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Ron Radosh

Israel’s Phony Friends: J Street and The New York Times

September 17th, 2009 - 2:33 pm

Last week, James Traub, a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, wrote yet another ode to Obama and his weak policy on the Middle East—-this time serving up a article about J Street, the new Israel lobby, that purports to be an alternative to AIPAC.

Traub’s article can be counted as one among many regularly  appearing in the paper of record, that consistently attacks Israel for intransigence, and that criticizes the government of Benjamin Netanyahu for not seriously pursuing the “peace process” favored by the Obama administration. Just today the Times ran an op-ed by Richard Goldstone, head of the UN Fact-Finding Mission on the Gaza conflict, that engages in a fit of moral equivalence and equates Hamas and Israel as forces that both injure civilians during battle, ignoring that Israel was defending itself while Hamas regularly targets civilians as its raison d’être. As Max Boot writes,  “it’s a good thing that the United Nations wasn’t around during World War II. I can just imagine its producing a supposedly evenhanded report that condemned the Nazis for “grave” abuses such as incinerating Jews, while also condemning the Allies for their equally “grave” abuses such as fire-bombing German and Japanese cities.” As Israel’s President Shimon Peres responded, Goldstone “makes a mockery of history” and fails to distinguish between “an aggressor and the defender.”

If that is not enough, the Times recently ran an editorial stating that “President Obama needs to prod Mr. Netanyahu toward bolder action by making a direct — and better — case to a skeptical Israeli public on why a settlements freeze and reviving peace talks is in its interest.” Perhaps its editors do not realize that the reason the Israeli public backs its government and elected Netanyahu in the first place is that it knows that the settlements are not the real issue, but the refusal of Fatah and Hamas to accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish State.

In his article on J Street, James Traub repeats the many facile arguments made over the years, chiefly that the traditional “Israel lobby” has made criticism of Israel out of bounds. He charges that Israel had a blank check during the Bush years when groups like AIPAC endorsed his policy, although AIPAC is non-partisan, does not endorse candidates or parties, and has support from members of Congress across the aisle.

Groups like the Israel Policy Forum and others that function to pressure Israel while claiming to be its best friends, are described by Traub as “progressive,” which by implication means AIPAC is the opposite. He goes on to mention liberal Jews and Democrats and Israeli-Americans who contributed money to set up J Street, while ignoring the recent revelations that Arab and Muslim groups have contributed to its coffers, as well as the presence on its board of people openly opposed to Israel. You can read about this here and here and here.

The most substantive critique of J Street comes from Lawrence White, writing at the site of the American Thinker. White argues that J Street is made up of what are called “court Jews,” people who take positions harmful to the security of the Jewish State and try to claim that they are doing it in the true interests of Israel- which evidently the Israel population that votes is too dumb to understand.   White claims that Barack Obama is pursuing a doomed policy based on “ahistoric and simplistic thinking.”  He puts it this way:

The President needs to be sure that in the process of leaning on Israel, he does not lose the American Jewish community. They were needed last year to ensure an electoral majority and will continue to be needed in the future. Having campaigned on a strong pro-Israel platform, and having assured many prominent and well-connected Jews that he was committed to the security and welfare of Israel, he needed a credible way to validate that impression in order to prevent any erosion in support. This is where Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of the new organization J Street, comes in. Ben-Ami has become the very model of the “court Jew”.

 Pretending to be a “centrist” force that is both pro-peace and pro-Israel, in reality  J Street  puts the blame for any failure to reach peace on Israel.  As White writes, “They have lobbied Congress to oppose an initiative calling on Obama to pressure Arab governments to normalize relations with Israel, They favor negotiating with Hamas. They support the Arab Peace Initiative. And when the President awarded the Medal of Freedom to the Durban anti-Semitic ringmaster Mary Robinson, it was J Street that was tasked with defending the indefensible.”  When Israel was forced to fight Hamas in Gaza, it was J Street that opposed Israel, arguing that its defensive actions were a danger to peace.

To achieve its ends, J Street needs to convince the Obama administration that it, and not AIPAC, represents most American Jews. And this is where Traub’s article comes in. J Street needs to convince the American Jewish community that they represent its interests, and not that of the Obama team. And Obama needs them to maintain the fiction that American Jews completely back him.

Traub tries to present J Street as an “open” and dynamic group, unlike those run by aging leaders like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League. He gives an example of its would-be dynamism.  Traub mentions how Donna Edwards, an African-American freshman member of Congress from Maryland was endorsed by J Street. J Street backed her despite the fact that she did not support Israel’s fight in Gaza, and is opposed to settlements. Yet when she feared a primary challenge from a pro-Israel candidate, J Street’s PAC got $30,000 for her in a couple of days after an internet appeal. “That,” Traub writes, “made people in Washington take notice.”

In reality , that amount is small potatoes given what people have raised on the internet, in much shorter periods of time, as Joe Wilson just showed. Traub is clearly inflating J Street’s importance. But what the example of Edwards does show is how J Street is in front when it comes to supporting those who are against Israel, but who are definitely in the mainstream of what passes for liberalism today.  J Street has, and here I agree with Traub,  “cemented its position on the left side of the spectrum.”

If there is any doubt that the left side of the spectrum is opposed to Israel’s real interests, look no further than the article about J Street by Reza Aslan that appeared on The Daily Beast, Tina Brown’s website. Aslan claims that AIPAC’s influence is declining, as the public supposedly is fed up with its support of hard line and conservative Jewish governments.

Moreover, Aslan is pleased that Obama is “the first president in recent memory who seems…not to be beholden to the interests of the pro-Israeli lobby.” Although he says Obama respects the special relationship between our country and Israel, he argues that that if one does not believe the real issue is settlements and that the administration should not start a peace process by demanding action on them first, then one is ipso facto a hardliner. And Aslan engages in circular reasoning: since he says American Jews are overwhelmingly against the settlements, that means that J Street  represents “a more progressive and even-handed approach”  which really represents the interests of American Jews. His proof—the Traub article in the Times magazine!  In this manner, one propagandist for J Street cites another as definitive proof that J Street is the future of American Jewry.

Aslan, however, gives his hand away when he says that Osama Bin Laden, in his recent tape, is “tapping into an increasingly prevalent sentiment among the public that the pro-Israel lobby in Washington may have far too much political influence in driving American foreign policy.” How does he know this is what the American public thinks? There is nothing like citing no evidence when seeking to prove your point.  Moreover, he admits he is thankful for Bin Laden’s comments, since they serve to keep alive the need to debate the U.S.-Israel relationship.

With friends like these, Israel needs to look no further for real enemies.

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