As decades passed after the June 1967 war, while the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza wore on, younger American Jews slowly became less inclined to automatically support Israeli policies. Now, 65 years after the founding of Israel, the historic realities of displacement -- traumatic for Palestinians while triumphant for many Jewish Israelis -- haunt the territorial present that J Street seeks to navigate.
The organization's avowed goal is an equitable peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians. But J Street's pragmatic, organization-building strength is tied into its real-world moral liability: continuing to accept extremely skewed power relations in Palestine.
The J Street leadership withholds from the range of prospective solutions the alternative of truly ending the legally and militarily enforced Jewish leverage over Palestinians, replete with the advantages of dominance (in sharp contrast to the precept of abandoning white privilege that was a requirement in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa).
Every conceptual lane of J Street equates being "pro-Israel" with maintaining the doctrine of a state where Jews are more equal than others. Looking to the past, that approach requires treating the historic Zionist conquest as somewhere between necessary and immaculate. Looking at the present and the future, that approach sees forthright opposition to the preeminence of Jewish rights as extreme or otherwise beyond the pale. And not "pro-Israel."
Like the Obama administration, J Street is steadfast in advocating a "two-state solution" while trying to thwart the right-wing forces led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. A goal is to reduce his leverage by altering the political environment he encounters in the United States, where AIPAC -- riding high astride much of the U.S. Congress -- is aligned with the hard right of Israeli politics.
In contrast, J Street is aligned with a fuzzy center that copes with cognitive dissonance by embracing humane rhetoric about Palestinians while upholding subjugation of Palestinians' rights.
At J Street's 2011 conference, Rabbi David Saperstein congratulated the organization: "When the Jewish community needed someone to speak for them at the Presbyterian Convention against the divestment resolution, the community turned to J Street, who had the pro-peace credibility to stunt the efforts of the anti-Israeli forces, and they were compellingly effective. They did so at Berkeley on the bus ad fights, debating Jewish Voice for Peace."
Saperstein -- a Reform Judaism leader described by Newsweek as the USA's most influential rabbi -- lauded J Street for its special function among "the strongly pro-Israel peace groups that have the credibility to stand before strongly dovish non-Jewish groups and guide them away from delegitimization efforts."
Such praise for being a bulwark against "delegitimization" is a high compliment for J Street. And it is surely gratifying for its founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami. When he reaffirms "our commitment to and support for the people and the state of Israel," he frames it in these terms: "We believe that the Jewish people -- like all other people in the world -- have the right to a national home of their own, and we celebrate its rebirth after thousands of years."
His official J Street bio says that "Ben-Ami's family connection to Israel goes back 130 years to the first aliyah when his great-grandparents were among the first settlers in Petah Tikva [near present-day Tel Aviv]. His grandparents were one of the founding families of Tel Aviv, and his father was an activist and leader in the Irgun, working for Israel's independence and on the rescue of European Jews before and during World War II." Readers are left to ponder the reference to leadership of the ultra-nationalist Irgun, given its undisputed terrorist violence.
Whatever its differences with the Likudnik stances of AIPAC and Netanyahu, J Street joins in decrying the danger of the "delegitimization" of Israel -- a word often deployed against questioning of Jewish privileges in Palestine maintained by armed force. In sync with U.S. foreign policy, J Street is enmeshed in assuming the validity of prerogatives that are embedded in Netanyahu's demand for unequivocal support of Israel as "the nation-state of the Jewish people."
In the process, the secular USA massively supports a government that is using weapons of war emblazoned with symbols of the Jewish religion, while the U.S. Congress continues to designate Israel as a "strategic ally." An AIPAC official was famously quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg as boasting, "You see this napkin? In 24 hours, we could have the signatures of 70 senators on this napkin."
J Street is aligned with more "moderate" personalities in Israeli politics, but what is considered moderate Zionism in Israel may not match sensibilities outside Israel. On a J Street-sponsored U.S. speaking tour, Knesset member Adi Koll said she is pleased that Palestinian refugees from 1948 are dying off, which she portrayed as good for peace: "This is what we have been waiting for, for more and more of them to die," to finalize the War of Independence expulsion of Palestinians.
J Street's Ben-Ami has warned of "the 'one state nightmare' -- a minority of Jewish Israelis in a state with a majority of non-Jewish residents." For J Street, an embrace of perpetual Jewish dominance as imperative seems to be a litmus test before any criticism of the occupation is to be deemed legitimate.
A human rights lawyer active with Jewish Voice for Peace, David L. Mandel, sees a double standard at work. "Too many progressives on everything else still are not progressive about Israel and Palestine," he told us. "And J Street, by making it easier for them to appear to be critical, in fact serves as a roadblock on the path to a consistent, human rights and international law-based position."
Covering J Street's annual conference in September 2013, Mondoweiss.net editor Philip Weiss pointed out: "J Street still can claim to be a liberal Zionist organization that wants to pressure Israel to leave the settlements. But more than that it wants access to the Israeli establishment, and it is not going to alienate that establishment by advocating any measure that will isolate Israel or put real pressure on it."
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