The American Jewish Center is Shifting, Not Collapsing

Mark Zivin argues, contra Peter Beinart, that the centrist American Jewish community is hardly on the brink of collapse—just look at J Street.

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As Peter Beinart wrote in his piece, “Collapse of the American Jewish Center?”, the way Alan Dershowitz was treated at the recent Jerusalem Post conference in New York is another indication of the marked rightward shift of many, if not most, of the traditional American Jewish organizations. Beinart’s observation that the decision by the leadership of these organizations to double down on an “Israel right or wrong” position, while at the same time trying to maintain nominal support for a two-state solution, is one of the main causes of this rightward movement.

This does not mean, however, that the community’s center has collapsed. What has happened is that these organizations have moved out of mainstream Jewish thought, making themselves less and less relevant to the debate. Their over-the-top attacks on Chuck Hagel reflect how far out on the limb some of these organizations are willing to go and how they are marginalizing themselves with their positions.

Where Beinart errs is in defining the whole of the community in relation to these organizations, as being either with them (on the right) or against them (on the left). In this paradigm, the center is reduced to nothing more than its geometric definition—a middle point chronically subject to the shifting of the poles and, implicitly, without an ideological integrity of its own.

J Street’s dramatic growth in just five years is a testament to the fallacy of this paradigm. Rather than representing the rise of a “leftist” organization in juxtaposition to a “rightist” Emergency Committee for Israel, J Street was organized as a mainstream organization to create a home, not only for the younger generation of Jews who view Israel through very open eyes, but also for those very secular tribalists of the center who no longer feel that attending the “far right pep rallies” of which Alan Dershowitz speaks is the best expression of their pro-Israel commitments. J Street doesn’t just support a two-state solution in name; it is also driven by grave concern over the existential threat to Israel’s character as both a Jewish and a democratic state should it choose to continue to control the West Bank. It is because of the urgency of this threat that J Street supports active U.S. participation in getting the Israelis and Palestinians to restart negotiations and arrive at an agreement.

Suggesting that J Street and ECI evolved from the same societal forces creates a false moral equivalency between the two organizations. J Street has evolved and grown over the past five years because of the strength of its arguments and positions and the enthusiasm and energy of its supporters. Its growth has been organic via speaking engagements, press releases, social media, conferences and media appearances. Its increasing influence on Capitol Hill has come about as much from its informed and nuanced positions as from the ever-increasing fundraising success of its PAC.

ECI, on the other hand, arose essentially out of whole cloth with the money and influence of a handful of right-wing donors and lay leaders. They include among them beacons of the neoconservative agenda: William Kristol, Rachel Abrams and Gary Bauer, who are profoundly out of step with the vast majority of American Jews on Israel issues and domestic concerns alike. Their first activities consisted of political attack ads of the most virulent kind. And, as a matter of fact, the organization’s activities seem to consist almost entirely of mean-spirited attacks against individuals and groups they do not agree with.

One of J Street’s goals has been to create political space both on Capitol Hill and with the general public for a vigorous conversation about Israel. Its actions have increasingly allowed members of Congress to sign onto letters and resolutions that five years ago would have been considered political suicide. And as earnest questions about the efficacy of Israeli government and military policies have begun to be heard in synagogues, the Jewish newspapers and the mainstream media, there’s been a wider realization that raising these sometimes difficult questions is not anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Rather, a rigorous examination serves the interest of Israel’s long-term survival better than hiding behind tacit acceptance of the “no daylight” argument. These are questions that are being asked every day by the Israeli populace and in its press, and Jews here are realizing there is no reason they should not be asked by those of us in the Diaspora as well.

One of the biggest indicators of how mainstream J Street has become is the fact that what Alan Dershowitz is saying from the dais sounds more like what one would hear at the J Street Conference than at the Jerusalem Post’s. And who knows, perhaps it won’t be long before Dershowitz actually does address J Street. It sounds like he would get a much more respectful reception there than he got two weeks ago in New York.

What’s more, just last week there was an even bigger confirmation of J Street’s position in the mainstream from perhaps the most important source: the Israeli government. According to an article by Yedioth’s diplomatic affairs reporter Itamar Eichner, “State officials [of the Israeli government] noted that J Street has become a major player in the U.S. political arena which can no longer be ignored.” I think that says it best.