J Street — the new dovish pro-Israel lobby/political action committee — is facing stiff criticism from an unlikely source: Rabbi Eric Yoffie, arguably the Jewish community’s most important dove.
In an opinion piece in the Forward, Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, slams J Street’s recent criticisms of Israel’s actions in Gaza:
At the same time, if some Jewish hawks are devoid of sympathy for Palestinian suffering, not a few Jewish doves have demonstrated an utter lack of empathy for Israel’s predicament. J Street, a new Washington lobbying group and a major voice of the dovish pro-Israel community, has spoken out sharply against Israel’s actions in Gaza. While it claims to represent the moderate American Jewish majority, in this case it has misread the issues and misjudged the views of American Jews.
It is not easy for me to write these words. I welcomed the founding of J Street and know many of those involved in its leadership. Furthermore, I am a dove myself. I support a two-state solution, believe that military action by Israel should be a last resort and welcome an active American role in promoting peace between Israel and her neighbors. But I know a mistake when I see one, and this time J Street got it very wrong.
J Street’s first statement expressed ‘understanding’ for Israel’s motivations, and called — as I do — for a political rather than a military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nonetheless, its conclusion was that Israel made a mistake in attacking Hamas and that the United States and others must press for an immediate cease-fire.
A second J Street statement was worse by far. It could find no moral difference between the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian militants, who have launched more than 5,000 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli civilians in the past three years, and the long-delayed response of Israel, which finally lost patience and responded to the pleas of its battered citizens in the south. ‘Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong,’ it said, and it suggested that there was no reason and no way to judge between them: ‘While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.’
These words are deeply distressing because they are morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, has fired back with a counter statement, defending his organization’s opposition to the Israeli attacks, and taking particular exception to the tenor of Yoffie’s criticisms:
Our position on the crisis reflects our support for Israel, our hope for its security and our sympathy with the ongoing suffering of the people on both sides in this conflict. It is hard for us to understand how the leading reform rabbi in North America could call our effort to articulate a nuanced view on these difficult issues “morally deficient.”
And in case you missed the point, Ben-Ami gets back to it at the end:
The views we hold may not be those of Rabbi Yoffie, and that’s fine. We accept and welcome an open and honest debate about the merits of our pro-Israel positions.
But to call our views “morally deficient”, “naïve” and “out of touch” with Jewish sentiment is to misread the emerging dynamics of centrist, pro-Israel Jews.
This is a recurring line from J Street officials and the organization’s biggests fans, who complain that established pro-Israel organizations, Jewish communal leaders and pundits seek to delegitimize them simply for asking legitimate questions about Israeli policies. The only problem is that in this case it is J Street that has been consistently questioning the legitimacy of those who happen to think that Israel is right to be taking military action right now.
First came Ben-Ami’s initial statement in response to Israel’s launching of air strikes, which he opened with this declaration (my italics):
"While this morning’s air strikes by Israeli Defense Forces in Gaza can be understood and even justified in the wake of recent rocket attacks, we believe that real friends of Israel recognize that escalating the conflict will prove counterproductive, igniting further anger in the region and damaging long-term prospects for peace and stability."
So millions of Israelis and American Jews (not to mention Israel’s prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister) who think that Israel is right to be striking Hamas in an effort to stop rocket attacks against Israeli popuation centers are not real friends of Israel?
Too nitpicky? Next came an e-mail sent out by J Street’s online director, Isaac Luria, in which he said that his organization "wants to demonstrate that, among those who care about Israel and its security, there is a constituency for sanity and moderation" (again, my italics). And finally, in response to Yoffie’s piece in the Forward, Ben-Ami puts J Street in the "third stream of Jews" described by Ha’aretz correspondent Anshel Pfeffer:
[There is a] third stream of Jews — perhaps not the widest one, but I believe quite significant — who have more complex and uncomfortable feelings on the matter. They care deeply for Israel and understand even why its government felt compelled to launch the devastating Operation Cast Lead, but they are extremely disturbed and hurt by the level of civilian deaths and destruction that almost seems part and parcel of the action. Surely, they say, there must, there has to be another way of doing this. And they live with those doubts, often unexpressed, even among families and close friends because the worst thing they find is that others around them don’t seem to discern between the different nuances, and can’t find in themselves compassion for the dead and wounded on the other side. They begin asking themselves very awkward questions: Are they surrounded by latent racists, or is something wrong with them that denies the feelings of certainty of those around them? Or does everyone have similar doubts but are simply afraid to express them?
For those keeping score, according to J Street officials, if you support Israel’s current course of action, you are: 1) not a real friend of Israel, 2) do not support sanity and moderation, 3) don’t discern nuances, 4) don’t feel compassion for dead and wounded Palestinians, and 5) might be a latent racist.
Hey, it’s a free country, but if you’re going to go around expressing views like those, you lose the right to cry foul when someone turns around and accuses you of saying something that is "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve."
And, just to be clear, while Yoffie has some substantive disagreements with J Street in this instance, its not the organization’s strategic assesment that has the rabbi worked up, as much as drawing a moral equivalence between Hamas and Israel. The particular line in question comes from Luria’s e-mail, when he proudly proclaimed: "I recognize that neither Israelis nor Palestinians have a monopoly on right or wrong. While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them."
A final note. You can agree or disagree with J Street’s position, but let’s be clear on what it is and is not. Ben-Ami paints half a picture when he lumps J Street in with 30 peace organizations that "signed a public call for an immediate ceasefire." The call came nearly a week after Israel first launched its retaliatory strikes — and is supported by many people who backed the initial Israeli actions. In other words, they think Israel was right to respond with force, but now think the time has come to talk.
Now that’s a nuanced position — and its not J Street’s. The same day that Israel launched its air strikes, Ben-Ami spoke out passionately against them in his statement, essentially arguing that Israel should not be responding militarily to the current wave of rocket attacks against its civilian population in the south.
Of course, being nuanced can be overrated, and in some cases even wrong. But for a group like J Street, whick talks as if it all but has a monopoly on the concept, you’d expect something a little less black and white.
UPDATE: In all fairness, I should add that Ben-Ami did close his response to Yoffie on a conciliatory (and somewhat nuanced) note:
J Street is very grateful to Rabbi Yoffie for the important leadership he has demonstrated over the years in speaking out on controversial and complex issues. We look forward to continuing this conversation with respect for each other’s support for Israel and for our differences on how best to move forward.