August 30, 2009
Obama's Court Jews; the Rise of J Street
Court Jews were so named because they were Jews who did favors for noblemen in exchange for prestige, social influence, and various privileges not available to other Jews. They were often more concerned with preserving their status and fortunes than in promoting the welfare of their less fortunate co-religionists, who usually faced severe bigotry, were mired in poverty, and walled into ghettoes. Because they so often rejected their brethren in order to achieve personal advantage, the term "court Jew" has become one of opprobrium.
In the widening divide between American and Israeli Jews over concern for the future of Israel, there are many American Jews who have taken positions harmful to the security of the Jewish state. Some Jews for a variety of reasons wish to establish themselves as "progressives", with a universalist rather than particularist world view. In part, this was the motivation behind the establishment of the American Council for Judaism (ACJ), founded by prominent and wealthy Jews in 1942 as an anti-Zionist organization. It was directed by Elmer Berger, a Reform rabbi and court Jew aspirant, who identified with Arab causes and condemned Israel as the aggressor in the Six Day War. Members of the ACJ wished to emphasize that their Judaism was simply another religion and not a peoplehood; America was their Jerusalem.
Barack Obama has also needed court Jews. The President, clearly committed to liberal-left solutions to our national problems, campaigned as a strong advocate for Israel. In doing so, personal charm, convincing rhetoric, and support from powerful Jewish figures, successfully overcame suspicion arising from his close association over many years with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and Palestinian academic firebrand Rashid Khalidi, or from his use of anti-Israel advisers such as Robert Malley and Zbigniew Brzezinski, His eloquence and apparent sincerity in speaking of his concern for Israel played a major role in his winning a stunning 78% of the Jewish vote.
Once he was elected Barak Obama found governing to be more difficult than campaigning. The choices that he has made have led to erosion of support, especially among centrists who had supported him. To be successful Obama needed to retain his base, including those who gave him not only votes, but large numbers of workers, financial assistance, and intellectual heft. This means that he cannot afford to lose the American Jewish community.
Obama's view of the conflict in the Middle East has been shaped by those with an imperfect understanding of Middle East history and culture. He appears to accept at face value Arab statements that peace will be forthcoming in exchange for ending the occupation, and all that he need do is show that he can push the Israelis to freeze settlements, and then a series of steps by the Arabs will lead to a durable peace. Those around him, including many Jews, encourage this ahistoric and simplistic thinking.
But the President needs to be sure that in the process of leaning on Israel, he does not lose the American Jewish community. They were needed last year to ensure an electoral majority and will continue to be needed in the future. Having campaigned on a strong pro-Israel platform, and having assured many prominent and well-connected Jews that he was committed to the security and welfare of Israel, he needed a credible way to validate that impression in order to prevent any erosion in support. This is where Jeremy Ben-Ami, the director of the new organization J Street, comes in. Ben-Ami has become the very model of the "court Jew".
Ben-Ami has a long career in government and politics, and an association with . left-liberal causes. Along with others, including George Soros, Ben-Ami founded J Street last year as an organization that was "both pro-peace and pro-Israel". A key feature of J Street's strategy was to establish themselves as a centrist force. To achieve this they needed to do two things. First, market themselves as moderate and as authentic representatives of the American Jewish community, and secondly break the influence of AIPAC and other Jewish organizations by re-labeling them as right wing, and not sufficiently committed to the peace process.
During its short history, J Street has built up an extensive list of positions detrimental to Israel. With respect to Iran, they have defended Iran's nuclear weapons program, and lobbied Congress not to place new sanctions on Iran, claiming that the President's use of diplomacy was preferable to any timelines or new round of sanctions. They have urged ending sanctions against Syria also, and have favored pressuring Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syrian control,
They have lobbied Congress to oppose an initiative calling on Obama to pressure Arab governments to normalize relations with Israel, They favor negotiating with Hamas.They support the "Arab Peace Initiative. And when the President awarded the Medal of Freedom to the Durban anti-Semitic ringmaster Mary Robinson, it was J Street that was tasked with defending the indefensible.
