J Street? I am Confused

I am writing this on a train between Warsaw and Lodz, and despite the emotions of being in such a place, that is not the topic I am writing about here (that will come later). Instead, what inspired this article was a conversation I had via video-chat last night with my daughter who is currently in the US.

My daughter is Israeli by virtue of having been born in Israel. She completed both military service and college there. Recently, she called me to discuss whether I think people living outside of Israel should criticize Israel.  She questioned whether criticism of Israel from abroad is beneficial to Israel in any way.  The issue of J Street was brought up and she expressed vehement opposition to the idea of criticism by Jews abroad of the democratically-elected government of Israel.

The conversation was taking place against the background of the debate about the decision not to allow J Street to join the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. In Israel, by the way, there is no debate since Israelis either do not care about this or are oblivious to the issue.

I was left confused by my daughter’s vehemence on the subject. Though I certainly did not agree with her strident tone, I was struck by how absolute was her certainty.

I once shared my daughter’s view that those living outside of Israel should not publicly criticize it. Forty years ago, I was a very public critic of an organization called Briera, (the 1970s equivalent to J Street). Breira called for then-Prime Minister Golda Meir to recognize the Palestinians as a separate people. I was so unequivocal in my criticism that when I later moved to Israel, acquaintances were shocked to find out my political views were definitively center-left, and not right-wing. I believed then that it was up to the people of Israel, through their freely elected representatives, to decide on issues of war and peace. After all, it will not be the vocal members of J Street who suffer the consequences of a wrong decision. Rather, it is my children in Tel Aviv and my friends’ children and grandchildren in Jerusalem who bear that burden.

With the passage of time, however, my vehemence has certainly waned. On one hand, my confidence in the Israeli electoral system has been challenged over the past decades. I fought for significant electoral reform in Israel since my youth when I was involved in Dash. However, over the years little has happened. Yes, Israel is a democracy. Though one forgets that less 20% of the Israeli public actually voted for the Likud the party of our Prime Minster. Of course, my disillusion with Israeli democracy could well be a reflection of the fact that over the past 40 years, the candidates I have supported have won so few elections. My other more substantive concern is the clear reality that supporters in the United States of the current government have had a substantial impact on the political system here, which begs the question– what’s so wrong with the other side trying to influence events?

Sheldon Adelson (who owns and prints the largest circulation daily newspaper in Israel, a publication that is given away for free) is the single biggest booster of Prime Minister Netanyahu in the world. He has more influence than anyone in Israel on the Prime Minister’s popularity. Furthermore, Netanyahu also raised a significant proportion of his campaign funds from supporters living abroad. Finally, so much of the funds used by the right-wing to advance their agenda has come from American Jews. That includes all the funds used to purchase Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. So if the right can work to support the political positions of the right-wing Israeli political parties, why can’t the left do the same?

That being said, I have never been a supporter of J Street and I have always questioned their methods. In this case, in reverse of the well-known phrase – “I oppose everything you say, but support your right to say it”. In the case of J Street, I actually agree with some of their political opinions, but question their right to say it – at least in the forums it chooses to speak out. I question whether Israeli or American Jews need a lobbying organization that often opposes the positions of the Israeli government. To some that is a technicality, but to me, lobbying against Israel’s position in Congress is something wholly different from being a vocal US supporter of the Israel’s left.

So where does that leave me? Confused. Personally, I often oppose both the Left and the Right. I oppose the Left for believing it’s solely up to us to achieve peace and ignoring the constant failure of the Palestinians to compromise. I am tired of hearing that we are the stronger party, and thus we should compromise. That goes against thousands of years of history. It is the weaker party that usually has to compromise. Yet, throughout their history, the Palestinians have failed to agree to any compromise. As to my friends on the Right – they are, sad to say, delusional as they believe that the occupation can go on forever, and that somehow we can remain a Jewish and democratic State. Some of them might not care about the democratic dimension of the State, but I certainly do.

So to my friends in America: I am not a fan of J Street, but I believe you should find a way of including them in the tent of the Presidents’ Conference. If the American Friends of the Likud can have a legitimate seat at the table, then so should J-Street.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of Historycentral.com -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne