Categorized | Middle East, USA

A critic attends the J-Street Conference

By J.J. Surbeck

J.J. Surbeck

J.J. Surbeck

SAN DIEGO — I just came back from attending – for the first time – the J Street National Symposium in San Francisco, and I find myself still scratching my head. I’m not sure where to start, so please bear with me as this will be somewhat of a hodge-podge of impressions and comments as I try to convey my perplexity.

When I discovered a few weeks ago that I would happen to be in San Francisco at the same time as the first J Street national annual meeting on the West Coast (they usually meet in Washington, like… AIPAC), I did not hesitate: I had to be there and observe. And so I did. I listened carefully to every word that was uttered by lots of people who seemed very convinced of what they said (but still failed to convince me, somehow, not that anyone cared as it was clearly more of a mutual-slapping on the back type of event, although half-a-dozen of San Diego J Streeters spotted me and asked me what I was doing there, to which I replied that I was ever-eager to learn and thought that it would be fair of me, a vocal critic of J Street, to give them a chance to alter my views… which in the end they didn’t).

First the general impressions. For one thing, this was not AIPAC. On a considerably smaller scale, J Street nevertheless largely copies the AIPAC format of cramming workshops with big names (everything being relative), and unfortunately that led to the same frustration I experience at AIPAC where one can only attend one workshop while several others are being given at the same time. There were three plenaries and nine workshops, some of which can be watched on the J Street YouTube site at http://tinyurl.com/klfyl5v, but since – like AIPAC – not all workshops are put on YouTube, you had to be there, and too bad for the ones you missed. So the tally of what I attended and listened to attentively was three plenary sessions and three workshops, missing the other six workshops. I’ll give more details further down.

For a second, the size of the crowd, which I would estimate (generously) at about 500 during the big plenary on Saturday night, was a far cry from the massive 10,000+ gathered by AIPAC. What was most striking, however, was that where I expected throngs of hip young people, this was by and large (well over ⅔ by my unscientific estimate) a much older crowd. From the back of the room, it was a sea of white hair! This was probably due to the left-leaning traditions of the Bay Area, where J Street boasts 13,000 members. Well, they may exist on paper, but only a small portion showed up for their first annual West Coast event. I did not go to the big dinner gala on Sunday evening as I had my fill by then, so maybe more people showed up for that event, but I doubt it.

The program was nevertheless interesting, even if hugely important aspects of the conflict that should have been part of the discusions were not even mentioned, despite the fact that in the real world they condition many of the points that were discussed, e.g. first and foremost Palestinian rejectionism and terrorism. The latest report on the number of attacks that took place in May of this year alone was a staggering 116, worse still than the previous month where the number stood at 112.  Every day, Israelis trying to live a normal life must brace themselves for an average of 4 attacks! You wouldn’t have guessed that there was even a single one from listening to the varied speakers who took turns to, rather, spend their time vilifying Netanyahu. It seems that in order to show your J Street bona fides, you need to say something nasty or irreverent towards the Israeli Prime Minister. Then you’re “in”. You’re part of the “clan”.

Some trigger words seem also to have the same effect on this crowd as the word “attack” on some dogs. One such word is “settlements.” Depending on the context, either there was groaning… or applause if they were criticized. Another mantra is, of course, that all evils are to be traced to the occupation, which is evil itself, even though no one ever explained why. This is an article of faith. If Israel was to listen to J Street, they’d have to leave the West Bank without any guarantees… and J Street promises that peace will inevitably follow as a result. The Gaza experience does not seem to have taught J Street the same lessons that it taught Israel. Israelis are not about to make the same mistake again without iron-clad guarantees that neither the Palestinians nor the US, nor anyone else for that matter, are able to provide with an ounce of credibility today. It would have been fascinating to see this audience’s reaction to a presentation arguing that a) the occupation is legal and is not the reason there is no peace, b) the settlements are legal and as long as the Palestinians refuse to make any concession leading to peace, Israel remains free to keep building more, c) before trying to force Israel to make ever more concessions, the focus of all the self-appointed do-gooders like J Street and other left-wing organizations should be on building a functional Palestinian democracy able to negotiate honestly a peace agreement with Israel rather than ignoring their severe dysfunctionalities which make such negotiations impossible. Well, silly me, this is a hard-left organization not one bit interested in hearing arguments from any “right-winger” that could prove them wrong, so this is not going to happen.

Jeremy Ben Ami started in the Opening Plenary session with an interesting speech that is worth listening to (it start at the 10:35 mark of the Opening Night video). Among other things, he said the following (15:04 mark): “For those of us who are Jewish Americans, what do we do about the poisonous atmosphere that has developed around the Israel conversation in the American Jewish community? How do we make sure that Israel itself is a unifying and not a divisive force in our community? How do we convince the established institutions of our community to adopt a more welcoming and open posture towards dissent, and to recognize that one of the greatest strength of the Jewish people throughout history has been to use arguments and debates to grow and strengthen?

