While evocations of the "special relationship" between the United States and Israel may sound uplifting, J Street ultimately lets the Israeli government off the hook by declaring that relationship sacrosanct, no matter what. The organization insists that political candidates funded by J StreetPAC "must demonstrate that they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, active U.S. leadership to help end the conflict, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, continued aid to the Palestinian Authority and opposition to the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement."
The sanctity of the proviso about "the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel" became evident to one of us (Norman Solomon) while running for Congress in 2012 in California. After notification that J Street had decided to confer "On the Street" status on Solomon and another Democratic candidate in the primary race, the group's leadership suddenly withdrew the stamp of approval -- after discovering a Solomon op-ed piece written in July 2006 that criticized Washington's support for the Israeli bombing of Lebanon then underway.
In a specially convened conference call, J Street's top leaders told the candidate that one statement in the op-ed was especially egregious: "The United States and Israel. Right now, it's the most dangerous alliance in the world."
In December 2013, while visiting Israel, Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed that "the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable." He added that -- despite occasional "tactical" differences -- "we do not have a difference about the fundamental strategy that we both seek with respect to the security of Israel and the long-term peace of this region."
Two days later, on Dec. 7 at a Saban Center gathering in Washington, Kerry joined with President Barack Obama in paying tribute to the idea of a nation for Jews. Obama endorsed the goal of protecting "Israel as a Jewish state." (He sat for an interview with billionaire Zionist Haim Saban, who joked: "Very obedient president I have here today!")
For his part, Kerry addressed Israeli ethnic anxiety by urging that Israel heed U.S. advice for withdrawal from some territory, to defuse what he called the "demographic time bomb" -- non-Jewish births -- threatening the existence of a "Jewish and democratic" state.
Although "militant Islam" is common coin in U.S. discourse about the Middle East, militant Jewish nationalism lacks a place in the conversation. This absence occurs despite -- and perhaps because of -- the fact that militant Jewish nationalism is such a powerful ideology in the United States, especially in Congress.
Yet recent erosion of the taboo has caused some alarm. In May 2011 the Reut Institute, well-connected to the Israeli establishment, held a joint conference with the American Jewish Committee and met with smaller organizations to formalize a policy of "establishing red-lines with regards to the discourse about Israel between legitimate criticism and acts of delegitimization."
In its own way, J Street has laid down red-line markers along the left perimeter of American Zionism. For instance, some of the most telling moments of J Street's existence came during the November 2012 Gaza crisis. As the conflict escalated, Israel threatened a ground invasion. J Street urged Israeli restraint but did not oppose the ongoing intense bombardment of Gaza. Instead, echoing Obama, the organization endorsed Israel's "right and obligation to defend itself against rocket fire and against those who refuse to recognize its right to exist and inexcusably use terror and violence to achieve their ends."
J Street's statement, titled "Enough of Silence," eerily mirrored the brutal asymmetry of the warfare then raging -- and, for that matter, the asymmetry of the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While far more Palestinians than Israelis were dying (87 Palestinian and four Israeli noncombatants lost their lives, according to a report from the human-rights group B'Tselem), J Street condemned the killing by Palestinians but merely questioned the ultimate efficacy of the killing by Israelis.
While J Street was appropriately repulsed by the bloodshed, it could not plead for reversal of the underlying, continuing injustice beyond its advocacy of a two-state solution. During the years ahead, J Street is likely to be instrumental in establishing and reinforcing such red lines.
A rare instance when J Street has not endorsed President Obama's approach in the Middle East came in September 2013, when the administration pressed for U.S. missile strikes on Syria following claims that the Bashar al-Assad regime had used chemical weapons. J Street remained officially silent on the issue; Jeremy Ben-Ami reportedly pushed for endorsement of an attack, but many others in the organization were opposed. The Forward newspaper quoted a J Street activist: "Jeremy is a pragmatist. He wants to keep us as progressive as possible without going too far from the mainstream."
A More Humane Image
J Street is striving to support Israel differently than AIPAC: by fostering the more peaceful, humane streams of Zionism. But among new generations of U.S. Jews, the Zionist rationales for Israel as a whole are losing ground. In a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 93 percent of American Jews state they are proud of being part of the Jewish people -- but only 43 percent say that "caring about" the State of Israel is essential to being a Jew, and the figure drops to 32 percent of respondents under 30 years old.
The Jewish establishment has always represented those Jews choosing to affiliate with institutionalized Judaism. More and more, this leaves out large numbers who don't believe that blood-and-soil Jewish nationalism should crowd out their Jewish and universalist values. As the Pew survey shows, American Jews are less sympathetic than American Jewish organizations to enforcing Jewish political nationalism with armed force.
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