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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

There are certain terms whose meanings are — or seem like they ought to be — obvious. The term “pro-Israel” is one of them. One presumes that it simply means having positive sentiments toward the state of Israel and sympathy for its political or military position. In our strange day and age, however, this is no longer the case. Even the simplest terms have become hopelessly foggy.

Indeed, there is now something of a quiet but impassioned debate within the American Jewish community over what it means to be “pro-Israel.” This dispute has gone public with the emergence of the left-wing lobby J Street. Advertising itself as both “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace,” J Street both implicitly and explicitly attacks its rivals — especially the much older and more influential lobbying group AIPAC — as being neither. Critics of J Street attack the group as itself neither pro-Israel nor pro-peace, but rather pro-Palestinian or pro-Arab.

The primary reason for this divide is that both sides have entirely different definitions of what it means to be pro-Israel, especially in the context of being a political lobbying group. J Street, officially at least, believes that it is pro-Israel because it believes in Israel’s right to exist. Beyond that, it seems J Street’s primary concern is being pro-peace, which means advocating policies it believes will advance the peace process, whether or not they are amenable to the Israeli government or the Israeli people. Of course, this can also be seen as being pro-Israel, albeit in a somewhat roundabout way: If peace is good for Israel, as everyone assumes it would be, then advancing the cause of peace, whether the Israelis themselves like it or not, is “pro-Israel.”

AIPAC, on the other hand, takes a much clearer but also much more pragmatic approach to the question. To them, being pro-Israel is lobbying on behalf of Israeli government policy, whatever it might be. Ostensibly, at least, AIPAC takes no ideological position vis-à-vis the Middle East conflict. Whatever the duly elected Israeli government decides to do about it, AIPAC will support. It is true that AIPAC has not always hewed to this principle as perfectly as it ought to, which led to a somewhat notorious confrontation with the government of Yitzhak Rabin in the early ‘90s; but, for the most part, it has done so.

J Street and supporters have often explained the need for a left-wing pro-Israel lobbying group by claiming that AIPAC is essentially a right-wing lobby, out of step with American Jewish opinion. Whether American Jewish opinion is actually on the left in Israeli terms or not (the numbers indicate that it is more to the center of the Israeli political spectrum), it is clear that this particular line of attack is simply untrue. For example, AIPAC supported Ariel Sharon’s 2005 disengagement from Gaza, which was anathema on the Israeli right. What is true is that for most of the last quarter century, Israel has tended to elect center-right governments that enact center-right policies; leading AIPAC and the rest of what J Street calls “the pro-Israel establishment” to support those policies.

It seems, then, that J Street’s real problem with the “pro-Israel establishment” is not that it takes a right-wing position on Israel, but that it takes no position. AIPAC and similar organizations are, apart from the most basic Zionist sentiments, non-ideological organizations. J Street is different not because it is left-wing, but because it is explicitly partisan. That is to say, it takes sides not only in terms of the Middle East conflict but in terms of Israeli domestic politics as well.
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.

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