Michael Oren and J Street: Narrowing the Pro-Israel Tent
12/14/2009 - 11:12
James Besser

I haven't spoken to Michael Oren, Israel's current ambassador in Washington, more than a handful of times, but he's always struck me as smart and sophisticated. So I can't help but wonder why he continues to pick needless fights with J Street, the pro-peace process lobby and political action committee.

Even if J Street is what detractors say – a group that masquerades as pro-Israel while advocating policies that would harm the Jewish state – it's hard to see why Israel's ambassador is in a lather, given the reality the group is relatively new and yet to prove itself. 

And, sorry, there's no evidence J Street is a fraud with anti-Israel intentions.  The group seems more centrist than other pro-peace process groups – and you don't hear Israeli ambassadors getting publicly riled up about them.  Best I can figure, J Streets wants about what every prime minister since the late Yitzhak Rabin wanted: a two-state negotiated solution. That's anti-Israel?

Lately J Street has been slammed for standing outside the pro-Israel consensus on Iran. Last week, when it announced it is supporting the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, it was lambasted by the right for a “flip flop” and by the far left for giving up its principles in an effort to curry favor with the pro-Israel big guys.

But with numerous experts saying sanctions, while probably necessary, are unlikely to work in time (see this Jewish Week story),  there's plenty of room for debate about the best strategy in the effort to prevent a nuclear Iran.  I haven't heard anybody at J Street argue that U.S. policy should simply turn its back on the issue.

I'm not defending all of J Street's positions. Personally, I don't buy into their underlying assumption that the Palestinian leadership is serious about peace. Negotiating with Iran sounded nice, but it's pretty clear Iran doesn't have the slightest interest in anything but delay ( but I'm also pretty convinced sanctions won't do the trick without universal participation, which is about as likely as Ahmadinejad's bar mitzvah).

Oren's outspoken statements about J Street have only two possible explanations.

One is that he was ordered to do it by the Netanyahu government, which seems way more alarmed by J Street's existence than the facts warrant.

The other is that Oren is mirroring a narrowing of the pro-Israel movement in this country.

Instead of creating an umbrella to involve the broadest possible spectrum of Jews and Jewish groups in support of Israel,  the major pro-Israel institutions seem bent on narrowing the definition of what constitutes “pro-Israel.”

You can't be pro-Israel and support an aggressive push for a two-state solution, the argument seems to go; guys like Rabin and Ariel Sharon must have been secretly anti-Israel.  You can't question whether U.S. sanctions are the best way to approach the threat of a nuclear Iran, even if many top Iran experts say their impact will be minimal. You can't agree that Jerusalem should be one of the issues decided in final status negotiations, even though that's been U.S. and Israeli policy for years.  You have to tiptoe around the issue of Jewish settlements.

The result, it seems to me, will be a more ideologically pure pro-Israel movement and one more aligned with a single political faction in Israel.

Inevitably, that quest for ideological purity will mean a much smaller pro-Israel movement, with less in common with  the vast majority of Jews who don't have close connections to West Bank residents, who don't have strong religious views on Jerusalem, who support Israel but aren't personally involved in pro-Israel activism, who don't favor Israel keeping all or most of the West Bank, who favor a two-state solution even if they aren't particularly confident of Palestinian intentions.

A movement that once sought to expand the pro-Israel tent seems now to be trying to shrink it.  More than anything else, Oren's public outspokenness on J Street seems to me the next step in a process that could ultimately undercut that movement.

There's an important place in the pro-Israel movement for the Zionist Organization of America,  for Americans for Peace Now, for Brit Tzedek, for Americans for a Safe Israel, for AIPAC, for the Presidents Conference, for the Israel policy Forum, for J Street, for JINSA, for the Tikkun Community. All represent significant constituencies in the Jewish world. Narrowing the threshold for membership in that movement can only undermine its size and effectiveness in democratic America and in a Jewish community mostly united by its support of Israel but incredibly diverse in how that support is manifested.

You don't like J Street positions? Then challenge the the group and explain why you think its positions are bunk. But don't write it out of a pro-Israel movement that needs to encompass the range of Jewish, pro-Israel views, not impose entrance requirements that fewer and fewer will meet.

 

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