In Defense of J Street

Last week, I co-wrote a piece over at The Jerusalem Post with my friend Josh Freedman about J Street. The left-leaning “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization recently made news by electing a Muslim student, Amna Farooqi, as the president of J Street U. The inevitable consequence of J Street being in the news is, of course, an increase in boilerplate op-eds regarding J Street (I plead guilty).

In these pages, activist Hen Mazzig recounts a confrontation he had with a J Street U student on an unnamed campus. The student, upon hearing (after soliciting) Mr. Mazzig’s (rather uncharitable) thoughts on J Street, responded that her criticism of Israel came from a place of love, where one might also find concern for, say, a younger sibling. Mazzig replied with the following:

“So according to you, if I love my younger sister, I need to go around the United States and tell everyone how bad she is? How she doesn’t know what’s good for her? How we must collectively pressure her? And if I truly love my sister, I should tell my parents to cut her off financially? I should publicize her every mistake and defame her on every platform I can? Or if I really care, should I instead work together with her?”

This analogy, along with its factual implications, is problematic for a number of reasons. First, J Street does not “go around the United States and tell everyone how bad” Israel is. True, I am not privy as to how J Street spends every penny of its budget. But having attended one of its national conferences and being able to count a handful of its former campus leaders as friends and acquaintances, I think I am qualified to say Mazzig is trivializing the average liberal Zionist’s relationship with Israel. When we criticize Israel’s settlement policy, or condemn the disproportionate use of force against peaceful protestors in Nabi Saleh, or expose the ruinous fiction of “united Jerusalem,” or oppose Benjamin Netanyahu’s deeply partisan approach to relations with the United States, we are not telling everyone how bad Israel is. To the contrary: we are demonstrating that being pro-Israel does not require one to sacrifice her or his liberal and progressive values.

Second, Mazzig’s argument doesn’t reflect J Street’s positions accurately. J Street has never, never — I repeat, never — called for Israel to be “cut off financially”. In fact, the opposite is true. J Street has always supported and encouraged increased aid to Israel. Neither has J Street called for Israel to be “collectively pressured”. J Street supports American leadership in the peace process, as does Israel. J Street also believes, as have a few Israeli Prime Ministers, that settlements deep in the West Bank pose a direct risk to Israel’s democracy and international standing.

To be fair, J Street’s position on settlements doesn’t seem to be what’s bothering Mazzig. Rather, it’s the group’s supportive position on the Iran nuclear agreement. Mazzig writes that J Street supported the agreement “in opposition to numerous Democratic members of Congress and Israel’s Zionist Camp”. I wouldn’t quite say that twenty-five House and four Senate Democrats is “numerous” or even “considerable” given the threshold that was required, but that’s beside the point. The core of Mazzig’s criticism is that J Street crossed a line by supporting the Iran deal, taking a position outside of the mainstream in Israel. (Curiously, Mazzig fails to mention that polls found more American Jews supported the agreement than opposed it, placing J Street well within the mainstream of American Jewry.)

Before going any further, I should add I was ambivalent about the deal myself. There are good aspects to it and there are weaknesses. I wasn’t enthused by J Street’s campaign in favor of it. However, I wasn’t particularly disgusted by it (name me a political organization, or advertising agency, that doesn’t paint tepidly supportive quotes as enthusiastic ones). What I was disgusted by was the attempts to exclude and demonize pro-Israel supporters of the agreement — Jerry Nadler, Dianne Feinstein, Cory Booker, Alan Solow, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Kirsten Gillibrand, the list goes on.

What I’m going to suggest now may sound presumptuous, but I think it will prove to be true in the coming months and years: the attacks on J Street and other liberal Zionists come from a fear; a fear that what it means to be pro-Israel in America is changing rapidly, moving in a leftward direction, along with the political map as a whole. Most of the Democrats who supported the nuclear deal have unimpeachable pro-Israel credentials. Yet they found reasons to support the nuclear agreement. (I would suggest that everyone read Cory Booker’s reasoning for supporting the deal. It’s a contemplative piece that illustrates the difficult choice presented to members of Congress.)

Which brings me to Mazzig’s final gripe with J Street: that by denouncing Israel’s policies, it cannot possibly call itself pro-Israel because it doesn’t respect the will of the Israeli voter who has a chosen a rightist-led government for three consecutive elections. On this point, Mazzig is partially correct: under the old rules, J Street might not have been considered pro-Israel.

But these old rulers are being eroded by progressives, in both Congress and on college campuses, who are redefining what it means to be pro-Israel. I can’t say for sure where they will end up, but it might well be at a place to the left of the Labor Party.

About the Author
Abe Silberstein writes on Israeli politics, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and American foreign policy in the Middle East. He can be reached at