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What’s Driving the Jihad Against J Street

By Matthew Yglesias on March 30, 2009 at 4:13 pm

"What’s Driving the Jihad Against J Street"

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An interesting article by James Besser in New York Jewish Week asks why the Jewish American establishment is driven into such a frenzy by J Street, when it’s hardly the first dovish Israel-focused group in history:

But the reaction is far out of proportion to the Jewish “establishment’s” response to other dovish groups. I remember when Americans for Peace Now (APN) appeared on the scene (yes, I’ve been doing this job that long), and the reaction from the big guys was barely detectable. The Israel Policy Forum (IPF) and a predecessor group, Project Nishma, started out with some big name, mainstream Jewish leaders, so you’d think the pro-Israel establishment would have had fits, but I heard almost no reaction. Brit Tzedek v’Shalom was started by a former Knesset member, but its arrival caused barely a ripple.

So why J Street? Why all this fury? More to the point, why do so many find this group so threatening? [...] I suspect the answer has to do with something else: J Street is the first group on the left that’s dared to take on the pro-Israel lobby where it really matters: at the critical intersection of campaign finance and congressional lobbying.

I think that’s part of the story. I think another part of the story has to do with the dramatic rightward lurch in Israeli politics. Back when Ariel Sharon announced his Gaza “disengagement” plan in order to head-off international pressure for Israel to start negotiating on the Arab Peace Initiative, I don’t recall very many American Jews—including quite hawkish American Jews—being sympathetic to the far-right current in Israeli politics that denounced his move as a craven sellout. Hawks and doves disagreed about how to characterize Sharon: Was this a bold gesture of peace, or was it a a bold tactical gambit aimed at securing Israel’s grip on West Bank settlements. But everyone agreed that Netanyahu was playing to extremist sentiments. And now Netanyahu’s running the show, and the main partner in his coalition government is an anti-Arab demagogue coming from an even more extremist posture.

Meanwhile, neither American public opinion in general nor American Jewish public opinion in particular has become more hawkish or right-wing over the past five years. Quite the reverse. Obviously, this is going to be a problem for any group that wants to both be seen as “speaking for” American Jews and also aligned with the policy agenda of the Israeli government. It’s a period of real risk in which many Jews, and many politicians who are interested in what Jews think, might see their allegiances shift away from an establishment that’s come to be dominated by neocon-type views that relatively few American Jews actually hold. Under the circumstances, I can see why there’s a real effort to preemptively discredit a group that stands for fairly conventional things—support of a two-state solution, opposition to settlements, belief that preemptive war has not been a boon to American or Israeli interests in the region, etc.—at a time when Israeli politics is lurching in a weird and disturbing direction.

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