One of my favorite quotations is one attributed to the French thinker Jean Baudrillard. “Once you are free, you must ask who you are.” This is true, I think, for individuals, groups, and nation-states—including the Jewish people, in our founding myth of Exodus followed by Sinai. At first, we are adolescents, yearning only for release from bondage to others. But then, finally, we’re free. And then what?
The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization J Street—at whose conference I and other key Open Zion contributors, most importantly Peter Beinart, have occasionally spoken—likewise seems in that awkward-in-between stage between youth and identity crisis.
For several years, J Street’s message—even its slogan—elicited the basic response of “Huh?” Huh? You’re pro-Israel but you oppose the occupation? Huh? You’re Jews but you have more solidarity with Palestinians than with Jewish fundamentalists? Wait, you’re against Israeli policies because of your Jewish values?
By now, I think all of these yes-buts are banal. We’re here, we’re pro-Israel/pro-peace, and we’re all used to it. Sure, at some synagogues in the heartland, J Street is still treif. But at its conference this year (3,000 attendees strong), there was much less talk than in past years of finding our voice, balancing our various commitments, and otherwise squaring the circle of non-domination Zionism. Indeed, it was not Peter Beinart but Likud stalwart Tzachi Hanegbi who said that J Street’s legitimacy is not an issue.
And then what?
Having established itself as a DC player—still a junior player, perhaps, but enough of one to feature the American Vice President at its conference—the question now is what, exactly, J Street is playing for. There are at least two answers to that, and they point in different directions. Either J Street is essentially a single-issue organization, focused on the two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, or it is a general-interest pro-Israel, pro-peace organization, focused primarily on the two state solution but with a general set of values that dictate other positions as well.
In practice, J Street has been a little bit of both, with an emphasis on the former. But the positions are drifting apart—and each has its costs and benefits.
Certainly, the two-state solution is what motivates J Street’s members. I watched participants doze off during Vice President Biden’s keynote address, during which he took his audience on a panoramic tour of the Middle East (he talked about Yemen, for God’s sake, before finally getting around to Palestine), various left-wingers’ statements on social issues, inequality, and so on. Except for the two-state solution, the only issue that reliably drew applause was religious pluralism in Israel. And this in the context, need we even remember, of shifting landscapes in Syria, Egypt, and Iran.
There are many reasons for this. First, the Israeli leadership has said “not now” for years, and the Left has grown suspicious. Second, there’s not that much daylight between the Left and the Right on issues like Iran, save that the Right is more suspicious than the Left (or the Left is more naïve). Third, the hard core of J Street remains peaceniks: old-time hippies, new-school student activists, and everyone in between, it’s peace that J Street is about, and that means peace with Palestinians.
J Street’s own organizational priorities have followed suit. Notwithstanding the summer fires in the wake of the Arab Spring, J Street is launching its “2 Campaign,” to garner support for the two-state solution as Secretary of State John Kerry attempts to jumpstart negotiations. Indeed, the conference was told, now is precisely the opportunity for peace.
Well, sure, but not really, right? Perhaps this is the moment of opportunity, or perhaps it isn’t. But J Street is saying that it is because it is focused on keeping this issue (dream?) alive.
So far, when the conversation wanders off-topic, J Street seems to wander as well. The organization has duly issued statements regarding Syria, Iran, and Egypt, but they’re more reactive than pro-active. AIPAC’s hawkish values are clear and touch every aspect of Israel’s perceived needs. J Street’s more dovish ones are tentative by comparison.
Such focus is not necessarily a bad thing. In the world of LGBT activism, where I spend much of my time, there’s widespread agreement that—for better or for worse—the laser-focused organization Freedom to Marry has been more successful in its work than more general organizations like the Human Rights Campaign. At the same time, HRC is more sustainable, and speaks (or purports to speak) to a deeper set of values and issues.
So which is J Street: Freedom to Marry, or HRC?
That the organization is even having this conversation is, itself, a sign of success. J Streeters are out of their awkward adolescence, and know how to respond to the Jewish Right and to the Campus Left. They are more confident and better informed than they were. They know that, in the words of veteran peace activist Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, it’s up to the pro-Israel, pro-peace camp to distinguish between Hebron and Haifa, since neither the far right nor the far left is willing to do so. They know that there are one-staters on both sides, and that the two-state solution is losing its sense of inevitability. They know that they’re going to be called traitors and self-haters—and they’re ready for the fight.
As someone who supports this basic agenda, I am heartened to see this maturation, and the shift in power that has come with it. J Street is already entitled to a little self-congratulation. But then again, Jews complained about the food within a week of the parting of the Red Sea. What was it that the French philosopher said? As soon as you’re free, you must begin to kvetch.