Wednesday, January 28, 2009

J Street And Defining Pro-Israel

Last week, President Obama's advised Republicans, "You can't just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done." Limbaugh responded, and in an interview with Byron York concluded:
One more thing, Byron. Your publication and website have documented Obama's ties to the teachings of Saul Alinksy while he was community organizing in Chicago. Here is Rule 13 of Alinksy's Rules for Radicals:

"Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it."
Such a strategy is neither new nor unknown.

Take for example Jonathan Chait's piece Tough Love about how J Street defines the term pro-Israel in the context of framing AIPAC as a right-wing group:
Last year, a new Middle East lobby called J Street was formed to push American Jewish opinion in a more conciliatory direction. "What we're responding to," wrote J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami last year, "is that for too long there's been an alliance between the neo-cons, the radical right of the Christian Zionist movement and the far-right portions of the Jewish community that has really locked up what it means to be pro-Israel."
Chait boils down the right-left clash on supporting Israel into a case of dueling shibboleths:
Right-wing Zionism thrives on a sense of victimhood and encirclement. J Street has won a cult following among liberal bloggers by tapping into an equivalent narrative of persecution and bravery. Ben-Ami last year denounced conservatives "who, through the use of fear and intimidation, have cut off reasonable debate on the topic." Here, J Street has borrowed heavily from Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who argued that "the Lobby" controls the U.S. foreign policy debate in part by silencing critics. (J Street adviser Daniel Levy described the Walt-Mearsheimer book as a "wake-up call.")

...J Street, perhaps reflecting Ben-Ami's background in the Clinton administration and the Howard Dean campaign, shares the contemporary liberal obsession with rhetoric and framing. [emphasis added]
What is interesting is that Chait suggests that in light of recent developments in the Middle East, it may be that after J Street has framed their narrative, the picture itself has changed:
Likewise, conservatives employ crude dualism--either you unquestionably support everything Israel does, or you support its enemies. J Street flips the dualism around--either you're with the settlers and the Christian right, or you're with the J Street mainstream. This is a clever way to build J Street's appeal to American Jews who, for the most part, distrust the Christian right. But Israel's battle in Gaza has exposed the inconvenient fact that J Street sits outside of the Jewish mainstream. Not only Likud supported the attack, but also centrist Kadima, liberal Labor, and even (initially) left-wing Meretz. American Jewish opinion on Gaza hasn't been polled, but it generally tends to track Israeli Jewish opinion.
Removing the frame leads to questions about how J Street--and other 'well meaning friends of Israel'--are pro-Israel. This is an issue that Chait delves into with surgical precision:
Which leads to the question of what exactly J Street thinks it means to be "pro-Israel." Some of its spokesmen invoke "tough love" for Israel, and Ben-Ami compares J Street's mission to taking the car keys away from a drunk friend. J Street is no doubt sincere in its belief that Israel would benefit from a more dovish line. But, if the conservative definition of "pro-Israel" raises the threshold too high, J Street's sets it too low. Even people we think of as harsh critics of certain countries would embrace them if they were willing to adopt radically different policies. Dick Cheney no doubt thinks Iranians would stand to gain by taking up a pro-American foreign policy. Does he qualify as pro-Iran? Stephen Walt recently aped J Street's logic, writing, "The sooner we redefine what it means to be 'pro-Israel,' the better for us and the better for Israel." Is Walt--whose book portrays Israel as a force for evil throughout its existence--pro-Israel?

When Israel began its counterattack against Hamas, J Street declared that it would not "pick a side." As J Street put it, "there is nothing 'right' in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing 'right' in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them." J Street didn't merely suggest Israel's action has gone too far--a notion I would endorse--but that no moral distinction could be drawn between its actions and the wanton, deliberate murder of civilians.

There is, to say the least, a delicate balancing act involved in declaring your love for a country while deeming it the moral equal of a terrorist death cult. At some point you begin to sound like the Saturday Night Live version of Joe Biden. ("I love John McCain, he's one of my dearest friends, but at the same time, he's also dangerously unbalanced.") J Street isn't "anti-Israel"--a buzzword that's probably best avoided altogether or reserved for those who wish Israel harm--but "pro-Israel" does not seem the most apt description.
Come to think of it, this opens up the whole kettle of fish about 'Jewish anti-Zionists'.

David Solway writes in Frontpage Magazine:
National officials, press barons, journalists, Internetians, “Human Rights” agencies, public intellectuals and a growing segment of the vox populi are tapping increasingly into the poisoned aquifer of anti-Jewish and anti-Zionist feeling. Yet what is perhaps even more disconcerting is the comparable attitude of many in the Jewish community today, mainly of the Left, who have made common cause with their enemies, defamers and traducers.

This degree of self-abhorrence must be nearly unprecedented, for rarely, if ever, has an ethnic or national collective turned against an entire nation made up of people with whom it shares an ancestral tradition and a millennial archive. History furnishes many examples of a social or intellectual group targeting a particular class of a society with which it is in one way or another associated or identified. But to defame an entire country with whose inhabitants one shares a cultural or genealogical relation, to dispute its founding principles, to cast suspicion upon its moral character, to support its enemies and to question its right to existence is surely a unique phenomenon. Even those Germans horrified by the abominations of the Nazis, or Russians sickened by the excesses of the Communists, rarely went to the extremes of repudiation evinced by the truants of the Jewish faith. [emphasis added]
Melanie Phillips picks up on the phenomenon as well, noting among these people an attitude that approximates the self-indulgent claim to bravery made by those who bash Israel:
Indeed, one of the most insufferable characteristics of these Jew-hating Jews is that they claim to represent authentic Jewish morality as opposed to the supposed corruption of those principles by Zionism and Israel. They do nothing of the kind. Their claim merely advertises their profound ignorance of Jewish ethics and history, which they so badly misrepresent.
It may be that just as Israel's Operation Cast Lead has highlighted inconsistencies in J Street's position, so too at times when Israel is most under the gun will the distinctions between Israel's critics and its enemies become the most clear.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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