November 19, 2019

‘Many in J Street are pro-peace first and pro-Israel second’

Dr. Gilbert Kahn, professor of political science at Kean University, discusses J Street, its policies and its future.

J Street is both a political vehicle and a form of identity, how do the two go together – or don’t they?

J Street has become a form of identification, although at its inception it was understood to be an alternative or different voice which was part of the conversation about the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Structurally it was set up to behave somewhat differently than the Jewish defense organizations on the one hand and AIPAC on the other. For example it would not be tax exempt, it would lobby, and it would raise money and donate to candidates. 

It has become a form of identity and because of that, I believe, it has suffered. There has been a perception of an agenda as a result of which J Street has lost some potential supporters. In addition it is not clear how effective its political efforts have been because some of the positions that it has taken have been beyond the bounds for many of its backers.

You write that, “the likelihood is that J Street will obtain its greatest traction and following among members who are pro-peace and not viewed as especially strongly supportive of Israel, or are even pro-Arab”. That’s a strong statement – can you please explain it?

One gets a sense that J Streeters (I do not like to generalize) set up their priorities in reverse from most American Jews who are involved in Middle East politics. Unlike other groups, it seems to me that many in J Street are pro-peace first and pro-Israel second. Most activist American Jews feel the need to feel that Israel is secure before addressing the peace issue. Today – leaving aside the Iran discussion, which really can’t be left aside – Israel is in an excellent position to engage the Palestinians in peace talks and could even begin to dismantle illegal settlements and outposts; but for domestic political reasons this government argues that it is too risky to do so when in fact it is not risky from a security perspective – but it is very risky from a political perspective.

You also write that AIPAC “generally follow the direction of the Israeli government.” However, AIPAC critics (J Street activists included) blame AIPAC for only following hawkish policies – they specifically retell the story of AIPAC’s reluctance to accept the Oslo accords. So, following or obstructing?

Both. AIPAC’s history involves being more moderate in one period and more hawkish today. AIPAC did not oppose Oslo but some of their leadership were ambivalent about it. They did not oppose Oslo, but they were not enthusiastic. even in the religious Zionist community there were supporters of Oslo, if for no other reason than the fact that it was the policy of the Israel government.

It seems as if a growing numbers of leftist activists are growing disenchanted with J Street. Where will they go?

This is a serious and sad situation because a strong Zionist voice on the left is valuable. Those who care first about peace and Israel will move into a stronger pro-peace camp and those who are first pro-Israel will try to find a new home or may need to create one. Some are suggesting that they may help to re-energize the Israel Policy Forum.

How much of J Street’s apparent failure is personal (i.e. the current leader is not the guy) and how much is institutional (i.e. you can’t succeed with such policies)?

It is difficult to tell but probably some of both have contributed to its struggles.

You mentioned that “Israel’s leadership, for the most part, has given [J Street] the cold shoulder” – do you see the speech by former prime minister Ehud Olmert to the J Street conference as an important breakthrough in that regard?

No. Olmert was a former prime minister but he has little standing today and little influence. He disgraced the office of prime minister and being the key note speaker at J Street ought to be embarrassing for J Street. It would be somewhat analogous to having Silvio Berlusconi address the European parliament about ethics in government.