The annual conference of J Street – the Jewish pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby – was held on April 18 and 19 and received impressive coverage in the US but very little attention in Israel. In a Jerusalem Post article (“What J Street means for progressives’ views on Israel”, 4/21) Herb Keinon wrote that the lack of attention in Israel to the J Street conference indicates short-sightedness and a failure to understand the processes taking place in the US. Keinon is not a J Street supporter, but he is absolutely right.
The Israeli government and the public are unaware of the dramatic change in US attitudes toward Israel, especially in the American Jewish community. This change reached new heights at the last conference attended (virtually due to the pandemic) by Democratic Party leaders in both houses of Congress and senior government representatives alongside leaders of all the religious denominations of American Jewry.
The J Street conference received minimal Israeli media coverage, which focused narrowly on comments made by leading progressive senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who both mentioned the importance of monitoring how Israel applies the $3.8 billion in US military aid received annually under former US president Barack Obama’s administration’s memorandum of understanding.
Israeli media falsely portrayed J Street as a marginal organization in which only members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party participate. In reality, at the conference, along with the senators mentioned, Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also appeared alongside US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield and many other leaders of the Democratic party.
The lack of response to the conference in Israel stems from Israel’s inability to understand the general picture in the US, an understanding that is critical to our relationship with our most important ally. The special relationship with the US is a key element in Israel’s national security. So too, is the connection to the largest Jewish community in the world, outside of Israel, which is strategic to a state that defines itself as the nation state of the Jewish people.
For years we have become accustomed to all-encompassing American support regardless of our governments’ policies while relying on legacy Jewish organizations in the US to ensure that this situation lasts forever.
J Street was established because the vast majority of American Jews no longer agree that blindly supporting the Israeli government by established Jewish organizations ignores the values and opinions of the majority of American Jews. American Jews are tired of Israel expecting them to support the country financially and advance Israeli government positions through lobbying, while Israel ignores their values and positions and discriminates exclusively in favor of the Orthodox Jewish denomination.
Most American Jews seek a home and a voice for those who want to support Israel without sacrificing their progressive values.
Before the establishment of J Street, the only option for those who care about Israel but did not identify with Israeli government positions were to disengage or support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. With the growth and success of J Street, they now have a liberal Zionist option.
In a relatively short period of time, J Street has transformed itself from a “start-up” that was not given a chance to compete for impact with the institutionalized organizations into a significant force in American foreign policy in the Israeli context. A large number of Democratic candidates for US House and US Senate running in the 2020 elections sought and received J Street’s endorsement.
Keinon correct states that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Republican representatives did not attend the conference. But they were certainly invited: I myself sent the invitations to the prime minister and ambassador in Washington, and know that the invitations were received.
The reason that the Republicans and representatives of the Israeli government did not participate in our conference is that J Street is not another organization without taste and without color. This is an organization that represents a clear worldview that is inconsistent with today’s Republican Party, which in the era of former US president Donald Trump lost the moderate elements that it has had throughout history and aligned entirely with the position of Netanyahu’s coalition.
There has been a shift in the Democratic Party, not due to anti-Israel sentiments, as is commonly thought in Israel. The shift was toward a more critical stance due to Netanyahu’s abandonment of the bipartisan approach that Israel has taken since its inception and his decision to take a clear side in American politics, allying with Republican and Evangelical Christians. The shift was created because, in the Netanyahu era, Israel is abandoning the liberal values manifested in Declaration of Independence that connected the Democratic Party with the state.
There are important organizations that deal with Israeli-US relations and focus on the relations between the countries regardless of the values and policies that this alliance represents. J Street is not such an organization. For us, close relations that eliminate any chance for peace and violate Palestinian human rights are not a worthy goal. We certainly want close relations that strengthen Israel’s security and prosperity, but also those that help Israel achieve an arrangement that will prevent the continuation of the toxic status quo that leads to a dual-national catastrophe. We are promoting relations that will keep the morality of Israel alongside its security.
Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with J Street, no other organization represents the vast majority of the Jewish community and no other organization is closer to the Democratic Party, which is currently in the White House and has a majority in both houses of Congress. Those who care about US-Israel relations should listen to Herb Keinon.
This article was published in The Jerusalem Post, May 1st 2021.