March 13, 2011
J Street: A Dead EndBy Adrienne A. Price
J Street's race for mainstream legitimacy will have long-term divisive effects on the American Jewish community.
Funded by mysterious donors who may be neither Jewish nor American, J Street has become the home for progressive rabbis, Jews who see Israel as the roadblock for peace, and dreamers who believe that jihadis just need to be understood.
For Israel detractors, J Street must be a dream come true. Those who do not support Israel's right to safe and secure borders, who are part of the boycott, divestment and sanctions crowd, and who are willing to give up national sovereignty to the International Community get shelter within the J Street tent. To be successful, J Street will have to divide the American Jewish community between those who want America to stand with Israel and those who are committed to using American power against Israel.
American Jews have created a virtual alphabet soup of cause-oriented groups that span the political spectrum. While they might not agree on all issues, they have generally respected the decisions of the democratically elected government of the State of Israel. More particularly, Jewish organizations generally did not second-guess Israeli security needs (since Israelis are making the ultimate sacrifice with their treasured children) and have not lobbied the American government to sanction Israel in a hostile United Nations.
J Street was the exception to the rule. Unlike most Jewish organizations which were birthed with grassroots support, J Street came to American communities already packaged with a board, a statement of purpose, and funding. Progressive rabbis and some liberal Jews welcomed and heralded J Street as the answer to their political need, heretofore unmet, for a progressive Jewish organization whose raison d'être is to chastise Israel publicly and encourage the US to break with Israel on major issues.
Now J Street is campaigning for mainstream acceptance. In Westchester, New York, one chapter in the fight for J Street's acceptance is playing out, and in the process is opening divisions in the community. J Street was given membership to the local Jewish Community Relations Council, called the Westchester Jewish Council (WJC). The WJC's funding includes grants from the New York United Jewish Appeal - Federation, or charity dollars collected communally. The WJC is an umbrella organization charged with representing all its constituent Jewish institutions. Members include synagogues, Jewish community centers and local offices of national organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the Zionist Organization of America. The WJC staff and Board are made up of many good people, and the organization acts as the glue holding individual communal organizations together.
New members joining the WJC are not announced by email, so it took some time for word to filter out that J Street joined WJC. About the same time J Street's new community membership was being broadly noticed, J Street was getting significant press about its lack of financial transparency, its Executive Director's alleged self-dealing and the apparent anti-Zionist pronouncements of the new head of J Street's Israel campus.
To date, broad membership criteria to join the WJC have been adequate. However, admission of J Street raises the question about whether members of the WJC should adhere to certain basic criteria such as; (1) financial transparency, (2) primarily Jewish donors, (3) primarily Jewish members, (4) belief in Zionism, (5) and rejection of the boycott, divestiture and sanctions (BDS) movement.
On the other side of the issue, J Street reportedly has the support of dozens of progressive Rabbis who welcomed them to the community.
Sunday night, March 6, Daniel Levy, a J Street Advisory Board member and Director at the New America Foundation, appeared in a synagogue in Westchester on a panel with former Presidential Spokesman Ari Fleisher, and Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-Westchester), moderated by the Jewish Week's Gary Rosenblatt. Gauging by the amount and timing of audience applause, the room was ideologically split.
Mr. Levy opened by remarking on the uprisings now occurring in Arab countries as good news and predicted they will result in governments that will be a counter-balance to Iran and al Qaeda. He said the revolutions are also good because they will allow us to deal with our Islamophobia here in the US. Concerning Israeli peace agreements, he said that the Israeli peace with Egypt and Jordan were flawed because that peace was with the regimes' heads and not with the people. Of course, he never explained how the Israelis were supposed to make peace with the people of Egypt and Jordan. On the road to peace, he thought it was a good idea to meet with the Muslim Brotherhood. If you are confused at this point, I was also.
Mr. Levy disagreed with the concept of a greater Israel -- namely the settlements. He gave the audience permission to disagree with the settlements and still be pro-Israel. Mr. Levy said he wanted to help Israel get to a place where it could guaranty itself. It appears that Mr. Levy is an Israeli citizen who cannot get his way in Israel, so he decided to run around America organizing Jews and others to pressure Israel to implement his vision. Whether President Obama echoed Mr. Levy at a meeting on March 1, 2011 with the Conference of Presidents or vice-versa, Mr. Levy said Israel controls whether or not there is peace. Mr. Levy said peace is simple -- Israel just needs to give the Palestinians enough that they might want to accept a state. He believes that up to this point, Israel has not offered the Palestinians anything they can really accept. The simplicity of his reasoning was a head-shaker. He told the audience that the popular idea that Israel offered the Palestinians 93%-97% of what they were requesting was a fiction.
The audience was treated to Daniel Levy's view of how, in practical steps, Israel can achieve peace and international acceptance. According to Mr. Levy, the "settler reality" has created all the problems Israel faces. He would like the US government and American Jews to force Israel out of its "comfort zone" in order to force a settlement. He envisions an Israel ultimately behind the 1967 borders with a divided Jerusalem. He would like to see Israel immediately resettle 100,000 Israelis currently living in Judea and Samaria to within the 1967 Borders and a certain amount of land carved from the West Bank, enough to be a good will gesture, deposited in "escrow" with an international body for the time when the Palestinians are ready to make peace. All he needs is America to force Israel's hand and his formula will lead to peace and acceptance. Kumbaya.
After the panel, a women from the audience asked Mr. Levy to explain why mega-donor Consolacion Esdicul gave over $800,000 to J Street. It is hard to explain why that question elicited a screaming tirade from Mr. Levy, but it did. He did not answer the question. So much for transparency.
Certainly J Street and Mr. Levy have the right to their opinions and to say whatever they want. J Street, however, has presented the Jewish community with a fight for its soul. Mr. Levy, promoting division in the community, asked audience members to marshal "Conservative and Reform" Jews into a coalition to support his vision and force Israel to comply. I suppose the Orthodox need not apply.
It is a significant question whether an organization willing to lobby in the US against the policy of the Israeli government with respect to security and willing to sanction Israel in the UN can become accepted as mainstream in the Jewish community. If J Street succeeds, the American Jewish community will never again be unified behind the Israeli government on matters of security. A J Street success will break apart the American Jewish community just as the political left and right are polarized and may very well damage American support for Israel.