An Historical Shift: American Jews Rethink Israel
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Another longtime observer of Jewish Washington says the only thing that's really changed is the presidency. That's big, but it's not everything. "Obama is strong and popular (still). He has a majority in Congress. Many in Congress feel that their political fate depends on his success. That is what generates the change in atmosphere here. So yes, there is significant change. But I think it has to do more with the atmosphere created by Bush's departure and by the new policies of Obama than with generational shifts in the way Jews view Israel or talk about Israel."
And so when Obama has seemed to lose his nerve--say, when he helped to bury the UN's Goldstone report, which said Israel committed war crimes in Gaza--there has been very little resistance in the Jewish community to his capitulations. When Netanyahu was reported to have maligned Obama aides David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel as "self-hating Jews," there was little outcry in the American Jewish community. And when we asked Representative Steve Rothman, a liberal Democrat, whether he welcomed J Street, he said he didn't know enough about the group to say, before reciting the same old mantras about the "Jewish state": "It's always good for more people to get involved to support America's most important ally in the Middle East.... As our president and vice president have said, Israel's national security is identical to America's vital national security."
This is the treacherous landscape that J Street has stepped into, where it has been outflanked on occasion by both the right and the left. During the Gaza conflict, it issued a statement condemning not only Hamas but Israel, too, for "punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them." It was a brave stance for a fledgling Jewish organization trying to build mainstream support, and it brought down the wrath of community gatekeepers. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote in the Forward that the statement displayed "an utter lack of empathy for Israel's predicament," calling it "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve." Ouch.
More recently J Street has tacked in the other direction. During the Toronto festival it quietly began collecting signatures for a letter blasting the protest as "shameful and shortsighted." Although never released as a letter, the initiative didn't endear J Street to the growing grassroots movement. Which is not to say that progressives are not hopeful about its emergence. Rosenberg points out that in its more than fifty-year existence, AIPAC never got the positive publicity J Street got after just one year--a long, favorable portrait in The New York Times Magazine . "All the constellations are coming together. [Executive director] Jeremy Ben-Ami and Daniel Levy have a plan and a message, and they know how to work the media," he says.
J Street is trying to position itself so that it is the only game in town for liberal Jews, affording Jewish advocates for the two-state solution the big political tent they've been lacking to this point. Rabbi Yoffie, for instance, will be addressing the J Street national conference, overlooking his ferocious criticism of the organization in January. "Let's have a broad and generous definition of what constitutes pro-Israel," he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, in explaining his pragmatic shift.
The conference is sure to combine culture, youth and politics in such a way as to make AIPAC look about as à la mode as the former Soviet Union. "This is a watershed moment in terms of how people look at institutions," says Isaac Luria, J Street's campaigns director. "The old legacy institutions are dying." Nadia Hijab says this has been J Street's main achievement, transforming the terrain for left-leaning Jewish groups by taking on the traditional lobby in the mainstream political arena, mobilizing money and message. "J Street is a positive development as an alternative to AIPAC," Hijab says. "It's not comparable to AIPAC yet, but in the American context it is very smart."