There are two primary camps among American Jews in the debate about Israel: AIPAC and the wider “consensus camp,” and J Street and its allies on the left.
The consensus camp still has far greater currency among Jews of all ages, and in practical terms is far larger. It is true, however, that the J Street camp – abetted by influential voices in media, academic, and cultural institutions – may be gaining some ground, particularly among liberal young Jews from more elite colleges. J Street bases its appeal on the idea that it uniquely offers young Jews a way to openly debate and discuss contentious issues, such as settlements and the peace process. It portrays itself as open and the consensus camp as closed, accusing the consensus camp of stifling discussion. Regardless of whether or not it is true, J Street has effectively told its story, which has served as a prime engine of its growth.
It’s time now for the consensus camp to step up its game and win over the next generation with its own demonstrated openness to dialogue.
The truth is that the real distinction between J Street and the consensus camp is not over whether Jews should be able to openly discuss Israel’s policies, but over American foreign policy. The consensus camp’s core belief is that the US should give the democratically elected government of Israel wiggle room on matters of peace and security, and largely respect its assessment and decisions, whether they be concessions or defense. It believes that US support for Israel is a crucial balance against the unfair treatment the Jewish state receives from the rest of the world.
The J Street camp believes that Israel’s political leaders are following a dangerously unwise course and so the United States should help save Israel from itself by putting pressure on Israel to make concessions. In a recent community panel discussion I participated in, the J Street staffer openly spoke of how J Street gives liberal democrats in Congress the ability to break from the consensus and put pressure on the Jewish State. Because J Street built an organization around American pressure on Israel to make peace, it has had to construct an entire historical and political narrative that holds Israel responsible for the impasse. If the Palestinians were the obstacle at any given moment, it could not justify its basic premise to pressure Israel to cut a deal. However much J Street staffers and core supporters may believe it, it is a narrative with far less resonance among American Jews than calls for more open dialogue.
The truth is that most of the Jewish consensus camp has welcomed open dialogue on Israeli policy. I attended the American Jewish Committee’s ACCESS20/20 conference a few weeks ago (surely a consensus camp address if there is one) and sat through several contentious debates about Israeli policy. Yet even there one left wing commentator accused AJC of closing down debate – from the podium of an AJC event! Such open discussions, it turns out, are utterly commonplace in the Jewish community, from Jewish Community Relations Councils to JCCs to synagogues. But the consensus camp’s reality of openness has often gotten lost in the organizational branding fights carried out in the media.
Case in point: AIPAC (in case you didn’t get the memo) is a lobbying organization whose main task is to build support for Israel in Congress, not host open discussions for Jews on Zionism. It acts just like any strong lobby group would—it encourages members of Congress to express support and vote for the cause. AIPAC shouldn’t be expected to hold an open discussion on Israeli policy (though it does do so with its young leaders) any more than the AARP should be expected to hold an open discussion on means testing social security. That’s not its mission. Critics may get leverage by portraying AIPAC’s approach to Congress as shutting down community discourse. But I can guarantee that not a single representative of AIPAC has called your rabbi and asked him or her to cancel or amend any discussion on Israel. Nonetheless, AIPAC’s powerful brand as an effective lobbying organization leaves many thinking that the entire Jewish consensus camp is averse to open dialogue.
Further complicating the message of openness are shrill voices in every community who do indeed attempt to shut down the discussion. But they don’t represent the consensus view, as some disingenuously claim.
The consensus camp, however, shouldn’t concede the openness narrative. It has to get better at making clear that it’s a venue receptive to tough and free discussions on Israel in all its flavors. At The David Project, we have taken such a step by putting together a primer and discussion guide on settlements meant to serve as a basis for open dialogue. The primer describes different kinds of settlements, and the potential political implications of each, allowing students to reach their own conclusions on the issue. Once encouraged to discuss their concerns, our experience is that young Jews become more, not less, loyal to the cause.
Federations, JCRCs, Hillels and others should actively host such forums and be upfront about their openness to different points of views. They can have more faith in the ability of young Jews to decide what and who is right. Much to J Street’s dismay, they will likely find that that most young Jews don’t want to put the screws on Israel.