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What J Street Means When It Says ‘Pro-Israel’

The left-wing group complicates a simple question.

by
Benjamin Kerstein

Bio

March 18, 2011 - 12:00 am
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This somewhat imperialist point of view is an ironic one, given the lobby’s left-wing sentiments, but what makes it truly problematic is its incomprehensibility. Put simply, J Street’s version of pro-Israel can essentially mean anything at all. Under the J Street definition, someone who believes that everyone in Israel would be better off if the country were dissolved in favor of a binational state could quite easily call themselves pro-Israel while at the same time advocating what amounts to Israel’s destruction. Indeed, practically anything short of outright genocide could be called pro-Israel under such a definition.

Such fuzzy thinking does lend itself to a certain freedom of action that is often appealing to people of an idealistic bent, but it is massively impractical in political reality. No Israeli government, for example, can possibly consider a political lobby to be a supporter or an ally if it does things like oppose an American veto of anti-Israel resolutions at the UN, as J Street very recently did. Nor can the Israeli people be expected to look upon a group that seeks to impose on them a policy they rejected at the ballot box as anything like a friend. At best, they can only see such a group as an irritating and bizarre anomaly — at worst, as an outright enemy.

What is most disappointing about all of this, however, is that Israel could probably use a pro-Israel lobbying group on the left. Nor is there any real reason for such a group to be problematic or hostile. The right of peoples to self-determination and sovereignty is a principle that has been historically embraced by the left, as is the right of small nations (especially if they are democratic) to defend themselves. A group that made the case for Israel from the left would be a welcome one, but it would have to do so in a manner that does not involve so diluting the idea of supporting Israel that it becomes nearly meaningless.

This, unfortunately, would be a very difficult thing to do. Such a group would not only have to struggle with its position vis-à-vis right-wing Israeli governments, but also vis-à-vis its compatriots on the left, who are becoming increasingly and often disturbingly hostile to Israel and to Zionism in general. It would, in short, be a group that would have to dissent at times not only from Israeli policy but also from the position of the left-wing establishment. It would have to be intellectually and politically capable of making the case that it is not Zionism that is abandoning the left, but the left that is abandoning Zionism. This would require a type of courage that is far more demanding that taking easy pot shots at the “pro-Israel establishment” — a type of courage that J Street, unfortunately, apparently neither has nor wants.

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Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor who lives in Tel Aviv.
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