On Thursday night I traveled to the campus of the University of Pennsylvania ostensibly to see a movie; ‘The J Street Challenge: The Seductive Allure of Peace in Our Time,” and to listen to a conversation led by the movie’s producer; Charles Jacobs and two very important supporters; Alan Dershowitz and Sara Greenberg on “What It Means to Be Pro-Israel.”
Ok, it’s a loaded question whether you’re a righty, a lefty or somewhere in between, because the question itself is exclusionary. Now, having spent a little time on the subject of seeking peace and security for Israel I have witnessed and even participated in a small way in the internecine warfare that continues between different factions of the American Jewish Community. You can say that the battle for the hearts and minds and wallets of the Jewish Community has its leaders, its soldiers and its own unique marketing that goes on 365 days each year.
J Street has come into fruition over the past five years in many ways as the American Jewish left’s answer to AIPAC. Having been a liberal for most of my 59 years, (let’s say since I turned the golden age of 13), I have searched particularly over the last 15 years for an organization on the left to consolidate the many splinter groups that have individually lobbied for peace and been routinely overrun by the well financed mainstream American Israel Public Affairs Committee that has been carrying water for the State of Israel to insure bipartisan support for its interest for a very long time. AIPAC has a $100 million budget and an exceptionally well crafted message that appeals to a broad constituency of Jewish Americans including an active outreach program on college campuses.
J Street, as I said, is a five year young organization that has managed/is managing to establish itself as a viable left of center alternative with its own exceptionally well crafted message built around the catch phrase; “Pro Israel, Pro Peace” It also has an active outreach on college campuses and as of 2012 a total budget of just over $3 million. It would appear from media and the efforts of a number of larger more established Jewish organizations to isolate it that J Street has garnered a lot of bang with a relatively small budget.
So, after doing a little homework, reading about the event in Philadelphia’s own Jewish Exponent, then in Bradley Burston’s column in Haaretz, then Charles Jacob’s Op Ed in the Times of Israel, a piece in the Forward and finally Alan Dershowitz’s Op Ed, again in Haaretz, I felt that I was ready to take in the evening. I thought that given the fact that I am President of a small non-profit educational organization in suburban Philadelphia known as ICMEP; the Interfaith Community for Middle East Peace and had just written a piece that had parallels in the Jerusalem Post; “When Tough Love Isn’t Enough,” I might actually be able to watch the movie, listen to the speakers and add something relevant.
I was wrong.
Between the movie, the speakers and the large majority of the audience that was there to support Israel, (which happens to be a very good thing), there was little left to say that might penetrate the focus of the evening which was to identify what Mr. Jacobs and others believe is wrong with J Street and to isolate it from the mainstream Jewish Community. There have been battles in many places around the country in local Jewish Federations, JCRC’s, synagogues and Jewish Community Centers over who to allow to speak among threats of lost contributions and memberships by countless big donors to push the outcome away from J Street and those to its left who incorporate the issue of BDS — Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions — and other anti-Israel actions into their agendas.
While J Street does not support BDS, it has invited representatives of organizations that do, such as Jewish Voice for Peace, to speak at its conference. That was one of many points of criticism in a movie that can only be described as a hatchet job by virtue of what it chose to include and what it chose to leave out. There are many questions for J Street and it has done many things to grow to prominence in such a short time and become a favorite of the Obama Administration. As potent as that accolade may have been, it doesn’t send a Jewish community that voted in large numbers twice in favor of the President to a place of confidence given recent White House policy on Iran, Syria, Crimea and even the Israeli/Palestinian peace process itself.
Whether you wake up in an American bed, an Israeli bed or even a Palestinian bed, you most likely will dream about peace. But given the complex and convoluted realities revolving around the negotiations and the Middle East, you probably do not believe that peace is actually possible now. That is a major problem not only for an American leader but also for his counterparts in Jerusalem and Ramallah.
The basic question seems to me to be not whether you agree with the program of J Street, but whether, between all the slick advertising it uses to establish it and appeal to the broadest constituency possible, it is a legitimate American Jewish organization pursuing a legitimate outcome for the State of Israel. While I don’t agree with everything J Street has done/is doing/will do, I believe they have made and are making an important contribution to the peace process and belong in the big tent of Jewish organizations that both the American Jewish Community and the State of Israel so desperately need to insure their collective futures.