[JStreet] Plenary session: View from the Hill
[JStreet] Dancing on the head of a pin: the role of rabbis

[JStreet] What Does It Mean to be Pro-Israel?

 I'm blogging this week from Driving Change, Securing Peace, the first JStreet conference in Washington, DC. You can follow my conference posts via the JStreet category

If you're new to Velveteen Rabbi, welcome. Here's some information about me, and here's my comments policy -- please read it, especially if this is your first time here. Enjoy the conference posts! And regular readers, have no fear: I'll return to my more usual balance of blogging fare in a few days.

Today's first session for me is What Does It Mean to be Pro-Israel? The panel features Jonathan Chait, senior editor at the The New Republic alongside Matt Yglesias, Blogger at ThinkProgress.org, and is moderated by J. J. Goldberg from The Forward. (As a side note, before blogging the panel I wanted to mention that I read a short piece by Matt Yglesias recently called What's Driving the Jihad Against JStreet; the essay explores the question of why AIPAC and a certain segment of the American Jewish establishment are so agitated about JStreet when the founding of groups like Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v'Shalom didn't even register on their radar. Anyway, it's worth a read.)

"This is an intensification of one of the underlying themes of the conference, which is 'what does it mean to be pro-Israel'," says moderator Goldberg. "We have with us two well-defined advocates on the issue."

Jonathan Chait is our first speaker. "I was invited here because I wrote a somewhat critical column about JStreet in the spirit of tough love," he says, but he wants to start off by talking about what he likes about JStreet and why the mission is important. (I think that column is Tough Love.)

"Any ethnic community has a tendency to certain pathologies, certain tribalistic ways of viewing the world; the Jewish community has this around Israel." Israel, in the Jewish community, plays a role analagous to the civil rights movement in the African-American community; it's become enshrined and hard to talk about. "Pro-Israel" has become defined as meaning "having maximal rightwing views on Israel," such that you can't be pro-Israel even if you're in the center of the mainstream of Israeli society! "You're considered extremely pro-Israel if you share the Christian Right definition, e.g. that Israel can't be allowed to cede one inch of the territory it controls...so it can help bring about a fiery inferno at the end of the world!"

The trouble, he says, is that the definition has become too loose. Anyone who says they have Israel's best interests at heart is defined as "pro-Israel," and we need to look at this usage more rigorously. Two people who have a good faith disagreement about the Middle East should not be able to co-opt this label for one side or the other, but in Chait's opinion, "a sensible definition of pro-Israel is someone who #1 historically believes that Israel is the more sympathetic party in the Middle East dispute... (and) that the fundamental problem in the Middle East is the failure of the Arab world to accept Israel's existence. [...] and 2) that the US should not have an even-handed posture in the Middle East but should be Israel's ally."

Chait sees it as a problem that some people -- Walt and Mearsheimer, Pat Buchanan, various bloggers with complicated views on Israel -- are embracing JStreet. He cites the story of poet Josh Yglesias who writes about how Jews have recreated our own history and now we're the oppressors/Nazis; the poet was going to give a reading here, but was disinvited by Jeremy Ben-Ami "on the most narrow grounds possible." (Fascinating; I've been reading a lot of voices who argue that disinviting the poet on the grounds of his Holocaust imagery verges on censorship and silencing and was a terrible move -- see Artistic freedom? J Street boycotts and sanctions poet Josh Healey -- but clearly the disinvitation is not strong enough for Chait. Speaking as a poet, I'm definitely bummed that Yglesias was disinvited; I would have liked to have heard the voices of a variety of poets on these issues.)

"The problem is that you're trying to bring together a lot of different views that I think ultimately can't be brought together. JStreet's going to have to make some choices," he says, if we want to speak to/for the American Jewish community at large. We ought to aim to be the "sensible" voice.

Matt Yglesias says he thinks there's a surprisingly easy answer to the question of what it means to be pro-Israel. "What it means, I think, is to agree with the basic premise of Zionism: that there ought to be a Jewish state located in the historical land of Israel." What gets lost in the political gamesmanship is that "that was a controversial position" when it was first made. Not everyone who rejected it was a rabid antisemite; this was a political theory put forward some time ago, which became more mainstream after WWII. "People who reject Zionism and don't believe there should be a state of Israel are clearly not pro-Israel. The rest of us, who think there should be such a state...should have the right to claim the term pro-Israel for ourselves."

Because Israel's existence is contested, it's not in the interest of Israel, Israelis, or the global Jewish community to dismiss out of hand anyone whose political views they disagree with. When you get into the business of criticizing elements of Israel's foreign policy, you may attract the attention of people of various kinds, Yglesias says, some of whom are "sort of, I dunno, nuts" -- laughter ripples through the room -- "I don't want to use euphemism here; there's a hard line between offering strong moral criticism of what Israel does and, e.g., people who say the Law of Return is the same as Nazi racial purity laws. It's not. That's stupid." Finland, for instance, has such laws, and no one regards Finland as a racist state.

