Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015...3:38 pm

Editorial: American Jews and J Street

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Israel will play a part in the 2016 elections. Apart from arguments about how the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved, right-wing Jewish billionaires again will open their wallets and have an impact on the vote.

“Pro-Israel funding” is having an impact, according to Sen. Lindsey Graham, the Republican from South Carolina mulling a presidential run.

Graham told the Wall Street Journal this week that his biggest challenge, vis-à-vis a run for the White House next year is: “The means. If I put together a finance team that will make me financially competitive enough to stay in this thing… I may have the first all-Jewish cabinet in America because of the pro-Israel funding.”

WSJ noted that Graham chuckled, and then added: “Bottom line is, I’ve got a lot of support from the pro-Israel funding.”

Graham’s “first all-Jewish cabinet” sounds like a line in one of Al Franken’s humor books (from his pre-Senate incarnation).

Graham and his GOP rivals already are lining up to kiss the hem of Sheldon Adelson’s garment. In 2012, the Las Vegas casino magnate spent around $100 million to support Republican candidates, in his avowed mission to defeat President Barack Obama. Adelson’s main issue is Israel.

Pro Publica, the nonprofit public interest investigative news group, notes that Adelson’s $100 million in recorded political contributions “doesn’t include the checks he wrote to ‘dark-money’ groups — organizations that don’t have to disclose their donors, making their spending harder to track. These groups have proliferated since the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which opened the door to unlimited corporate and union giving.”

In a new feature of American politics, the organized Jewish community (AIPAC, etc.), and the State of Israel have cast their lot with the Republicans, as the Obama administration, working with other Western nations, seeks to finalize a deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear program.

Although voices on the right are crying that any deal with Iran is like Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Adolf Hitler at Munich, in 1938, a recent Washington Post poll found “a two-to-one majority in support of the deal [with Iran], among all Americans,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group.

“And our polling, prior to the deal being struck, showed 84 percent support in the American Jewish community for the broad outlines” of the framework deal that was reached between the P5+1 negotiators and Iran, Ben-Ami added.

Ben-Ami talked with the Jewish World last week at the Marriott City Center, in downtown Minneapolis. The interview took place before Ben-Ami’s talk at the Humphrey Forum at the University of Minnesota. He also met with local Jewish community leaders, and spoke at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, during his visit to Minnesota.

The discussion about negotiations between the U.S., Western nations and Iran followed on my question about J Street participating in a meeting called by President Obama on April 13. There were two meetings: one meeting involved leaders of Jewish organizations, including J Street, and the other meeting involved the president and “influencers,” or major donors to the Democratic Party who have expressed skepticism about the Iran nuclear deal, according to a JTA report.

J Street has emerged as a communal counter-balance to AIPAC, the dominant group lobbying U.S. elected officials in support of Israel. As AIPAC and the Republican-led Congress have become partisans of Israel’s Likud Party, J Street has backed Obama administration diplomacy to end the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

And the divisions over Israel in the American Jewish community were sharpened by a recent series of events.

“I refer to the last month as ‘March Madness,’” remarked Ben-Ami. “We had everything from the Israeli election to the Iran deal; AIPAC had its national conference; we had our national conference; the prime minister of Israel was in Congress for a speech, you may have heard. It was quite an intense month.”

The organized Jewish community, in its self-selected role as an auxiliary of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office, steadily proclaims the State of Israel’s support for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That position, of course, went up in flames, when Netanyahu, on the eve of the Israeli elections declared that there would be no Palestinian state established on his watch. Goodbye, two-state solution.

Actually, Netanyahu, beginning with his first term as prime minister, in 1996, did his best to stall the progress of the 1993 Oslo peace accords. And last summer — in a July 11 press conference, to be precise — Netanyahu diverged from comments about the ongoing Gaza war to emphasize that Israel couldn’t cede military control over the West Bank, lest a radical Islamist regime take control. One could deduce from Netanyahu’s comment that continued Israeli military occupation would be antithetical to Palestinian sovereignty.

J Street, according to Ben-Ami, gave Netanyahu “the benefit of the doubt,” when Secretary of State John Kerry renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks two years ago. Now, however, Netanyahu has “explicitly” ruled out the establishment of a Palestinian state. “There won’t be forward progress toward a two-state solution,” Ben-Ami said.

Absent “serious forward movement in negotiations,” Ben-Ami said the U.S. needs to join the international community in “laying out the parameters of a proposed two-state solution, perhaps codifying that at the U.N. in a security council resolution.” J Street also is encouraging the White House “to take a much tougher stance on Israeli settlement expansion.”

Again, from a right-wing point of view, J Street is a dangerous far-left group that’s inimical to Israel’s security. Israel is situated in a “bad neighborhood,” as we’re often reminded. Some Jewish activists on the extreme right even produced a film, The J Street Challenge, which conflated J Street with former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in the way that movies can make such emotional connections.

However, according to Ben-Ami, J Street is winning acceptance within the Jewish community.

“It’s immensely better, you know, we’ve been around now seven years, and the difference today from day one is just enormous,” said Ben-Ami. “Again, it gets consistently better, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a vibrant fight within the Jewish community worldwide about very, very important issues. The views of Netanyahu, of [Jewish Home party leader Naftali] Bennett, of [Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor] Lieberman are very legitimate views, and they are shared by people in this country, in the Jewish community, like Sheldon Adelson and Bill Kristol, and others on the right politically. There’s nothing illegitimate or wrong about their viewpoints; they have the right to stake it out, but it’s just a very different view of the world and a very different view of the value system of the Jewish people. It’s a very different view of how you ensure security over the long run.”

Ben-Ami continued: “And we have to have a vibrant debate. It’s essentially a political fight between two very different worldviews; and at times it gets a little heated and personal. We try not to do that from our side. I sense at times that sometimes our opponents cross a line into a place where the discussion is no longer about the substance of the arguments that we’re having, but gets more personal and touches on things that shouldn’t be brought into the debate, and that film [The J Street Challenge] is a good example of going a little bit too far.”

It will be interesting to see how J Street maneuvers in the aftermath of “March Madness,” and the establishment of a new hard-right government in Israel. My leftist friends in Israel say that J Street came too late and with too little to the debate, and has maintained support for a two-state position that has become stale.

Israelis campaigning for peace, and for human civil rights, increasingly are coming under attack from the right-wing parties. J Street partisans should encourage the group’s leaders to speak out forcefully on behalf of groups in the Jewish state that are championing peace and justice issues.

And who knows, perhaps peace will break out in Israel and Palestine.

— Mordecai Specktor /

(American Jewish World, 4.24.15)

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