Open? J-Street turns into cul-de-sac

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, March 3, 2011
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Delegates at the ‘Pro Israel, Pro-Peace’ conference held by dovish lobby group J-Street in Washington this week

Delegates at the ‘Pro Israel, Pro-Peace’ conference held by dovish lobby group J-Street in Washington this week

Is J-Street"so open-minded about what constitutes support for Israel that its brains have fallen out"?

These are the words of Rep Gary Ackerman. Mr Ackerman was one of a handful of US Members of Congress who used to support J-Street. He reconsidered after J-Street sided against the US's recent veto of a UN resolution condemning Israel's settlements as illegal. It is one thing to criticise Israel on settlements, quite another to become complicit in the craven Palestinian strategy to force a solution on Israel through the anti-Israel UN.

Rep Ackerman threw J-Street to the dogs not because he joined the Likud but because enough was enough.

There has been a lot of controversy accompanying J-Street's entry into the Israel advocacy world. Two of the most egregious instances are its reluctance to disclose funding from George Soros and its role in helping Judge Richard Goldstone reach out to members of Congress after his biased report on the Gaza war was rejected by the US.

Regardless, J-Street has insisted that it is not just "pro-Israel and pro-peace" but also that, in contrast to its more hawkish opponents, it is open to different views.

In this passionate defence of a dovish worldview, J-Street closely resembles many mainstream leaders of the Jewish community in Britain, who have become more vocal lately about their discomfort with Israel and more willing than ever to make their support for Israel conditional upon the policies its government pursues.

And here lies the rub of this trans-atlantic Jewish argument for supporting Israel through "tough love".

In the programme for its conference this week, J-Street included - being 'open to debate' - an ardent advocate of the BDS campaign and a former Free Gaza Flotilla and one-state solution, anti-Oslo Palestinian activist.

Similarly, Jewish leaders in Britain have recently been pursuing a similar course by participating in debates alongside the new Jewish standard bearer of tough love, American commentator Peter Beinart, and planning to travel to Ramallah to confer with PA officials. When criticised, they have protested that they have a right to do so because Israel's actions affect their daily lives.

You bet they do: how much more unpleasant it must be to stand alone at dinner parties because of your pro-Israel sympathies, compared to sending your kids to the army, living under constant threat of suicide terrorism and the shadow of Iran's budding nuclear programme.

Would it only were so. Criticising Israel is one thing. But giving succour to Israel's enemies and offering them a platform of legitimacy is quite another. Yet that is J-Street's consistent public record. Its only openness that one can detect is towards Israel's enemies on the left. Ambassador Dennis Ross's speech at J-Street was followed by a "debate" between New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, post-Zionist scholar Bernard Avishai and Daniel Levy.

Levy, a co-founder of J-Street, facilitated Judge Goldstone's visit to Congress and is on record as calling Israel's creation as "an act that was wrong". Avishai has long pedalled the notion that a Jewish state should be superseded and that Israel needs to be saved from itself. And Cohen famously downplayed Iran's extremism while deriding Israel's fear of Iran as paranoia in March 2009, before being mugged by reality during Iran's June 2009 elections.

That is the same degree of openness as exists at the top of the Jewish establishment in Britain - a complete unwillingness to take a pro-Israel stance that may rattle the cage of liberal group-think, lest one exposes oneself to accusations of dual loyalty.

J-Street is a sign of the times in the US. It reflects a shift in American Jewish views of Israel and poses a challenge to Israel, since it signals very strongly that even Israel's most natural constituency in the Western world is no longer there when Israel truly needs it. But it is also a sign of the moral bankruptcy of the dovish Jewish left in our diaspora: the intellectual inability to withstand the temptation to join the bandwagon of anti-Israel bashing, while hypocritically calling the move "tough love" and a sign of openness to diverse views.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington

    Last updated: 12:33pm, March 3 2011