Coming from the one person arguably most responsible for creating the very poisonous atmosphere he complained about, that showed an impressive amount of chutzpah. Ominously enough, he also added later that “This is a fight for the heart and soul of the Jewish community”. You have been warned. He concluded by stating hyperbolically  that …a majority in both Israel and the Jewish American community agrees with us”. Really? I don’t think so.

While he was pleading for an “open posture” to his views, this whole conference itself was fraught with both denial and hypocrisy. Denial of the reality of Palestinian terrorism, and hypocrisy because there was not a single discussion in which the participants disagreed. It would have been considerably more interesting – and honest – of J Street to invite people who support views they do not share, and even invite reprsentatives of the people they hate the most, the settlers. But I don’t think that’s something J Street is capable of because despite its young age (6 years), it has already turned into a sort of church with unchallengeable dogma: the only way towards peace is the two-state solution, and there can be no deviation from that path, no matter how much reality bites them back in their collective derrière and proves it’s a solution that cannot work as things stand today. Even the fact that the few Israeli speakers present uttered in cautious terms the anathema that “Israel may have to look for another solution” did not alter the official mantra that the only way is the two-state solution.

After Ben Ami’s introduction, there were three speakers. First we had Former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, followed by former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Gabriela Shalev (she spoke once in San Diego), followed by former US Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer (who also showed up in San Diego at the last Jewish Book Fair). All three spoke separately first, then they formed a panel with a few J Street people asking them questions. You can watch it all on the YouTube address given above. The choice of Fayyad by J Street was an odd one given the fact that he was fired by Mahmood Abbas, ostensibly for being too effective in clamping down on the corruption that started in the President’s office. Also worth nothing was Mr. Kurtzer’s snide remark at the very end against the Israeli Prime Minister, when he said (mark 1:42:52): “I find it extraordinary, over these past few years, the degree to which the government of Israel… this government of Israel has interfered in our domestic politics in a way which, if we had done the reverse, would have created a firestorm… Unbelievable!”  What is actually unbelievable is the sheer hypocrisy of his statement in view of the more than blatant attempts to “influence” the Israeli political process on the part of both J Street and the Obama administration.

And this is precisely the second aspect of their whole approach to solving the Middle East conflict that is fundamentally unacceptable simply from an ethical point of view: in mobilizing well-meaning (at least some of them, but not all) Americans of all stripes to put pressure on Washington to put pressure in turn on Israel, they spit in the face of the Israeli democratic process, bypassing what they consider clearly an immature and self-destructive Israeli electorate too dumb to understand what’s good for them. But fear not, Israelis, J Street is there to show you the way! And if you don’t want to swallow the medication it wants to force-feed you with, then you’ll have to suffer its wrath, and you’ll have to swallow it anyway, even if it ends up killing you. Charming, isn’t it? With this condescending, elitist and insulting attitude, J Street still has the nerve to be surprised that the majority of Israelis don’t like them (contrary to what Ben Ami affirms) and reject their idiotic (read suicidal) recipes. Not surprisingly, the Israelis who accept to participate in J Street events all come from the left of the political spectrum. J Street’s tag line should read “Pro-Peace at all costs, and Anti-Democratic if Need Be”.

Along the same line, ever since I’ve started hearing about J Street and following their approaches and tactics, I’ve been struck by the fact that even though you hear them bemoan ad nauseam the “shift to the right” of the Israeli electorate (and that was of course mentioned a couple of times here, too, again), I’ve never heard anyone discuss what caused this famous shift to the right. But from a J Street perspective, that’s logical: they don’t want to admit the truth that, while the majority of Israelis were ready to make very painful concessions in exchange for peace around the time of the Oslo Accords, the second intifada and the relentless Palestinians attacks since then have led a majority of Israelis to conclude that it was a fool’s bargain, and they don’t want to play this game any more. So they voted for Likud instead of Labor and the other (dying) left-leaning parties. Admitting as much would be to admit the fact that J Street is both wrong and, in the end, irrelevant since they can’t offer a solution that would make sense to (and be endorsed by) the Israelis by giving them the sense of security that the Palestinians refuse to give them in exchange for peace.

Let’s go now through the different sessions. The next plenary (“What Next?”) is also worth watching. Here you’ll see a gathering of some of the most important left-wing players in Israel, in particular the NIF (New Israel Fund), whose CEO (Daniel Sokatch) firmly declared that in his view Diaspora Jews have every right to influence and put pressure on the Israeli government. In addition to the myriad of groups that they already fund, they want now to create a slew of new ones to create a mass movement to push the Israeli government in the “right” direction (which, as someone quipped, is their direction, the left, while the real right is… simply wrong). He compared NIF to the Israeli ACLU… No comment needed here.

The next speaker was Kenneth Bob, director of Ameinu, another “progressive” organization, who announced that they’re launching “Operation Gatekeepers,” which means they’re sending a copy of the film by the same name to Jewish leaders (synagogures and JCCs in particular) to screen, together with a manual written by J.J. Goldberg from The Forward. He also announced the launch of a new initiative called “The 3rd Narrative,” which will bring more left-leaning Knesset members (primarily from the Meretz and Labor parties) to be paraded in North America and on its campuses. Brace yourselves for more Israeli officials cruising around demonizing their own government. I would have stuck to “The 2nd Narrative” since one can safely expect that the “3rd” one will be primarily anti-Netanyahu and by default pro-Palestinian.