"A lot of us believe that the conflict is heading toward a direction where a two-state approach is going to lose its viability," Yglesias says. (Indeed, I would argue that a lot of people -- especially in the Palestinian community -- think that viability is already a lost cause.) "If Palestinian support for a 2-state solution completely collapses, and demographics indicate that there's a Palestinian majority west of the Jordan, with settlements making the populations so intertwined that they can't be separated..." This is incredibly bad news for those of us who are pro-Israel, he says. "Israel cannot be a viable enterprise as long as it's incorporate millions of stateless Arabs into the area of its jurisdiction." For him, and he thinks JStreet shares this view, it's urgent to do something about this. This is much more relevant a problem than external attacks or pressure.

Granted, it's a ridiculous political game for JStreet to spend all of its time "rejecting Philip Weiss," says Yglesias. "We're talking about a country with enemies, not just disagreements but real enemies and I think real problems over the medium and long term." Naturally there are disagreements between left and right, dovish versus hawkish, internationalist/cosmopolitan versus isolationalist. But this happens in the US too; those of us on the American left also get this kind of rightwing agitprop for, e.g., opposing the war in Iraq (which is not, in fact, an anti-patriotic stance.) No one should use "you're not pro-Israel enough" as a way of shutting down conversations.

Goldberg cites that one of the criteria for being pro-Israel in Chait's view is believing that Israel is the more sympathetic party. Is it possible to reach agreement with the other side, he asks, if that's a prerequisite?

"Being pro-Israel is not incompatible with reaching a settlement with the other side," Chait says. "You can also believe that Israel is the more sympathetic historical party and have sympathy for the historical predicament of the Palestinians; in fact I think that's necessary."

"We've moved to a multifaceted situation," says Yglesias. "To say that Arab political movements that have not done anything wrong must share the blame of other Arab political movements, because they're all Arabs, is not helpful... and that's the conclusion we get pressed to when the way we have to look at this is 'is it Israel's fault or is it the Arabs' fault?'" For him, the more important questions are "questions of moving forward."

Israel has made moral and strategic errors, says Chait, but that's not the same as arguing a moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas -- "that's where the basic ethical question of 'who is to blame' -- if you start evaluating that question you wind up spiraling back into history, to the basic historical questions at the root of the existence of Israel."

"But what's the relevance of that," asks Yglesias. When it comes to the Gaza situation, "people want to use the idea that Hamas is more 'cosmically blameworthy'as a reason for deflecting criticism of things that the Israeli government did." It's a complex moral situation, he says; and far more people were killed by Israeli activity than by Hamas activity; and on the other hand Hamas formally commits itself to targeting civilians which is a worse ideological view than even overly-aggressive killing of civilians. But what does it even mean to say that there is, or isn't, a moral equivalency here? "The quest to say, well, you know, it's really the other guy's fault is part of a process of dodging the actual political issues that exist on the ground." Chait retorts that we need to be able to hold both of those thoughts in our heads at once: Hamas is the aggressor, and killing civilians in this way is still a huge mistake on Israel's part.

"We could go on with this for a while," Goldberg notes wryly, "but it reminds me of another question." He said yesterday that perhaps one of the dividing lines is to begin a sentence with "I love Israel, and hence that leads me to say," -- offering critique couched in terms of the assertion "I am saying this because I worry about Israel." This frames the lobbying effort and makes it understandable. Someone came up to him afterward and said, "Are you telling me that if I don't love Israel, I can't be here?" His initial response was, "yeah," and that makes him think that perhaps JStreet is trying to do two incompatible things: to be a big tent and broaden the definition of pro-Israel, and also be a lobby for dovish folks. "Is it possible to be a broad forum for many legitimate perspectives, and also be an effective pro-peace lobby?"

Yglesias says, "If the organization defines itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace, then yes, you're asking for people who have an emotional connection to Israel! But...in politics you can have an organization which has a particular definition and might have an alliance with others," he notes. The strategic gambit here is that there's a need for a more dovish organization which does open with "I love Israel, and that's why I'm concerned..."

(Listening to this, it occurs to me that part of what makes me uncomfortable in this conversation is that as a future rabbi and Jewish leader, I'm deeply committed to a broad tent of Jewish inclusion; I feel strongly that Jews who are pro-Israel by any definition, and also Jews who are uncertain about Israel, and also Jews who do not support Israel, absolutely belong in our congregations and communities. But this isn't a conversation about "who is a Jew" or "who belongs in our shuls," it's about who has the right to affiliate themselves with JStreet, and that's a more political conversation than the one I'm used to having.)

