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10.26.09 12:16 AM ET

Battle for American Jews

An upstart Washington advocacy group called J Street has mounted a leftist challenge to the hawkish establishment over who speaks for American Jews—but Matthew Yglesias says the old guard's response risks alienating Jews and hurting Israel.

J Street, the new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” political advocacy organization aimed at creating a powerful voice for progressive Zionists in the United States, is attracting hostility from much of the Jewish establishment in America. But that should come as no surprise: Its foundation last year, and its maturation in the form of its debut annual conference this week in Washington, are a direct threat to much of that establishment, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the capital’s most influential lobbying groups. As the small but vocal minority of conservative Jews rarely tires of lamenting, the vast majority of Jewish Americans persist in holding left-wing political opinions. But on the question of Israel and the broader region in which it’s situated, Jewish political influence has been felt overwhelmingly on the hawkish side—skeptical of concessions to Palestinians, eager to believe that military force can stop terrorism, and more recently pushing for aggressive confrontation with Iran. J Street aims to change that and give voice to those of us who see Jewish identity and support for Israel as part of a progressive, internationalist, and generally dovish worldview. Naturally, the guardians of the status quo are pushing back.

The status quo forces in the Jewish community have sought to define the “pro-Israel” brand as not just support for the Zionist idea, but as support for a particular kind of conservative, militaristic, and nationalist conception of how that idea should be implemented.

What’s more surprising is that instead of arguing their positions on the merits, J Street’s detractors have opted to question the sincerity of its pro-Israel posture. In a typical offering, Gabriel Schoenfeld of the conservative Hudson Institute and the Witherspoon Institute wrote in the New York Post that J Street “has been engaged in a bit of pretense” on this point. Commentary, a conservative Jewish magazine, and The Weekly Standard, edited by the extremely hawkish Bill Kristol, have been unrelenting in their criticism. The latter outlet’s Michael Goldfarb has been the standard-bearer of a campaign to pressure members of Congress not to participate. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg conducted in interview with J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, in which he repeatedly probed Ben-Ami’s Zionist bona fides and fretted that even if he was sincere “there are others who are glomming on to you guys as a cover, just using you to advance another agenda entirely.”

Perhaps the reductio ad absurdum of this came when Larry Ben-David, a former staffer for AIPAC, by far the largest and most politically powerful pro-Israel organization in Washington, “proved” that J Street can’t really be pro-Israel since its PAC received a contribution from Rebecca Abou-Chedid, a Lebanese-American who’s worked with liberal Jews on the Arab-Israeli conflict for years at the New America Foundation and the Arab American Institute.

The claim, in other words, is not just some cutesy pretense that J Street can’t “really” be pro-Israel since its policy agenda is bad. The argument is that the organization is some kind of elaborate fraud aiming at Israel’s destruction. Even Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, has gotten into the act, not just declining an invitation to appear at the J Street conference but publicly dissing the group.

As a narrow political strategy aimed at advancing the interests of the American Jewish right, this makes a great deal of sense. Most people mostly don’t pay much attention to the details of public policy disputes, and that includes Jews and disputes about Israel. Instead, they rely on signals and heuristics. And most American Jews know that they—that we—are pro-Israel. Control of the brand is thus a vital prop of support for people pushing a foreign policy agenda that’s more Bush than Obama. But for Israel itself this is a dangerous game that risks alienating a large swath—perhaps even a majority—of American Jews.

Israel has enough problems that discerning who’s for it and who’s against it shouldn’t be that difficult. The Zionist idea is that there should be a Jewish state in the historical Land of Israel. It’s a controversial proposition. I hear from readers of my blog who want to see Israel and Palestine amalgamated into some kind of unworkable binational mush. I’ve spoken to Arab politicians who dream of an expansive polity encompassing the entire Middle Eastern ummah in which Jews (and, for that matter, the Christians of Palestine and Lebanon) would be tolerated minorities. There are those who say they favor two states, but insist on such a massive inflow of Palestinian refugees to Israel that its Jewish character would be essentially eradicated. And I assume there are millions, if not billions, of people around the world who’ve never thought about these questions and don’t care one way or the other.

But if the Zionist idea is a controversial one, it’s also a simple one. It’s not the idea that preemptive air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities would be wise or moral. It’s not the idea that Israel should be exempt from criticism by human rights groups on the grounds that the Arabs are worse. It’s not the idea that Israel should never be pressured by the United States. It’s not the idea that the U.S. national interest should be irrelevant to America’s approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict. It’s not the idea that massive military retaliation is a smart response to sporadic rocket fire.

This, however, is precisely how the status quo forces in the Jewish community have sought to define the “pro-Israel” brand—as not just support for the Zionist idea, but as support for a particular kind of conservative, militaristic, and nationalist conception of how that idea should be implemented. But as a patriotic American, I’m still not a conservative nationalist or a foreign policy hawk. Nor are most of my fellow American Jews. So why, as Jews, should we be obligated to become conservative nationalists in our attitude toward Israel? Some seem to see implacable hostility to Arab claims against Israel, or indifference to Arab suffering, as the true hallmark of Jewish self-love, as if Yigal Amir, Israeli law student who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 for making peace with the Palestinians, was a better Zionist than Rabin.

But if the risk to AIPAC is that J Street will come to share the “pro-Israel” brand, the risk to Israel is that it won’t. By all indications, the younger generation of American Jews is more left-wing than our elders, not less so. Tzipi Livni, head of the centrist Kadima Party, recognizes as much and sent J Street a nice letter notwithstanding her disagreements with the group over some policy specifics. The incumbent Likud Party doesn’t see things that way. But if the Israeli government wants to dogmatically insist that progressive politics are incompatible with support for Israel, it can probably force that choice. But if it does, it’ll find itself steadily losing the loyalty of much of the diaspora. That, though the present government of Israel seems incapable of realizing it, would be winning the battle and losing the war.

Matthew Yglesias is a Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.