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.]

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Jewish or not the question the younger generation of the US should ask themselves is that whether and for how long the Palestinians would be choked to slow death in the name of paying for the sins of the past with which they had nothing to do whatsoever. If you think killing, maiming, starving and looting them of their property was wrong in the past, these still are whatever your excuse.

  2. Israel is a country that has plenty of Bothas but has not yet brought forth a De Klerk. That is because unlike that other former apartheid state it has not had significant international pressure brought upon it thanks to the protection of the US. Negotiations are a sham. The Peace Process is part and parcel of the destruction process, a kind of ‘suppressed mini-holocaust’ (to stay ‘under the radar of the Geneva conventioners). They will not mend their ways on their own. Only external pressure from the International community can alter things. The ‘resistance’ of the Palestinians is unfortunately negligeable as far as bringing them to the table. In other words they don’t have the fire-power and probably never will.

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