But their most controversial action relates to Operation Cast Lead. Last December, after several months of deadly rocket and mortar attacks from Gaza, Israel finally took military action against Hamas to defend its citizens. J Street opposed this action, calling for an immediate cease fire on the first day, claiming that Israel's actions were contrary to the interests of peace. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism and an early supporter of J Street, broke with them over this issue, calling it a mistake that "misjudged the views of American Jews". According to Rabbi Yoffie, J Street "is showing signs of moral deficiency and appalling naïveté".
J Street's strategy is deceptively simple. No matter how damaging to Israel a particular position might be, they follow with the mantra "and we are pro-Israel". That J Street takes positions inimical to Israel's welfare should be obvious, but it disguises its anti-Israel bias behind repeated declarations of support for the State of Israel. Since there is much disagreement about how best to help Israel, J Street's repetitive claim that they are a pro-Israel organization offering an enlightened and liberal view, in contrast to the "right wing" views of the Israeli government and the mainstream American Jewish organizations, has credibility.
The media and most individuals, lacking sufficient knowledge to recognize this deception, have rarely questioned the pro-Israel appellation.
This Orwellian deception permits Obama to take steps inimical to the security of Israel while incurring minimal criticism from those who are increasingly alarmed about his growing hostility to Israel There is no other Jewish organization so aligned with the positions of this President on the foreign policy and security issues of the Middle East. Like Obama, J Street believes that the settlements are the major obstacle to peace. Like Obama, J Street believes that mainstream American Jewish organizations are less relevant, and future developments and political inroads will come by way of progressive Jews and their organizations. Like Obama, J Street believes that the current government in Israel is right-wing and will not take steps toward peace unless pushed.
The J Street Advisory Council is composed largely of individuals who are unambiguous in their defamation of Israel. Because most are anti-Israel ideologues J Street's claim that it loves the Jewish state is seriously undermined.
The continuing effectiveness of J Street will be dependent on the credibility it can achieve with liberal Jews, and whether it can get away with continuing to insist that it is pro-Israel, when every action it takes is inimical to the Jewish state. Many liberal Jews, including Martin Peretz, editor of the New Republic, and Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, have been vociferous critics.
Recently, a major setback undermined J Street's claim to be a pro-Israel organization. This occurred with the disclosure that J Street had accepted funding from dozens of Arab and Muslim Americans, from individuals connected to organizations unfriendly to Israel, and from at least two State Department officials connected to Middle East issues. It may fairly be asked why they would want to donate money to a pro-Israel organization.
Several weeks ago, the mainstream Jewish organizations requested a meeting with the President. For the meeting, the President took it upon himself to decide who the representatives of the Jewish community should be, eliminating pro-Israel stalwarts such as ZOA, and including J Street. This ensured that one group in the oval office would be in full agreement with the President, and made it awkward for others to dissent.
J Street is sitting with a precarious house of cards. Many factors could lead to its demise, including its reputation for dishonesty, the difficulty of being an umbrella organization for a group as fractious as the American Jewish left, its success in continuing to convince the President that it really does represent the majority of American Jews, and the acceptance of funding from sources that are not friendly to Israel. The major danger of J Street will be the recognition by the broader Jewish community that J Street is not what it claims, and in fact is manipulating the community in order to get close to the corridors of power
The claim by J Street that they are pro-Israel is one of the largest con jobs ever perpetrated on the American Jewish community. Three parties are colluding in this fiction.
For Obama, J Street permits him to create the illusion that he has the support of the American Jewish community, that he is maintaining his promise to be a friend to Israel, and by doing exactly what a pro-Israel Jewish organization is recommending, he is acting in Israel's best interests,
For J Street to continue to function as Obama's court Jew, they need to straddle a precarious balance between two clients, the President and the American Jewish community. On the one hand, they need to convince Obama that their positions do in fact have the support of the majority of American Jews, that they represent a broader cross section of the American Jewish community than does AIPAC, and that they can thereby prevent leakage of support for Obama from the Jewish community. On the other hand, they need to continue to have their declaration of being pro-Israel taken at face value by the American Jewish community.
The final party, the organized Jewish community and supporters of Israel, need to buy the entire scenario. As soon as the community sees through J Street's claim of being pro-Israel, the game will end. At present however, J Street is an unofficial adjunct of the Obama administration. Its allegiance is to Barack Obama, not to the American Jewish community and certainly not to Israel.