J Street and the backlash from the left


Jeremy Ben-Ami’s relative moderation, as expressed in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg  — denouncing the Walt-Mearsheimer theses, backing military assistance for Israel, strongly favoring a two-state solution — should not have come as a surprise.

He has consistently positioned himself as a centrist in interviews and, while I note in my earlier post that some of this forcefulness is new, the actual positions should not be a surprise. He calls J Street pro-Israel, he is the grandchild of founders, his rise was launched in the centrist Clinton administration — and, most germanely, he and his flacks have strongly and consistently spoken of two states and rejected the idea of one state. (It’s why I chose not to extract that passage of the Goldberg interview — nothing new there.)

So it’s a bit of a bafflement as to why some figures on the farther left are waking up to this now. It’s true that J Street has feinted left, pulling back from hot button issues such as the abortive appointment of Saudi apologist Chas Freeman to a top intelligence post, the Goldstone report and especially on Iran, where it wants sanctions, it’s just not sure when. Its single posture aligned unabashedly with the American left was on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza last winter — it repeatedly and forcefully called for its end, from day one.

Otherwise, its difference with mainstream pro-Israel views has been on the intensity of  U.S. intervention to achieve accelerated Israeli-Palestinian talks; and on style — in terms of airing U.S.-Israel differences instead of keeping them behind closed doors. But not much on substance.

Still, there’s a little knickers twisting going on among the left. My former colleague and always buddy Daniel Sieradski treats the issue here in the Washington Examiner.com.

As neoconservative columnists and other hawkish pro-Israel voices mount pressure on members of congress to withdraw from the convention’s host committee, J Street has taken pains to demonstrate that it is far more centrist than some progressives initially believed.

Grabbing the prize for "most out of the loop" is Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah who apparently didn’t get until now that "two states" means, um, two states. He thinks that Ben-Ami’s contention that a single state is the Jewish "nightmare" is "amazing":

Look at his words, it’s really amazing. He could be a white supremacist in the south contemplating the end of Jim Crow, or an Afrikaner talking about the end of apartheid. All this is apparently so unremarkable however when it comes to Zionists contemplating the end of Jewish supremacy.

Next up are Josh Healey and Kevin Coval, who were to headline a poetry session at the conference. They were dropped after the Weekly Standard’s Michael Goldfarb uncovered a poem in which Healey likened Israel’s behavior in Gaza to the Nazis. (Instead, Coval and Healey are staging a reading at Busboys and Poets on Sunday.)

What is disappointing, and troubling, is J Street’s response in caving to this sort of McCarthyism. The executive director of J Street called us to say "I know what I’m doing is wrong … but there are some battles we choose not to fight," before canceling our program, and disinviting us from the conference. This accommodates their red-baiting and is the wrong response. Rather than give in, which only emboldens the right and legitimizes their attacks, we need to stand up for our principles and engage on that front.

I honestly hope that Jeremy did not say he knows he is wrong, and instead pointed out that an organization that has called on the Jewish mainstream to distance itself from pro-Israel Christians for allegedly abusing Jewish imagery doesn’t have much of a choice when it comes to fevered fretting about imaginary "numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza."

Richard Silverstein likes parts of Goldberg’s interview, but takes issue with Jeremy’s treatment of Walt-Mearsheimer (oh, how I long at times for work where the most referenced hyphenated couple is Lennon-McCartney, but there ya go). Richard thinks Jeremy should be "ashamed" for saying that the authors crossed the line into a world where "somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes."

I agree that this is reductive, but not entirely off the mark. Walt-Mearsheimer have attempted — with some unfortunate success — to revive a standard where "Jew" raises flags in assessing Americanness. It is not blunt anti-Semitism — the target of such an examination may present, under the Walt-Mearsheimer test, competing evidence to prove loyalty — but, if anything, that makes it more insidious.

Richard also says Jeremy’s distancing from the lunchtime blogger’s panel Richard is organizing makes him feel "a little like Jesus," which I just ain’t gonna touch.

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