What J Street's Gotta Do

David Silverman / Getty Images

In a piece on Open Zion, Peter Beinart defends J Street from MJ Rosenberg and myself, ideological allies of J Street but critics of its decision to strongly oppose the Presbyterian Church's targeted divestment initiative. I won't speak for MJ, who was much more focused on J Street than I was. But J Street missed an opportunity here, and it needs to be pointed out.

I agree with much of Peter's essay, particularly where he discusses J Street's strategy and how it is incompatible with any kind of economic action which will, inevitably, alienate the people J Street targets. Indeed, J Street demonstrated how true this is earlier this year, when its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami came out in opposition to Peter's own idea of "Zionist BDS."

So no, I would never expect J Street to come out in support of the PCUSA's divestment initiative. But Ben-Ami didn’t need to characterize an attempt by the church to specifically target the occupation as "joining forces with the BDS movement." And he didn’t need to add the jab that in doing so, PCUSA joined a coalition where many "refuse to acknowledge either the legitimacy of Israel or the right of the Jewish people as well as the Palestinian people to a state."

In contrast, Debra DeLee President of Americans for Peace Now, which also opposed PCUSA's initiative, said that she acknowledged "PC-USA's efforts to craft a narrowly focused, carefully targeted approach to divestment. The organization was searching–as are we all–for a way to promote a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." DeLee thus recognized that the broad brush she and Jeremy had used to paint the PCUSA as being in cahoots with anti-Israel forces just because they advocated for a much more targeted type of divestment was inappropriate and inaccurate.

So, if neutrality is too difficult, J Street could have offered a more constructive critique, one that stated its opposition but refrained from casting anyone who believes ending the occupation merits some degree of collective public economic action as anti-Israel. Surely if targeted divestment is such a bad tactic, the argument against it can be made without resorting to implicit threats and bullying tactics, as Ben-Ami did in his op-ed. Surely such methods need not characterize the American Jewish left.

In a vote of 666 delegates, the PCUSA initiative failed by two votes, with two abstentions. Clearly, J Street's statement was decisive here. Rather than torpedo a legitimate effort to strictly target the occupation and not Israel, J Street could have crafted careful wording to keep itself in opposition while still reaching out to Presbyterians as allies and, perhaps, seen if that initiative might in fact do some good, as many J Street supporters believe it might have.

This was a real option, and J Street missed the opportunity. There was a chance not only to explore how we, living in America, might move things forward in the Middle East, but also for J Street to start bridging gaps with parts of the peace movement working either separately or, sometimes, even at odds with each other. As a Beltway group, J Street is limited in its options. But as an acknowledged leader in a broad attempt to change the status quo, it has a responsibility to bridge the gaps, not widen them.

I've explained elsewhere why I disagree with the broader BDS movement but I also feel that some sort of direct action to change the status quo is necessary. This is why the Presbyterian initiative, aimed strictly at the occupation, is the best course. Sure, J Street can disagree with this position; but there’s no need to augment divisions among left and center-left opponents of the status quo.

Part of AIPAC's strength is that it has bridged similar gaps with groups both to the right and left of it and thus brought in allies that have strengthened it in Washington. It looks beyond the Beltway to strengthen its DC game, even when some of the groups it connects with take tactics or support ideas that don’t completely squared with its own party line.

J Street must do the same. Until it does, people like me will continue to support it for what it does, and continue to criticize it for what it fails to do. Opponents of Israel's occupation and US policy which de facto supports it remain the weaker side, despite greater numbers. That won't change if we continually divide ourselves and thwart the efforts of potential allies. And that's the case I'll continue to make to J Street.