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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

J Street: Liberal Bloggers Need To Study History, Not Memory

"J Street" is a new web-based group which promises to promote "peace" in the Middle East. J Street has garnered much attention, and a Memeorandum thread, based on an article in Jewish Week which asks "What is [it] about J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee, that has the leaders of major Jewish groups in such a snit?" The theme of the article is that a "pro-peace" liberal American Jewish group is a threat to the presumably "anti-peace" conservative American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and other mainstream pro-Israel groups.

Liberal bloggers think J Street is all that. In a post titled "Why is AIPAC So Afraid of J Street," Ezra Klein writes (emphasis mine):

J Street emerged at a moment when the political activity of major Jewish groups was receiving sustained scrutiny for the first time in memory. And that scrutiny kickstarted an overdue process of polarizing Jewish opinion over the generally right wing political approach favored by AIPAC. J Street, in other words, emerged as an alternative to AIPAC at the exact moment that a certain number of center-left and liberal Jews began wondering whether AIPAC remained a suitable representative for their beliefs.
In a post titled "What’s Driving the Jihad Against J Street," Matthew Yglesias follows Klein's lead in supposing that J Street represents a reaction to the new Israeli administration:

It’s a period of real risk in which many Jews, and many politicians who are interested in what Jews think, might see their allegiances shift away from an establishment that’s come to be dominated by neocon-type views that relatively few American Jews actually hold. Under the circumstances, I can see why there’s a real effort to preemptively discredit a group that stands for fairly conventional things—support of a two-state solution, opposition to settlements, belief that preemptive war has not been a boon to American or Israeli interests in the region, etc.—at a time when Israeli politics is lurching in a weird and disturbing direction.
J Street obviously loves the attention generated by being viewed as something truly new, an Obama-like yearning for hope amid a sea of despair. But liberal bloggers need to study history, not their memories. J Street is neither new in its collection of "peace" advocates nor innovative in it's policy positions. J Street represents fairly traditional (but unpopular) policy positions which focus on Israel as the problem and Israeli concessions as the answer.

The J Street phenomenon is picked apart very persuasively in Noah Pollak's post "They’re Doing the J Street Jive" (h/t Soccer Dad). First, Pollark points out that J Street is a collection of already existing groups under a new brand name modeled on left-wing organizations such as MoveOn:

Groups allied with J Street, such as Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and even the well-funded Israel Policy Forum, have all previously jousted with the pro-Israel establishment. But they merely fashioned themselves as openly dovish in policy. J Street’s goals are even more ambitious. It seeks to make its advocacy mainstream by re-branding policies that had been thought to be discredited by the demise of the Oslo Accords as moderate, thus effectively labeling the Jewish mainstream as right-wing and self-destructive.

The first step in this re-branding process is the fastidious attachment of the phrase “pro-Israel” to describe almost every statement that J Street makes. Professions of deep concern for Israeli security can be found in virtually all the group’s statements, despite J Street’s rejection of the security consensus of the Israeli government on most matters.... J Street models itself on a Moveon.org-style of activism, cultivating notoriety and, it hopes, political power from the involvement of a cast of bloggers, journalists, and activists who frequently promote and defend J Street on popular liberal websites.

But at its core, J Street is simply a re-branded version of policies espoused by old-time politicos such as William Fulbright, Chas Freeman, and Zbigniew Brzezinski. These policies stress the need for "balance" in U.S. foreign policy, which is a code word for pressuring Israel to take security risks in the hope that Arabs will give up their multi-generational goal of destroying Israel:

In order to transform relations between the U.S. and Israel, J Street intends to provide political cover for an American campaign to pressure the Israeli government into making more concessions for the sake of what it believes will be peace.... And what J Street hopes the President of the United States will tell Israel to do is immediately commence peace talks with Syria and Hamas, and support the inclusion of Hamas in a Palestinian unity government.
J Street has come under criticism, Pollak points out, not because it rehashes old policies, but because if employs the worst forms of moral equivalency in equating people who strap bombs on teenagers to blow up pizza parlors full of civilians, with Israel's attempts to defend itself against such terrorism. Pollak notes that this "was too much for even Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a self-proclaimed American dove." Read the rest of the Pollak article for an informative examination of J Streets other policy pronouncements.

What is important, however, is that the liberal bloggers -- on whose beneficence J Street depends -- have it all wrong. J Street's blame Israel first focus is as old as Israel itself. Study history, not just your own memories, and you will see that pressuring Israel to put itself in a strategically weak position in the hope of garnering Arab goodwill has been advocated for generations. Peace may come to the region, but only when Israel is accepted as a legitimate and permanent Jewish state, not a "cancerous growth" which needs to be exterminated; and when moves towards peace and conciliation are not merely strategic ploys to push back the borders.

I do think Klein makes one good point. Jews of his generation lack historical perspective:
The experience of Jewishness for older Jews -- the generation of Jews that endured the Holocaust, or was directly descended from that generation -- is substantially different from my generation's experience of Jewishness. The sense of continued threat and acute vulnerability that is the abiding companion of older Jews is increasingly absent from younger Jews.
Lack of historical perspective, however, can lead to the wrong conclusions about the Middle East peace process. The reason the "balanced" policy has not caught on is not because of a vast neo-con right-wing Jewish conspiracy. To the contrary, the vast majority of Americans understand the history of the region and do not rely on their own short memories.

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