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Published on October 21st, 2009 | by Daniel Luban


The War on J Street

By Daniel Luban

As the dovish pro-Israel lobby J Street prepares for its first conference next week, a familiar array of Likudniks and neocons has mobilized to destroy it. The anti-J Street campaign has marked something of a watershed for the organization. Previously, AIPAC and its Washington allies professed to be unconcerned with J Street’s rise and publicly sneered at its significance. But now the group’s growing profile (including, notably, a long cover story in the New York Times Magazine) seems to have convinced the Israel hawks that stronger measures were needed.

For those who followed the similar recent attacks against Chas Freeman and Human Rights Watch, the contours of the latest campaign have thus far been familiar, and the cast of characters similar. In rapid succession, The Weekly Standard‘s Michael Goldfarb was reportedly calling the offices of each of the conference’s 150+ congressional sponsors, trying to get them to pull out; Commentary‘s Jennifer Rubin was proclaiming J Street’s imminent demise whenever she took a break from forecasting the impending collapse of the Obama administration; and The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg was passive-aggressively disseminating the neocon talking points of the day, all while insisting throughout that he was not taking sides. All old hat.

But as the conference approaches, J Street is still standing. While a handful of congressmen bailed from the conference host committee under the initial pressure from the right, and the organization scratched one previously-obscure poetry act who had written some overheated lines comparing Guantanamo to Auschwitz, it seems to have staunched the bleeding. Around 150 of the initial 160 congressional host committee members remain on the bill, and last week brought the announcement that National Security Advisor James Jones will keynote the conference. The organization’s leadership had to know the attacks were coming — in fact, they would likely have been far more worried if AIPAC and its allies did not feel the need to mount such an campaign — and, barring any sudden catastrophes in the next week, the damage could have been far worse.

In the meantime, the smears are getting uglier. Witness yesterday’s piece by Lenny Ben-David, a former top AIPAC staffer and current West Bank settler. The gist of Ben-David’s critique of J Street is that the group has been known to associate with Arabs (who, as we know, are a mendacious and bloodthirsty race.) See Spencer Ackerman for a worthwhile demolition of Ben-David’s scarcely-concealed racism, and Ben-David’s former AIPAC colleague MJ Rosenberg for more background on this unsavory character.

I have to imagine that these are exactly the battle lines that J Street’s leadership is hoping for. From the perspective of winning over the American Jewish community, they could not ask for more than to have their most prominent attacker be not merely an AIPACer and Likudnik, but a settler to boot. The campaign against J Street will only succeed if it can peel off the liberal center of US Jewry; for the battle to turn into liberals against neocons would be the best possible outcome for J Street, which has no aspirations to win over the Commentary crowd. So far, the group seems to have been successful at courting the liberal center — the likes of Martin Indyk, Eric Yoffie, and Jonathan Chait are all appearing at the conference.

In any case, one must once again marvel at the short-sightedness of Israel’s hardline supporters in the U.S., who seem intent on alienating the American Jewish community that is Israel’s most valuable strategic asset. The hawks seem to think that if only J Street is crushed, American Jews will obediently fall back into line behind Israel’s every action. But I think they misread the mood of the Jewish community, the changes it has undergone in recent years, and the extent to which J Street is designed to play a moderating, rather than a radicalizing, role on Jewish public opinion.

The basic premise of J Street is that it is possible to be both liberal and pro-Israel. If the hardliners succeed in destroying J Street, and with it any viable outlet for liberal pro-Israel sentiment, they will force the younger generation of American Jews — who are overwhelmingly Obama Democrats — to choose between support for Israel and liberalism. No doubt some will choose Israel, but far more will choose liberalism. And in that case Israel will face a predicament far bleaker than whatever it fears from J Street.

[Cross-posted at The Faster Times.]

About the Author


Daniel Luban is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Chicago. He was formerly a correspondent for the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.

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