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American Jewish liberals finding their voice on ‘J Street’

Though American Jews are politically liberal, they have allowed neoconservative U.S. Jewish organizations to speak for them on important issues such as Israel and America’s Middle East policy. The divide between American Jews and the national Jewish organizations that purport to represent them can be seen in the recent emergence of a progressive alternative to the powerful Israel lobby in Washington.

J Street was created in 2008 as a pro-peace and alternative pro-Israel lobby to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has dominated political discourse on U.S. Middle East policy for decades. The dovish J Street supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, giving a voice to American Jews who for too long have been unrepresented by the hawkish AIPAC. J Street rightfully sees the failure to achieve a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an existential threat to the state of Israel.

Given the demographic realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israel’s survival as a democracy is at stake, with the risk of Israel becoming an apartheid-like state in which an Israeli minority rules over a Palestinian majority. Ehud Olmert, the previous prime minister of Israel, has said that if the two-state solution collapses as an option and Israel faces a South African-style struggle with Palestinians for equal voting rights, then the state of Israel is finished.

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Redefining “pro-Israel”

Major American Jewish organizations like AIPAC support Israeli government policies with an “Israel — right or wrong” mentality. Critical voices from American Jewry regarding illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, evictions of Palestinians, demolitions of their homes, and human rights violations, have been the exception rather than the rule. Jewish liberals that have dared to speak out and criticize Israeli policies have been attacked for being “anti-Israel” and “self-hating” Jews.

What’s needed in the organized American Jewish community is a broader definition of what it means to be “pro-Israe.l” For too long, to be pro-Israel has been narrowly defined as being a defender of all Israeli government actions. Jewish doves who have dissented from this hard line have been marginalized and cast outside the pale. As a result, according to Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s executive director, U.S. elected officials and politicians have for years fundamentally misread the American Jewish community.

“Not only in setting American policy but in charting their political approach to the Jewish community, America’s political leaders need to look beyond the loudest voices from the community to the opinions actually held by the broad majority of American Jews,” said Ben-Ami. “Understanding this dynamic could help shift not only American policy, but dramatically affect the chances for peace and security for Israel and the Middle East.”

Still in its infancy, J Street operates with a small fraction of the budget and resources enjoyed by AIPAC. Consequently, Congress is still intimidated by AIPAC’s long-standing political muscle and clout. It’s not surprising that on the eve of J Street’s first national conference held in October on Capitol Hill more than a dozen members of Congress bowed to political pressure and backed out of the conference at the last minute.

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Nevertheless, J Street’s conference was a tremendous success — 1,000 people pre-registered to attend the conference but more than 1,500 participants showed up. The keynote address was given by Gen. James Jones, the Obama administration’s national security adviser, who told the audience that “this administration will be represented at all future J Street conferences.”

Debate and dissent

It wasn’t so long ago that the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, an umbrella organization for national and local Jewish agencies, passed a resolution condemning “McCarthy-like” tactics used by some American Jewish organizations. The resolution proposed guidelines for dealing with “the right of dissent” on Israeli policies, and emphasized the importance of open and thoughtful exchange in an atmosphere of “mutual tolerance and civility.”

AIPAC and its backers in the organized Jewish community should adhere to that standard. Only through free and open debate on U.S. policy in the Middle East can there be a just and lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Kadima Party and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni stated in her letter of support to J Street in October, “the discussion in the pro-Israel community of what best advances Israel’s cause should be inclusive and broad enough to encompass a variety of views.” J Street is a significant step in that direction.

Slabodkin is a former opposition researcher for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).