong in their society was all the fault of foreigners.

Actually, if I can find the time, maybe I'll write a post about this fundamental issue. But maybe not.

Anyway, I stand by my main point, which you're not addressing: the J-Streeters have not the slightest interest in the world the Israelis live in, except where it makes them feel uncomfortable, and then they blame the Israelis for their discomfort. You'll forgive me if I find this distasteful in the extreme.

They also have no interest in the Palestinians as real people either, by the way, merely as the foil for their discomfort with Israel.

Barry Meislin said...

What I find particularly fascinating is the extraordinary success that the Palestinians---and Arabs, generally---have had in converting the world to the view that they are moral arbiters to whom the world must look for clarity and guidance (e.g., our distinguished resident rabbi, above).

It is a most phenomenal development that bodes ill for everyone who has fallen under its sway.

As such, avoidance of context, background, history, knowledge is lauded because it makes the "liberated" feel good, feel right, feel moral---or at least feel less bad.

File under: "Moral inversion 'R Us

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, don't people like Illan Pappe and the PLO already have a monopoly on that "new way to be pro-Israeli"?


Anonymous said...

beinart isnt good enough to lick rav yosef's shoes, let alone criticize him.

and im sorry....i read from two people that there was no kosher food anywhere to be found during most of the event.

these people stood and applauded while an egyptian con artist posing as a journalist, bashed israel

they disgust me and represent only the dregs of the earth

Y.Ben-David said...

J-Street is wasting its time. With the freeze in the “peace process” the already strong American support for Israel is INCREASING. This means most Americans (and I also believe this is true of Europeans as well) realize the Arabs are at fault for the lack of peace. This is from a Gallup poll:


Thus J-Street can try as hard as it wants to turn American Jewish opinion against Israel, but that is just a drop in the bucket compared to the large support from non-Jewish Americans. Note that people who define themselves as “liberal” are also solidly pro-Israel.

NormanF said...

Most secular American Jews know nothing of Judaism, Jewish history, Jewish culture and Jewish religious observance.

Not surprisingly, many of them fall prey to a well organized anti-Semitic campaign that blames the Jews for all the evils in the world and makes Israel appear as the obstacle to peace in the Middle East.

The Israeli government has done NOTHING to fight back - it has lent this campaign credence by accepting that Israel is the obstacle to peace and has viciously beaten and shot Jews who have resisted being thrown out of their homes for peace in our time.

And with many Jews siding with the enemy's characterization of Israel, both in Israel and abroad, the prospects that Israel will be able to survive a growing campaign of de-legitimization and world isolation do not look good.

No amount of Israeli concessions will alter this campaign or blunt its momentum in the slightest as it has nothing to do with the "occupation" or with the absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The hatred in the Arab World for instance, is directed at the Jews. But few people want to face reality anyway these days.

Silke said...

Dear Tony,

what about that Hongkong Racetrack JStreet financier? Information about that one would greatly interest me. Do you have any? Jeffrey Goldberg demanded a thorough colonoscopy on that one when the news broke first but since then NADA and not just at Goldblog but apparently everywhere. Why?????

Somehow I am sure you know - so please please please tell!

thank you!

Silke said...

ages ago I read a book of short stories by Arthur Miller where he vividly described how boys were harrassed for being Jewish, so vividly in fact that it is hard to convince myself, that it wasn't autobiographic.

There is a story by ??? Epstein where he tells how Jewish boys learned to fight the bullies.

Has all that vanished for good or is it just undergroudn for the time being? (as to Germans my bet would be on underground)

Silke said...

I'm not a scientist thus I ask in all sincerety the question is there any way to prove beyond reasonable doubt "moral vanity" and if there is, what would the criteria be?

Hitherto I have always believed that if a person I trust diagnoses moral vanity that that is his/her personal impression and I have cherished the information as such.

Anonymous said...

Silke -

Arthur Miller was born in 1915, which was a long time ago. Segregation and discrimination were legal and institutional. It was a much more violent society. That stuff is just not accepted today.

Of course no place is perfect, but I feel the US has become a particularly tolerant and integrated place. In New York State, where I live, the number of reported hate crimes for 2009 was 683 for a population of 19.5 million. That is less than 0.004%. I don't feel there is violence waiting just under the surface, in any large scale way.

That is just my experience of things living in New York City, which is a very diverse place.


Silke said...

my bad for being European and the deeply ingrained habit of fearing that the 30 year war may start all over again at any moment and the Turks besiege Vienna and the Huns come ariding

it is all over the landscape and so one isn't allowed to forget that it happened again and again and again

that said I enjoy paradise while it lasts hugely but I lack a feeling of trust that it will continue

RK said...

bacci40, it's pretty obvious from the context that Eltahawy's call for a "nonviolent revolution for freedom and dignity for Palestians" was a standard rhetorical trope meaning "a sea change in attitudes," not a literal plea for toppling the Israeli government (or the PA, or whoever -- the fact that, pace Yaacov's post, she didn't specify an actual government or country is further evidence of my point). Or do you think the "Ron Paul Revolutionaries" were calling for an actual coup?

Yaacov and Silke, lacking as I do your unerring insight into human psychology, I'm forced to take people's stated motivations at face value unless I have irrefutable evidence otherwise. (For instance, I don't think Shlomo Ben-Yosef necessarily hated Arabs, though that would certainly be consistent with his actions. A more charitable interpretation of his motives would take into account what was going on in Palestine from 1936 to 1939.) With respect to the 20-year-old Brandeis freshman who's apparently our stand-in for the J Streeters, it's hard to believe that someone would consider making aliyah simply to flatter their self-conception as "the type of person who cares about the Palestinians." (You found it hard to believe that the Egyptians would shoot themselves in the foot out of solidarity with the Palestinians. Well, I find it hard to believe that someone would give up a comfortable life in the country they grew up in out of solidarity with the Palestinians.) As for the fact that he feels uncomfortable with the Israeli electorate, I agree it's pretty silly -- but silly is all it is. He's not saying Israel's democracy is declining (he's really saying the opposite) and he's not saying peace is dead because Israelis love the occupation. I class it with my uncle who refuses to move back to California because "it's full of liberals."

I never said you had to find time to watch the conference. I just pointed out that there is an "obvious alternative to consuming media reports."

Yaacov said...

RK -

I made 3 points in my last comment. You responded to half of the most minor one of them.

Anyway, I don't understand what it is you're trying to say. So far as I know, the best thing one can say about J-Street (and their public), assuming one doesn't want to say they're anti-Israel, is that they're convinced the conflict exists because Israel refuses to end it, and that for nefarious reasons. Are you saying otherwise?

Silke said...

what is the latest on their finances - any more explanations forthcoming, why they hid Soros? and what about that Hongkong race track financier for which Goldberg demanded that they undergo a thorough colonoscopy. Lots of outrage and now all under the carpet?

I thought they were the rightist ones, no shady dealings with them, everything on the table transparent and absolutely unobjectionable by even the highest standards imaginable.

Alex Bensky said...

J Street wants to be progressive and as it has worked out to be progressive means to be anti-Israel. They can't be pro-Israel in any real sense and still be part of the great upsurge of progressivism that makes them feel so righteous and whatever J Street does it will keep in mind its need to prove and prove again it's progressive bona fides to the non-Jewish left.

By the way, did anyone who was at the conference go to the seminar on BDS? According to one report its purpose was to discuss whether J Street should support the idea, not how to combat it. I'd be interested to know what actually happened and whether J Street actually was willing to consider, even as a discussion topic, support for the concept.