Thank You for Putting J Street on Trial

Categories: Letters From Leadership

Last Wednesday, a Knesset Committee met in order to determine whether J Street had the right to call itself “pro-Israel.” The Knesset Member who called for the hearing, Otneil Schneller, “told the Forward that being pro-Israel can only mean defending the policy and conduct of the elected government, whatever one’s personal opinions.” Therefore, J Street did not pass his litmus test. While my friends and fellow travelers on the American Jewish left denounced the hearing –as did some centrist groups–, I found it edifying and thought-provoking, and was inspired to write the following letter.

Dear Mr. Schneller:

Thank you for helping to orchestrate the hearing on J Street. Even before the proceedings, you had obviously concluded that J Street was not pro-Israel, because you explained to the Jerusalem Post: “American Jewish groups, right or left, should understand that they should maintain full solidarity with Israel overseas –and when [Kadima opposition leader] Tzipi Livni or [left-wing Meretz MK] Haim Oron become prime ministers. I will demand the same loyalty from right-wing groups.”

Your definition of pro-Israel is not new. But by using an official setting to proclaim that J Street is not Israel’s friend, you’ve provided an opportunity to delve more deeply into what some Israelis “demand” from American Jews, and to receive instructions on exactly how you would like us to behave.

“The code that was broken is more serious than the content” of J Street’s positions, you said. So let us now try to define that code more precisely, shall we? It’s a code I’ve been asked to follow all my life, but because you and others who advocate it have never fully defined the rules, I’ve always found it a bit confusing. Please help me out here. If I understand you correctly, you believe American Jews are pro-Israel only if we:

1) Have no principles, no values of our own. Instead, we must be amoral ventriloquists’ dummies, giving voice to whatever the Israeli government says at any given moment. Did I get that right?

Apparently you believe there can be no exceptions to the requirement that we publicly agree with each and every Israeli policy. J Street recently mobilized many hundreds of people to lobby Congress for aid to Israel (and the Palestinian Authority), including the American defense package that will help Israel maintain its qualitative military edge. After initially objecting to sanctions against Iran for various reasons, it eventually threw its weight behind sanctions, a high priority of the Israeli government. But that was not enough for you. You told the J Streeters, ”You are not Zionist and you don’t look out for Israel’s interests,” and your colleague Danny Danon called them “pro-Palestinian” because they took some stances neither of you liked.

The Zionist Organization of America routinely criticizes the current Israel government and it openly lobbied Congress against the peace policies of Labor-led governments. So, can I assume you believe that it, too, should be banished from the pro-Israel tent? Or do you first need to convene another hearing and grill ZOA President Morton Klein? Will there be a third hearing on American Jews who quietly fund illegal settlement outposts? I would be eager to hear Mr. Danon, an advocate for the settlers, explain to them why they are his enemies, too.

2) Lobby against the U.S. government’s positions whenever Israel disagrees with them, even if we believe our government is acting in the best interests of our own country as well as Israel. For years, we’ve been hearing that unless we live and vote in Israel, unless we serve in your army, we have no right to publicly disagree with official Israeli policies. Now, Israelis who don’t live here and don’t vote here are instructing us on how to participate in America’s political process, what to say to our own President and Congressional reps. Is that correct?

3) Ignore the steady drift of young people from the American Jewish community. One reason they are leaving is that they cannot defend what they consider to be morally indefensible, like the fact that your government permits the rousting of Palestinians out of their houses in East Jerusalem to make room for Jewish settlers. Many young American Jews want a home where they can call themselves pro-Israel and feel pride in being Jewish without sacrificing universal moral values. J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu and like-minded groups try to provide that home.

But you would like us to ignore the challenge completely and deny them that home, right? I am committed to Israel’s future because I am committed to the Jewish people and its survival, but you don’t have the slightest bit of concern about the survival of our community here, do you? In fact, you openly demeaned it, comparing “the mentality of exile with that of redemption.” Is your ultimate goal to dramatically shrink the number of American Jews who care about Israel and the Jewish people? That is a truly revolutionary approach to Israel-Diaspora relations and to securing Israel’s future. In fact, I am going to urge my local Federation to convene a hearing and invite you to expound upon this idea.

4) Accept the proposition that as American citizens we have the right to publicly object to the policies and behavior of countries throughout the world, but the one country we are forbidden to criticize is Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people, whose actions are taken in our name.

During his testimony at your star chamber…I mean, your hearing, J Street Board Chair Davidi Gilo said, “I shall finish with a quotation from the words of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, at a conference of `Taglit’ Jewish young adults in 2003: `I want you to know that Israel is not just an Israeli project. Israel is a Jewish universal project. It is yours no less than it is ours and you share the responsibility for what will happen here. No, you don’t have to carry the whole burden upon your shoulders, but it is your responsibility, because whatever will happen in the future in the state of Israel, will influence the lives of Jews the world over.’”

I do not believe you responded to that quote, or to that concept. Do you agree with it? Or do you think Israel is the universal Jewish project but we should not say a word when we believe the project has gone awry, just continue to keep our mouths shut and our checkbooks open?

I look forward to your clarifications. I want to be “pro-Israel,” I really do, but I need more guidance from Israelis like you who have obviously thought deeply about the nuances and complexities of life in the Diaspora.

B’Shalom,
Dan Fleshler

About Dan Fleshler, Board Member

Dan Fleshler, a New York-based media and public affairs strategist, is a board member of Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now and the Givat Haviva Educational Foundation. His book, "Transforming America's Israel Lobby-The Limits of Its Power and the Potential for Change"(a new release from Potomac Books) published in May of 2009 has received overwhelmingly positive reviews. He blogs at Realistic Dove (www.realisticdove.org/)
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