VOICES IN THE WILDERNESS
"NEW YORK — Later this month, a bevy of organizations, many of them Jewish and all of which consider themselves to be pro-Israel, will meet in Washington to plot political strategy.
What is significant about the meeting is that virtually all these organizations are on record in opposition to the policies of the current government of Israel, and are urging President Obama to keep up U.S. pressure to ensure that Israel does not take any further steps, such as settlement expansion, that would be likely to further antagonize its Palestinian negotiating partner.
Given the reluctance of any American Jewish organization to disagree in public with Israel in the past, the meeting can only be viewed as uncharted territory for organized American Jewry.
What has changed is the founding of J Street, a lobby that seeks to bring this viewpoint into the mainstream of Jewish American politics, and whose conference this is. It is too early to judge J Street’s success, but so far it is growing in a way that dwarfs all previous efforts. In the 18 months since it began, it has created a $3 million organization with a staff of 22. This doesn’t compare to the $70.6 million budget of the reigning pro-Israel lobby, Aipac (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee), but it’s an auspicious start.
The meeting, J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami explains, is designed in part to demonstrate that America’s Jewish peace camp “isn’t just 10 people gathering in a basement,” as well as to give its supporters the opportunity to “look at and see each other and feel less like lone voices in the wilderness.”
Not surprisingly, the voices that have until now dominated debate not only among Jews, but also in Congress and much of the media, are less than enthusiastic. Commentary’s Noah Pollak called J Street contemptible, dishonest and anti-Israel; James Kirchick of The New Republic called it the Surrender Lobby; Michael Goldfarb of The Weekly Standard said it was obsequious to terrorists and hostile to Israel.
Perhaps, but it is at least equally plausible to view the intemperance of their language as evidence of panic. The days of right-ruled American Jewish debate appear to be numbered, and with good reason.
No other nation on earth, save perhaps Israel, treats the Middle Eastern conflict as the United States does, with the Palestinians viewed exclusively as the irrational attackers and Israel as aggrieved innocents.
Yet, however costly and controversial, the policies continue almost unchanged from administration to administration, and Congress to Congress, dominated by the hardline positions of Aipac.
There are many good reasons why Aipac is so powerful and why American Jews defer to its judgment over who should be empowered to speak for them about U.S. Middle East policy. But support for the organization’s right-wing agenda is not one of them. According to recent polls by J Street, U.S. Jews support by 76 percent to 24 percent a two-state deal between Israel and the Palestinians, along the lines of the agreement nearly reached nine years ago during the Camp David and Taba talks.
This approach is routinely condemned by Aipac. The lobby has also remained silent on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. According to J Street, when U.S. Jews were told about Lieberman’s campaign proposal that Arab citizens of Israel should sign loyalty oaths and his threats against Arab members of the Israeli Parliament, they opposed these by 69 percent to 31 percent.
So the paradox is that while American Jews remain committed liberals — they voted overwhelming for Barack Obama over John McCain — they fund and support a neoconservative-dominated lobby when it comes to the Middle East.
It can’t go on forever. “As we get further from World War II, it’s harder to scare young people into support for Israel,” says M.J. Rosenberg, until recently with the dovish Israel Policy Forum. “They will support Israel if they believe in Israel and if Israel appeals to them. But those scare tactics, ‘write checks because there’s going to be another Holocaust,’ that doesn’t work with the under-60 crowd.”
These trends indicate that Barack Obama took a smaller political risk than his predecessors would have when he (temporarily, alas) stood up to Mr. Netanyahu on the issue of settlement expansion.
Not long before Ehud Olmert was forced to resign as prime minister, he predicted that “if the two-state solution collapses, Israel will face a South-Africa style struggle for political rights.” And should that happen, “the state of Israel is finished.”
Just how successful President Obama may be when the time comes to help Israel save itself from this fate might just depend on the success of voices finally coming in from the wilderness."Eric Alterman, a distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, New York, is at work on a book on American Jewish history.