A recent and acrimonious debate between American Jewish leaders regarding the Gaza strikes reflects a struggle over the meaning of “support for Israel.” Some progressives may react with kneejerk antipathy to that phrase, believing that like “I support the troops,” the possibility of any meaning other than a right-wing hawkishness has long ago been crowded out. But I believe that if we can reconfigure the notion of support for Israel, we can fundamentally change the dynamic of our domestic debate on the Arab-Israeli conflict. That, in turn, will allow our leaders to play a role in halting, instead of perpetuating, the conflict.
J Street, a progressive Jewish lobby whose positions and statements have often won my support, often comes under attack from extreme right-wing Jewish figures. The organization does not shrink from conflict, and in fact J Street needs to engage in conflicts with other Jewish and pro-Israel groups in order to move the debate on Israel/Palestine.
This week saw another conflict within the Jewish community, but one that causes more pain to the individuals at J Street because it comes from a mainstream figure and represents a more bitter split.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, attempted to stake out a centrist position on the Gaza strikes. After first taking gleeful hawks to task, he turned his fire on J Street, blasting them at length. In Yoffie’s eyes, J Street’s statements on the strikes turned “dovishness” into an amoral idealism that recognizes no difference between Israel and Hamas.
Yoffie’s views were quickly taken up by right-wingers to call J Street “anti-Israel.”
J Street has fired back. After iterating the support the organization receives from thousands of American Jews and the overlap between its positions and the views of many Israelis, Jeremy Ben-Ami talks about a different kind of support for Israel than the one Yoffie envisions. By doing so, Ben-Ami breaks out of the narrow framework within which many pro-Israel voices exist.
J Street understands that Hamas is a terrorist organization and a harsh enemy. We are neither dovish nor pacifist, nor are we blindly opposed to the use of force. We support Israel in defending and protecting its citizens from attack, including through military action if necessary and appropriate to the threat. We believe, however, that force cannot be Israel’s only or preponderant response ”“ even to Hamas.
We are pragmatists grounded in the real world and the lessons it teaches. As such ”“ and as avid supporters of Israel ”“ we are asking whether the specific actions taken by Israel in Gaza actually do advance Israel’s and America’s interests. In this case, J Street believes they do not. We believe that the actions taken this week ”“ disproportionate to the threat and escalatory in nature ”“ will be seen, with time, as counterproductive. They will further isolate Israel and the US internationally, deepen hatred among the Palestinian and Israel peoples, foment extremism throughout the Arab world and undercut the position of more moderate Arab regimes.
This is a kind of support, unlike other strands, that allows for criticism at both a strategic and a moral level.
This concept, and the new frames J Street offers, are critical not only for public debates on the conflict, but also for the micro-struggles that take place around the country and will ultimately have a decisive impact on the larger debate. J Street’s debate with Yoffie mirrors generational conflicts in my own life. One of my great-grandfathers was Jewish, and in recent years my grandmother (his daughter) has come to identify increasingly with Israel, where one of her sisters has lived for a half-century. That side of my family, which is of predominately Polish descent, has a personal connection to the Holocaust, and through them I do too: a number of relatives, both Jewish and non-Jewish, lost their lives to the Nazis, and others survived the camps. My grandparents still have a cigarette case that my grandfather’s uncle carved in a POW camp. For years Holocaust survivors stayed in my grandparents’ house, and I grew up hearing stories about the bread rolls they would instinctively pocket at the dinner table.
Both my grandmother and I support Israel. But whereas she supports Israel in the same way that Yoffie does, or with even less tolerance for criticism of Israeli actions, I support Israel in the sense that J Street does: I hope to see Israel make pragmatic moves in the interest of a just peace. The circumstances of Israel’s founding were tragic, but even though my roommate (who is Jewish) and I occasionally muse about hypothetical situations in which Israel could have been founded in Uganda, Canada, or Germany, I believe Israel will be a permanent fixture of the geography of the Middle East. I believe, along with the government of Saudi Arabia, that Israel can have a positive role in a stable and peaceful Middle East. And I support steps that would lead to that outcome, because I believe peace is in my country’s interest, Israel’s interest, and the world’s interest.
I am not the only progressive, and not the only person with Jewish ancestry, who holds those views. J Street is an emblem of the widespread support for a just peace that exists within the American Jewish community, but I can also see evidence of a changing generational picture in my own life, where many Jewish friends hold my views.
Ben-Ami, quoting Anshel Pfeffer of Ha’aretz, hopes to move the American debate between a polarized field where “pro-Israel” hawks and leftist Jews who feel “compelled to atone for Israel’s manifold sins and join its enemies in the demonstrations and sign petitions accusing the Zionist entity of war crimes” shout at each other in vain. Reclaiming the idea of support for Israel is one way out of this box, especially if prominent American politicians can condemn specific Israeli actions within a context of support. If we can move the debate in the public sphere, and in our own lives, with our own friends and families, we can make a powerful contribution to peace.
J Street has one hell of a balancing act on its hands, and I can feel some of that pressure even as I write this. Proclaim support for Israel and you will be attacked from the left. Criticize Israel and you will be vilified by Americans of all stripes – even progressives, as many diarists on Kos have recently learned. But I encourage leftists, even those for whom the phrase “support for Israel” leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, to support J Street’s efforts to advance the debate. Many will disagree with me, and perhaps even J Street would, but I don’t see a critical difference between the outcome J Street hopes for and the outcome that many on the left hope for, namely a two-state solution. The main difference between traditional leftist protests against Israel and J Street’s approach is tactical and rhetorical, not ideological.
America and Israel have been allies for sixty years, and will be for some time to come. Everyone in this debate invokes notions of pragmatism, so let’s be pragmatic. The main question for Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, is not whether that alliance will continue to exist, but the shape we want it to take. After sixty years of bloodshed, in which America has often played a supporting role, let’s push for a type of alliance that encourages peace.