The J Street website proclaims "J Street is the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement."
I had the opportunity to meet Jeremy Ben-Ami, the Executive Director of J Street at a Rabbis for Human Rights board meeting last year. I was quite impressed, and very pleased with what I heard: "at last," I said to myself, "another organization joins us in the lonely space of being Zionist and progressive."
It's not easy to be part of an organization that is both Zionist and cares about the people other than Jews (especially the human rights of Palestinians). To other Zionist organizations, we are suspect because we care about Arabs. To other peace and human rights groups we can be suspect because we are avowedly Zionist. Having some organizational company in this lonely space is a good thing!
I agree wholeheartedly with their guiding principles. Their basic position is:
J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own – two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole.
Living in Israel, I certainly agree with those sentiments. Having met Ben-Ami — whose grandfather was a founder of Tel Aviv and whose father fought in Israel's War of Independence — I am quite convinced of his sincerity, and that he is motivated by Ahavat Yisrael, a love of Israel. He founded J Street because he was concerned that AIPAC — a somewhat right wing voice, shall we say — should not be the only representative of the Jewish people. Like many of us who consider ourselves progressives, he got upset with organizations that claim "pro-Israel" means blindly supporting whatever nonsense the Israeli government comes up with.
There is a long history behind the idea that Jews in Israel can complain about their government, but Jews in the Diaspora don't dare to. I heard a fascinating lecture yesterday by Prof. Daniel Schwartz at the Zalman Shazar Center comparing Macabbees I and II. Macabbees I, written by a not so religious Jew in Israel in Hebrew, and Macabbees II written by a religious Jew of the Diaspora in Greek. Macabbees II is quite careful not to be critical of the authorities. Apparently Diaspora Jews felt they had to "support Israel," right or wrong. Some things don't ever change, do they? Compare the Forward with Haaretz — the local press is much more critical. Understandably, we are more comfortable when we are at home.
But just because it has a long history doesn't mean it's right. Criticizing Israel does not mean one is opposed to Israel. You can love Israel, and have problems with some of the government's activities.
All of this leads up to what I really want to talk about: my disappointment with J Street that they allowed the university arm to drop the "pro-Israel" part of the J Street identification. According to an article in the Jerusalem Post "J Street's university arm has dropped the "pro-Israel" part of the left-wing US lobby's "pro-Israel, pro-peace" slogan to avoid alienating students."
I think this was a VERY bad decision on the part of J Street.
Everyone knows J Street is pro-peace. What J Street has a much tougher time convincing people is that they are really, truly, pro-Israel. Every right wing blogger out there has jumped on this news item as an excuse to say that J Street is nothing but a bunch of assimilationists embarassed about Israel.
I think J Street is worrying about the wrong problem. Instead of worrying about alienating students, they should be worrying about alienating Jews. We desperately NEED what they claim to be: a pro-Israel, pro-peace organization. If they dilute the "pro-Israel" part of their message, they lose the reason for their existence. There are lots of "pro-peace" organizations out there. If they take the "pro-Israel" message away, they are nothing but one among many, and they lose what makes them special.
I hope the organization will reconsider. It's fine to give student affiliates autonomy. But there have to be limits. I believe allowing the students to drop "pro-Israel" exceeds the limits.
In this matter, it is essential that we maintain the balance that our sage Hillel prescribed:
"If I am not for myself, who is for me? But if I am for my own self only, what am I?" It's wrong to drop either end of that equation.