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.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.
"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.
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.