The meaning of J Street

by Yaniv Reich on October 28, 2009

J Street is a fairly new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group in the US, which positions itself a notch or two to the left of AIPAC’s “all criticism of Israel is anti-semitic” line. This week, J Street held its first national conference in Washington, DC, which was very well-attended despite being boycotted by Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the US.

J Street is an important development in the history of the US-Israel relationship, although precisely how important remains to be seen. From my perspective, its difficult not to view the whole organization as a kind of lobbying group for Israel’s now defunct Labor party in the sense that both groups self-consciously conceive of themselves as enlightened Zionist peacemakers as compared to the big, bad Likud and AIPAC (Update: Turns out J Street’s founder views the organization more like Kadima, to the right of Labor). J Street styles itself as strongly in favor of the two-state solution to the conflict, without really addressing any of the underlying issues of justice and rights that complicate the decades long quest for two states.

Want help interpreting the significance of this shift? Mondoweiss has provided the single best piece of commentary I have seen on J Street since the conference. Here is one excerpt:

It only seems appropriate to me to begin my posts post-J Street in a celebratory spirit. The ways the organization falls short I will come to, but I must tip my cap to a new Jewish group that filled a hall in Washington with 1500 people, including many congressmen and senators, and these people did not boo Zbig Brzezinski, even as his name was mentioned again and again, and did not cheer sanctions for Iran, and broke into applause whenever Palestinian human rights were mentioned. In the realms of Jewish history and American power politics, this was a huge development. It is little wonder that I ran into Dan Fleshler looking stunned and starry-eyed, marveling that such a day had finally come to pass. Or that I saw Jonathan Chait of the New Republic glowering as if he had just been forced to dine on porcupine. The institutions that Chait is engaged with, the New Republic and AIPAC, had just taken a giant hit. Celebration. The status quo Israel lobby is under assault from within the Jewish community, the battle has begun in earnest. Whether it will have any effect on Palestinian freedom is yet to be determined.

Update: Another excellent piece on the J Street conference, again from Mondoweiss:

Jeremy Ben-Ami [J Street’s founder] has said it himself that he sees the organization as a US equivalent of the Israeli Kadima party. J Street is looking to advance the two-state solution, and although there was plenty of sympathy, and perhaps empathy, for the Palestinian people, the motivating factor in building a Palestinian state is to protect a Jewish-majority state in Israel. This was said repeatedly by both Israeli and American Jewish speakers. For a liberal group there was a disturbing amount of time given to talking about “demographic threats” and head counts of Jews versus Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. It is a conversation that many there would denounce as racist if it were to happen here in the US regarding latino or african-american US citizens, and I would say that there was ambivalent support for the conversation at J Street. If AIPAC attempts to motivate their base through the perennial fear of an impending holocaust, then J Street’s fear mongering takes a more ethno-nationalist approach that seems more in line with Lou Dobbs than the liberal heros that J Street attendees most likely adore. There were murmurs of dissatisfaction in the crowd over this, but I could see this discomfort growing by leaps and bounds in the months and years to come.

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