Then we had Debra DeLee, director of Americans for Peace Now. She started by saying that there is a lot of discouragement in their circles right now, but it’s ok, this is just a reset. She blames Israel (naturally) for the collapse of the Kerry-led peace talks because “it took advantage of the asymetry of power.” That was a good one. I suppose America defeating the Axis powers in WWII also took advantage of the asymetry of power, which is what happens when you strike back at someone who attacks you. But that kind of logic doesn’t work here. She concluded by admitting that the “current political climate” makes it much harder than in the past to organize large-scale demonstrations, but she nevertheless ended by stating proudly that “WE love Israel”. Presumably more so than the Israelis themselves. Astonishing, to say the least. Jeremy Ben Ami then spoke again, to emphasize the importance of building a large coalition of left-leaning (er… progressive) organizations in order to change things in Israel… and the US.

The next and last plenary session was also a rich one, with too much to report here (“Beyond the Tent: What’s the American Jewish Community’s Responsibility Toward Israel’s Future?”). I recommend you watch this one, too. Two elements struck me. The first one was the forceful arguments voiced by David Myers, a professor of Jewish History at UCLA, in favor of doing exactly what J Street does, which is to affirm their right to meddle in Israeli affairs just because they’re Jews. To wit (mark 1:29:50): “One person’s meddling is another person’s constructive engagement”, and with that, Israel and the Israelis who live there are left with no choice: they have to do what their North-American cousins tell them to do because… it’s all part of being a big family. The one word that is missing from this picture is “consent.” In Myers’ and J Street’s view, Israeli consent to study the validity of their proposals is irrelevant. They have to do what the authors of this “constructive engagement” tell them because they know better, period.

The second element took me by surprise and sent alarm bells ringing in my head. This session was introduced by a young woman named Rachel Cohen who stated among other things the following (mark 11:30): “My involvement in J Street U began after coming home from a Taglit-Birthright trip in my first year of college and realizing that I knew almost nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I felt irresponsible… guilty, really. Saying that I love Israel, but… avoiding the challenges that Israel faces, whatever that meant. I first learned from J Street U from a New York Times OpEd published in 2010 by Roger Cohen, and from what I read it described exactly the sort of organization I was looking to join..”…. This was followed by a similar statement made by one of the other panelists, Rabbi Sharon Brous, who mentioned a young woman (mark 31:10) she knew who “… after experiencing Birthright, she came back and…. she grew up actually strongly identified as a Jew and with a sense of connection with Israel but had never gone before, so she went there as a young person and came home and started reading the newspapers, and her first reaction was… the New York Times, they’re anti-Semites! They say these things about Israel! And eventually she started to learn more, but had no capacity to respond to a much more complex and nuanced conversation… and eventually went on to become part of the Palestine Solidarity Movement. and had a very strong sense against the Jewish community, against the Zionist…”.

These two statements point to a serious failure in the Birthright organization to give adequate information to the young people they spend so much money to send to Israel. If they haven’t been informed about the most basic facts and just went there like people on a free cruise, no wonder their mind remained wide open to the lies of the Palestinian narrative. Birthright is supposed to be among other things a vaccination program that would ensure that this false narrative could not take hold, but if we are to believe these two testimonials, it’s been a complete failure. Something needs to be done about this before we lose more youngsters.

Then came the workshops (called “Concurrent sessions”), only two of which were videotaped and are available on the YouTube page: “What Are Israelis Thinking?”, and “Peacemaking in an unstable neighborhood: the Arab Awakening, Iran & Regional Dynamics.” I attended the first one, but not the second one.

There is more to be said about the three workshops that I attended, but for lack of time and space, that will have to wait for part 2 of this report. I’ll just give here all their titles. In addition to the two mentioned above, they were:

1. “Women, Peace and Security: the Critical Role of Women in Advancing a Two-State Solution” (did not attend).
2.  “As California goes, so Goes the Nation? Social Entrepreneurship and the Reshaping of Jewish Communal Life” (did not attend).
3.  “A Conversation with J Street Women’s Leadership Forum” (did not attend).
4. “J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet Presents: From Enemy to Friend – Bringing Peace to the Israel Conversation” (did not attend).
5. “Bringing it Home: How to Get Involved with J Street in Your Community” (attended).
6. “Toward a Thriving Palestinian State? Political, Economic and Civil Society Perspectives” (attended).
7. “What does the Two-State Solution Actually Look like? A Model Presentation on the Core Issues” (did not attend).

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J.J. Surbeck is executive director of T.E.A.M. (Training and Education About the Middle East)

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  1. […] convinced that if only they cram this solution down Israel’s throat (for its own good of course, à la J-Street), they’ll solve the problem. Such a solution will only pour oil on the Jihadi […]


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