Is anyone not pro-Israel? Is anyone not pro-peace?


A few weeks back I noted that J Street was essentially adopting some of the objectionable tactics that its supporters delpore when used by right-wingers. Jonathan Chait of The New Republic makes a similar argument in his latest column, as he takes issue with J Street over how it framed its objections to Israel’s attacks on Hamas in Gaza. Frankly, at this point, the organization has taken enough pounding over the issue, but one point in Chait’s piece is worth pondering further, especially when you work for an international Jewish news agency:

J Street, perhaps reflecting Ben-Ami’s background in the Clinton administration and the Howard Dean campaign, shares the contemporary liberal obsession with rhetoric and framing. It’s not a frivolous concern. Many Jews casually interpret "pro-Israel" to mean support for the Likud platform. Thus the answer to what is properly the subject of debate ("What is good for Israel?") is presupposed by a label.

J Street’s own rhetoric, though, pulls off an analogous trick. It calls itself the "pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby." Well, who opposes peace? Everybody has their own iteration of peace, from Hamas (all Jews decide to leave the Middle East or submit to Islamic rule) to the Israeli settler movement (Palestinians decide to move to Jordan or submit to perpetual Israeli occupation) to more reasonable compromises in between. Among advocates of a two-state solution, the debate focuses on whether Palestinian or Israeli intransigence is the major impediment. Labeling an ideology "pro-peace" presupposes the answer to the question "What is the best way to achieve peace?"

Likewise, conservatives employ crude dualism–either you unquestionably support everything Israel does, or you support its enemies. J Street flips the dualism around–either you’re with the settlers and the Christian right, or you’re with the J Street mainstream. This is a clever way to build J Street’s appeal to American Jews who, for the most part, distrust the Christian right.

A letter-writer to The Jewish Week, Melvin Farber, gets at the same point:

Why does your paper, as well as other Jewish and secular papers, continue to refer to organizations like the J Street Lobby, Americans for Peace Now, New Israel Fund and Israel Policy Forum as pro-peace (“Fresh Rift Emerges Over War Response,” Jan. 9)?

They are left-wing and extreme left-wing groups that believe that a piece of paper signed by the Palestinians and Arab governments will deliver peace to Israel. Zionist Organization of America and other groups believe in peace through strength, rather than through appeasement. Yet you don’t refer to them as pro-peace. You either refer to them by name or as a right-wing group. To be fair to all groups, refer to all only by name. Alternatively, those that support agreements and Israeli withdrawals should be labeled left wing and those on the other side should be called right wing. I would hope, that whichever side one is on, we are all pro-peace for Israel.

Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of the New Jersey Jewish News and my managing editor when I started writing at the Forward, used to discourage us from using labels like hawkish and dovish, left-wing and right-wing. Why not just take a few words to explain the individual’s or organization’s positions. Instead of writing "the leftist Joe Shmo," try "Joe Shmo, who favors abortion rights and gay marriage."

This approach makes a lot of sense, especially at a point when old paradigms have broken down. Take the word "hawk" — when I was in high school back in the 1980s, that meant you supported Jewish settlements, oposed a two-state solution and resisted U.S. diplomatic intervention. Ariel Sharon flipped on all three counts once he became prime minister — so was he a dove? J Street bills itself as "pro-peace" and its supporters cast the new group as a counter to AIPAC — yet AIPAC backs a two-state solution, aid to the Palestinian Authority, Arab support for the P.A. and a U.S. role in the peace process. To be sure, there are style and strategic differences between the two organizations, but you could argue that AIPAC and J Street have much more in common on the big picture than AIPAC does with groups like ZOA that oppose (at least at this point) a two-state solution. Of course, you could also argue that J Street and ZOA have the most in common, despite their stark political differences, because they — unlike AIPAC — are willing to criticize the Israeli and American governments. So does that mean neither of them are pro-Israel?

To be continued…

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