J Street’s real failure

Just when J Street’s reason-for-being, a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fell into a deep coma, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations gave the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” group new life by rejecting its bid to join the umbrella group.

The rejection caused a big stir in the Jewish world and turned J Street into a cause célèbre. Now, instead of discussing the failure of the two-state solution, we’re discussing the failure of J Street to be included in the Jewish communal tent.

If you’re on the side of excluding J Street, good luck trying to counter this argument: “J Street should not be excluded from the Jewish communal tent just because of its different views.”

This notion of exclusion simply doesn’t feel Jewish. After all, the Conference already includes a wide array of groups with different ideologies, and for good reason. Diversity of opinion has always been the Jewish way (you know the joke, “Two Jews, 10 opinions”). 

So, why should J Street, an organization with 185,000 members, be treated any differently?

Those favoring exclusion say there are limits to the big-tent idea and that J Street has taken positions that go beyond the pale.

For instance, the group supported the controversial Goldstone Report that libeled Israel as a war criminal and undermined the country’s ability to defend itself. J Street also has been accused of collaborating with anti-Israel and pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) groups, such as Students for Justice in Palestine.

It opposed a congressional letter criticizing Palestinian incitement in the wake of the Itamar massacre that killed an Israeli family and, more recently, refused to condemn Fatah’s deal with Hamas, a terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction.

In other words, J Street has said and done things over the years that really stretch the definition of “pro-Israel,” and I can see why some traditional pro-Israel groups are reluctant to invite them into the communal tent.

That rejection, however, has given J Street a major PR boost while distracting us from the group’s deeper issues.

As I see it, beyond what it has said and done, J Street has two problems– arrogance and boredom.

Let’s start with boredom. J Street flaunts its push for a two-state solution as if it were Apple announcing the new iPhone. The group seems oblivious to the fact that it has added absolutely nothing new to the debate, except perhaps desire: “We hereby agree with the multitudes that came before us and declare that a two-state solution is highly desirable for all sides.”

Well, thanks for that.

J Street’s other problem is its utter absence of humility. It confuses desire with brilliance. There is nothing brilliant about pushing for a two-state solution, no matter how desirable that messianic dream is. I often ask myself: What does J Street know that Israeli voters don’t?

It’s as if J Street were saying to Israelis: “We know you’ve lost 24,000 lives defending yourselves against your enemies and that you’d love nothing better than to live in peace. But trust us — we will pressure your democratically elected government to change its policies because we know better than you what’s good for you.”

Essentially, J Street’s way of being “pro-Israel” is to put relentless pressure on Israel to make peace with its enemies, even if those enemies don’t want to reciprocate. I’ve been waiting for years for J Street to put equal pressure on the Palestinians to stop teaching Jew-hatred and start making concessions — and I’m still waiting.

What the peace process needs is not more what (the two-state solution) but more how (how do we get there). J Street’s contribution to this “how” is simply to pile on to what most of the world already does: pressure Israel.

For all of its claims to be “pro-Israel,” J Street has never tried to build emotional bonds between its liberal supporters and the Jewish state, based on liberal values. It has never promoted, for example, the culture of social activism prevalent in Israeli society on grassroots liberal issues such as minority rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, refugee rights, poverty relief, environmental protection and Jewish-Palestinian co-existence.

J Street could have taken advantage of its influence with young liberal Jews to deepen their connection and solidarity with Israel; to help them understand why Israelis vote the way they do (as my friend Yossi Klein Halevi says, “the typical Israeli is a dove who’s forced to be a hawk”); and, yes, even to defend Israel against the vicious lies that much of the world routinely spreads against Israel.

By limiting its “pro-Israel” stance to pressuring and lecturing Israel on a comatose peace process, J Street has bored us with its arrogance and further damaged Israel’s image.

More important, it has missed the opportunity to nurture a rich and complex relationship between liberal Jews and Israel that goes beyond the obsession with one unfixable issue.

If J Street ever gets a seat at the communal table, the first thing the community ought to do is confront them with this failure. They might find the seat a lot hotter than they expected.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.