Because they are Jewish


I got great bloggy-snark material at the J Street sessions this morning.

Item 1: At the Palestinian Perspectives session, participants — all Palestinian, or representing Palestinian groups — speak about the risks of losing the opportunity for a two-state solution, among them the loss of the prospect of a Jewish democratic state.

That’s right, "Jewish."

Amjad Atallah, the moderator, the co-chair of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force and a former PLO negotiator, recalls a recent evening with Tel Aviv, and remembers the city — dreamily, alarmingly, with a grin — as a "bubble." (The impression is enhanced by his more than passing resemblance to George Clooney, and that his dinner partner in his story is a young woman.)

Nadia Bilbassy, a correspondent for the Saudi-owned Middle East Broadcasting Center, says she is speaking today not as a journalist but as a Gazan and a Palestinian. She relates a harrowing account of growing up under occupation — but also says she knows that her Israeli friends "have no other place they can call home," which is why she favors two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian.

Hussein Ibish of the American Task Force on Palestine says that Israel "can’t be meaningfully Jewish or meaningfully Palestinian" without the two state solution, and imagines a pluralistic, democratic, demilitarized Palestine as its neighbor.

And Bassim Khoury, who has just resigned as Economics Minister from the Palestinian Authority because of its failure to advance the Goldstone report, counts among his ministerial accomplishments the end of trade with settler businesses — but in doing so, emphasizes his pride in his dealings with "green line" Israel, and that he was a pioneer businessmen in trading with Israel. He recalls bringing his employees into Israel for tours (before such outings were rendered almost impossible by security measures) because he thought it was important for them to encounter their neighbors.

Let me emphasize: These are all moderates, their views are not necessarily pervasive among Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (especially not the Gaza Strip) and their recognition of Israel’s Jewishness stems not from capitualtion but from their own deepseated national aspirations. Those aspirations are central to their political makeups; recognizing Israel’s Jewishness, even its "Israelness" is an effect of their nationalism, not its cause and, believe me, not something that preoccupies them.


Item 2: I walk out and across the hall, a session on "What does it mean to be pro-Israel?" is breaking up. A young guy in a kippah, barely out of his teens, is chatting with panelist Matthew Yglesias, the Center for American Progress blogger. The kid is  "making it clear" to Yglesias that he favors two states for "practical reasons," not for "ideological" reasons.

At another session next door on "Messaging Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace," participants relate frontline tales of making Israel’s case to Jewish friends and neighbors who simply don’t "get" particularism.

Item 3: According to this Jerusalem Post story, J Street U, the organization’s campus is dropping "pro-Israel" from its descriptive.

So: Snark alert. The Palestinians at J Street recognize Israel as Jewish. The Jews, maybe not so much.

Except: This is beside the point.

Let me digress a little, to my gut, and what I started sensing the second day of the conference; to the "been there, done that" feeling you get.

J Street is American and liberal, but what I was recalling was neither. Let me explain.

The reason, I think, for the phenomenal rise of the right in Israel — from a laughable rump through the 1970s to the party of inevitability in the 1980s — is its "because they’re Jewish" ethos.

The Labor establishment earned its reputation for elitism — maybe not all of it, a lot of what we believe now about leftist Ashkenazi snobbery is the result of how the Likud seized control of the narrative. But a chunk of it, the left deserved, and I saw it up close in 1978, when I first went to Israel: The disdain for the religious, for Jews from Arab lands, for the self-employed, for independent enterprise.

The right, the Likud, didn’t just get the remainders, it embraced them. Wherever you were from, whatever your beliefs, the right-wingers embraced you because you were Jewish. Maybe too much. The Likud became, infamously, an unworkable mash of working class entitlists and small business libertarians, of Sephardi rebels and Yekke didacts.

But: Menachem Begin engineered the Ethiopian aliya, because they were Jewish — the rest was commentary. He bucked the rabbinical establishment, and heeded Reform leader Alexander Schindler, who argued that the Law of Return must embrace those whom Hitler had defined as Jewish — because they were Jewish.

The rest was commentary.

This approach was contagious. If you were on a campus and alone, or lonely, and invited to a Shabbat meal, out dancing, to a party, chances were the guy dragging you out of your dorm, the girl asking you to dinner, was a Likud voter. And he or she was doing it because you were Jewish. When I lived in Jerusalem, my friends, whom I argued heatedly and repeatedly with, were mostly on the right, because of the city, yes, but also because those friendships were easier to make.

Of course, the flip side to this warmth might be Jewish exceptionalism, even racism. Might be. Not always, not even often. The warmth, the welcoming was simultaneously exceptionalist and diverse, and the diversity mitigated against insularity, and allowed in every opinion, every creed, every color, every thought. You could (and I did) vigorously argue against the deleteriousness of blind nationalism, for the rights of Palestinians, and your interlocutor, the girl across the dining table, the guy behind the fruit stand, would shift and shuffle, bursting to tell you you were an idiot and an ignoramus, but he would hear you out.

And that — that sense, that memory of welcoming, of listening, of (even) loving  "because they’re Jewish" is what I recalled today. Except it was coming from the left.

And the role of the old Labor elite, the way of our way or the highway, has been assumed by the Jewish establishment, the stubborn no-shows, except for a few observers; by the Israeli establishment, the bloodyminded no shows, except for an embassy observer.

This is a policy, mark my word, and it is not even an indigenous policy; it emanates from Jerusalem, from the prime minister’s office. Honestly, I want to collar someone there and ask, what are you thinking? Why aren’t you listening, not because they are right, but because they’re Jewish?*

How did this flip flop? What happened?

I don’t know. The American Jewish right, perhaps, has never been as generous as its Israeli counterpart; the Israeli right has atrophied, has grown comfortable with power, and with expecting fealty instead of a fight. Yitzhak Rabin, a lifelong outsider who understood the power of the offered embrace, transformed the left, and the roles reversed. Maybe. Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder, grew up in a Revisionist family and turned on the right’s expansionist politics, but not on its expansive sensibilities. Maybe. It’s no coincidence that Tzipi Livni, a daughter of the Revisionist right, refused to freeze out J Street. I don’t know.

And so, yes, J Street’s opinions are at times ill-informed, unformed, unfounded, and its dithering on questions as urgent as Iran makes me crazy as a reporter (Just say something that actually makes sense, please!) but this is because it is listening, not dictating. Because they are Jewish.

And yes, the people it is trying to bring in are vexing and vexatious. And some of them pose a real dilemma: They also don’t want to listen. These unreconstructed leftist Zionist, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists  are gleeful that the  "other side," the establishment, boycotted the conference. It makes it easier to wax triumphalist (It’s the age of Obama, the establishment is breathing its last!) And this is J Street’s challenge (and I honestly wonder if it is up to it), to convince them to listen to the establishment and to the right, because they are Jewish.

And so, yes, I wanted to slap the little snot upside the head for babbling on about supporting two states for "practical" not "ideological" reasons (we are so past that), but, heaven help me, I also wanted to embrace him. I wanted to shift and shuffle, and shout at him that he was an idiot and an ignoramus, but also to embrace him.

Because he is Jewish.

* Upon rereading myself… it is more complicated. Yes, according to dependable sources, some people in the prime minister’s orbit have argued for essentially ignoring Diaspora Jews who have a different view of things; at the same time, the buzz in Washington is that Michael Oren was hearing much more from Jewish organizational types here who wanted him to skip the J Street conference, than he was hearing from the home office back in Jerusalem.

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