Chait says to Yglesias, "If your position that Israel is wrong, Hamas is wrong, I want what's best for Israel and what's best for Hamas as well--"

Yglesias cuts in, "No, no -- not what's best for Hamas; what's best for Palestinians living in the Gaza strip, you're eliding that--"

The Palestinians who voted for Hamas, interjects Goldberg, were arguably protesting Fatah corruption rather than supporting Hamas per se.

"The Israeli right's best ally since Oslo has been Hamas, which has driven voters toward Likkud," Yglesias points out. And vice versa; the Israeli right has been Hamas' best ally in terms of helping Palestinians have more sympathy toward violence against Israel.

Let's talk about Iran, says Chait. I want what's best for the Iranian people, but that doesn't make me pro-Iran.

"Pro-Iran is not a real term that exists in the political discourse," says Yglesias. "There's no point of view out there that says, there shouldn't be an Iran." The room laughs. He has a fair point; no one's saying the Iranian state should be dissolved, and if someone were, then the term "pro-Iran" would take on a different meaning!

But in the world, Chait says, "there's a term pro-American." In most contexts we use the term "pro" to mean people who have basic sympathy toward a country and its historical position. If you believe the United States is an imperialist power which has done awful things throughout its history, that's not pro-American. If you didn't like George Bush but you think the United States is basically a positive thing, then that is pro-American. "That's a sensible approach to use toward Israel as well."

We're the world superpower, Yglesias notes; every country in the world has to define its relationship to the United States. "Israel is not like that." It would be fair to say that someone who wanted to completely drop American diplomatic and financial support for Israel, "it would be hard to define that as a pro-Israel posture," but that's not a question of history, it's a question of policy."

Anti-American sentiment went sky-high during the Bush administration and largely dissolved in most f the world when Obama was elected, notes Goldberg. Likewise anti-Israel sentiment plummeted when Rabin was assassinated (the Saudis even sent an ambassador to his funeral) and went sky-high when Netanyahu was elected. "There's a difference between people who dislike the policies of a government, and maybe get angry at the electorate for electing such a person," and people who don't think a state should exist. (I'm really glad he made that point.)

We move now to audience Q & A, some of which will make it into this post (but not all; Q and A is harder to liveblog than panels are!)

"There are 1500 people here, and virtually all of us are pro-Israel by some definition," says an audience commentor. "Israel's gotten itself into a position where it's quite likely the country will be unable to extricate itself from the Occupied Territories, and for large part that's happened because there wasn't a wider range of opinions in this country over the last 30 years." Chait agrees with the basic point, but says it's not entirely germane to the subject of this panel.

"I'm not pro-Israel, I'm not pro-America, I'm not pro-Arab... I care deeply. I feel it's my responsibility to make a better country here. I'm Jewish; I have responsibilities toward Israel's safety. But as soon as you say, 'you have to be pro-Israel, you have to love Israel, to be part of JStreet,' I think that would be a terrible mistake," says another audience member. People have devoted their lives, working in the field for a long time, in Gaza as doctors or in South Africa during apartheid, doing all kinds of things but they do not identify themselves as loving Israel. They take the responsibility of working for Israel very seriously. "When I go to Yom Kippur services, I take seriously the things I'm supposed to do; I'm not supposed to be a xenophobe, to be anti-justice... if I put those things first, then am I being thrown out of JStreet?" It's an emotional comment. "People like myself need to know whether we're welcome in this organization," she says, in conclusion.

"I think what you're expressing," Yglesias says, "is -- there's this trap, that people who have liberal and cosmopolitan sentiments get caught into." Demagogic nationalists say, to be pro-American you have to support, e.g., aggressive nationalistic policies, and then the concept or phrase "pro-American" becomes poisoned in the minds of people who want to work for peace and justice. "It's a trap," Yglesias says. "I do want to put on the table -- John and I really agree about taxes, health care, but tend to disagree about foreign policy questions and the use of military force. Something that's often elided in the discourse around Israel is that people have systematic disagreements about the use of military force, assertive nationalism's role in the world, and there's often an unfair tendency on the part of people who have a hawkish perspective on Israel to look at people who have a dovish perspective on everything and decide that we're driven by some anti-Israel bias when we apply these general views both to Israel and to national policy questions."

Our next commentor is a researcher on Christian Zionism. "The meaning of pro-Israel has been co-opted by people who are rabidly pro-Israel and the narrative the teach their children about the destruction of Judaism and the destruction of Jews is complicated... it disturbs me that we have allowed 'pro-Israel' to be co-opted by people who have a narrative of the destruction of Judaism," and that people who would fight for the death for pluralism and Judaism's right to survive can be called anti-Israel.

