What J Street oughta learn

After a presentation on the extraordinary diary of Ruth Maier – who was deported from Norway and murdered in Auschwitz – Odd Einar Dørum, then the chair of the Norwegian Holocaust Center, gave a few eloquent remarks on antisemitism and Jewish identity, and included a stern condemnation of Ariel Sharon’s hawkish policies.

Nobody in the audience needed to ask how contemporary Israeli politics was relevant to a discussion on the emerging Jewish identity of a secular young woman who grew up during the Holocaust.

Because this happens all the time here: whether the topic is Israel, antisemitism, or Jewish history and religion, well-meaning individuals feel compelled to consistently indemnify themselves against any suspicion of supporting, or sympathizing with, Israeli “right-wing” tendencies as they are reported in the mainstream press.

Disassociating yourself from Avigdor Liberman is at least as important as distancing yourself from antisemitic tendencies. And this goes for Norwegian Jews, too:

“We can’t hold Jews in Norway responsible for the Israeli government’s policy” is an oft-repeated argument against conflating pervasive antipathy against Israel with antisemitic attitudes.

The question that remains unanswered in this kind of reasoning, is this: “What if I did? What if I support Likud or Yisrael Beitenu, what if I actually believed that Jews should be able to live in Hebron or Shechem? Would you be justified in holding my Jewishness against me?”

J Street is the (unwitting, I hope) alibi for this kind of bigotry. “How can it be antisemitic to condemn Israel,” people ask, “when large organizations like J Street agree with me?”

There are, of course, good answers to this question, but they take time and require attention: Israeli politics are full of controversy, and we should be a lot more worried if they weren’t. J Street may agree with some of your critical sentiments, but not all of them. J Street itself is controversial, no less than any current or past Israeli government. And obviously: while it is not antisemitic to be critical of Israel, it is entirely possible to promote antisemitism by condemning Israel.

Conventional wisdom in Norway (and all too many places in the world) is that peace between Israel and the Palestinians depends on one thing and one thing only, namely a simple and morally self-evident decision by the Israeli government. The implication being that the only reason why there is no peace is because the Israeli government does not want peace. And the further implication is that anyone who fails to insist that the Israeli government make the “easy decision” is also responsible for continued conflict. Especially – as it happens – Jews.

The ambivalence about J Street is therefore well-founded. To the extent that the organization gives comfort to demonization of Israel, its efforts are counterproductive to Israel and prospects for peace. But it also gives legitimacy to the Zionist cause that diverse voices are spoken and heard. Just as it diminishes our credibility when we lock out opinions we don’t like.

In all likelihood, J Street’s exclusion from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations may have done it more good than harm, and we can only hope this leads to an introspection both among supporters and detractors of J Street.

As prominent critics of Israeli politics, J Street has the street cred to draw sharp lines in the sand in the broader debate: to point out that while Israel’s settlement policy may be misguided and counterproductive, they are not evil. To point out that while both Israel and the Palestinians have to move out of their comfort zone to find peace, the Palestinians have farther to go. That while the Israeli political leadership is controversial, it is democratically elected and accountable, whereas the Palestinian leadership is neither.

We can only hope.

About the Author
Leif Knutsen writes on Jewish and Israeli issues. He recently returned to Norway after 20 years in the New York area