The next commentor was a Nazi prosecutor for our government for 15 years and worked as the head of AIPAC in the mid-90s. "The last person in the world you want to be in bed with is a vile antisemite Holocaust-denying Pat Buchanan. I don't care what his views are like on Israel, he doesn't like Israel!" When he was head of AIPAC during the peace process, there were people who support Rabin and Peres and also people on the right who were opposed. "They said, we're going to lobby Congress because 'we represent the true views of the Israelis.'" The response, by a lot of people who are here today, was "Israel's a democratic state; they elected Peres and Rabin; this is the policy they want!" Now the shoe is on the other foot, he says. "What does a pro-Israel and pro-peace organization do" when the government of Israel, elected by the people, clearly doesn't support our positions?

Goldberg distills these questions: what to say to the folks back home, and how to reconcile being pro-Israel/pro-peace when the government of Israel may not accord with our positions.

"JStreet needs to decide whether it wants to accord with people who don't call itself pro-Israel at all; that's not my decision, it's JStreet's," says Chait. And Yglesias adds that he doesn't want to speak for the organization, but notes that "pro-Israel, pro-peace" is prominently featured in all of JStreet's materials and that people who aren't comfortable with that idea may not feel comfortable here.

Re: the direction of the Israeli government, that's the crux that makes this difficult. It's easy to call ourselves "pro-Israel, pro-peace" when the government of Israel is vigorously pursuing peace. But during the Oslo years there were American Jews and Israeli Jews who opposed the peace process, and they had the right to do that, to vigorously pursue what they thought was the correct approach; and we have that right (and obligation) now.

Another audience commentor notes that broadening the conversation is critical; stifled conversation has been part of the problem. And that means we need to be in dialogue with those who says "I love Israel [and that's why I'm concerned...]" and also those who don't or can't say that.

"I am a Jew and that means I am pro-justice," says another audience member. "As a Jew I am pro-justice; as a Jew I am connected to Israel, whether I want to be or not; and my tax money is supporting what's happening in Israel," which gives me the right to articulate my opinion! Some people say if I want to have an opinion I should make aliyah, she continues, "but my tax money is going there; I have a right to speak up."

Another commentor notes that during the Vietnam war, opponents of the war were classified as traitors by the Right. "I remember putting a sticker on my car which showed a white dove under an American flag, to show that we were 'pro-American' as well as 'pro-peace," he says. "We used to quote some famous 19th century person who said, 'Support our country if it's right, and if it's not right, make it right.'" Saying that we're pro-Israel now is a similar thing.

"I wanted to ask where, if at all, in this conversation the question of Jewish democracy fits in," asks another commentor. He notes that we're nearing a point demographically where if there isn't a two-state solution soon, Israel will have to make an existential choice between being Jewish and being democratic. How does that impact the question of what it means to be pro-Israel?

Another commentor praises JStreet's willingness to acknowledge both sides of the story, and reminds us that there are people on both sides of the story. "I hope everybody can be flexible in terms of what's JStreet is trying to do," says another commentor. "JStreet has been the first Jewish peace organization that really has understood what it means to work within the system and to get things moving in Washington." Still another commentor notes that she has problems with the "pro-peace" part of the slogan because it seems to suggest that anyone who doesn't agree with us is "anti-peace" and that's going to be problematic for her when she goes home to her shul to try to talk with the people who weren't here. And our last commentor suggests that the only path to peace will be a secular and multicultural and democratic society within the '67 borders of Israel.

Chait sees in this diversity of comments exactly the problem he set out to articulate: our range of views do not all fit within the umbrella of the signals JStreet has been sending to the mainstream world. (I'm not certain I understand why everyone's pushing so hard to define and limit what perspectives are permissible within the JStreet umbrella; this is a new organization, and I think coalition-building between different sectors of the broad liberal Jewish community is and should be part of the organization's mandate.)

Yglesias notes that Israel was modeled on the idea of a European nation-state, a different kind of idea than the cosmopolitan United States. "That's fundamental to what Israel is," he argues. "The idea is to be a national state for Jewish people." But what if through the '67 borders, Jewish people ceased to be a majority? Or what if Israel continues to have its current setup, in which case Jews will cease to be the majority? "I'm committed both to Judaism and to the idea of a Jewish state, but I'm more committed to ideas of justice and human rights," he says. "The idea is to create a viable, democratic, but Jewish, national state!"

Goldberg notes that this has been "quite a journey." His questions: what are the limits when one talks about broadening the definition of pro-Israel. "Can it be broadened to include people who are uncomfortable calling themselves pro-Israel?" This is not, he hastens to add, to legitimize or delegitimize anyone's feelings, but rather to draw distinctions around what conversation we want to be having. Also, he says, we need to distinguish between questions of belonging in the Jewish community, and being an effective part of this particular conversation. (Amen! I'm so glad he raised that point.) Did we come here to find community, or to do work and be part of an organization which gets the job done? And that's the question on which the panel ends.