It may not seem like it, but America’s Jews are growing tired of Israel’s wars. And now they have a new lobby to voice their dissent
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There were Jewish opponets to the war in Gaza. Yet the main body of Jewish opinion still backs Israel with few qualms, while there is little evidence that the protest letters, demo placards and signed adverts have been remotely heeded. Is Jewish dissent, therefore, a lost cause? Not quite.
In Britain, the number of Jewish groups opposing Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians has grown in recent years. They increasingly draw support from mainstream Jews, and provoke reaction from the Jewish establishment. In February 2007 the launch of Independent Jewish Voices, a group which urged a solution to the conflict based on human rights, was greeted with abuse from Jewish commentators, leaders and Zionist organisations—abuse so extreme that it betrayed signs of panic. This is a subtle but significant shift.
More importantly, this change is discernible in America too. At the top of a growing American Jewish movement is a new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group called J Street, founded in early 2008. It stresses commitment to Israel’s security and welfare, yet seeks to change the direction of American middle east policy. It has, according to freelance journalist Alexander Zaitchik, “grown to threaten Aipac [the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee] as the most influential voice of American pro-Israel Jewry.”
J Street has striven to present itself as centrist. So there was some surprise when its director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, issued a remarkably strong anti-Gaza war statement on the day of Israel’s first airstrike. He called for an immediate resumption of the ceasefire, said escalation of the conflict would prove counterproductive and ignite further anger in the region, and that “only diplomacy and negotiations can end rockets and terror.”
The response was quick and fiery. Four days later, a leading figure in the American Jewish peace camp, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who heads US Reform Judaism, issued a stinging rebuke to J Street. Professing that he had welcomed the founding of J Street, he now accused it of “utter lack of empathy for Israel’s predicament.” J Street, he said, was “morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naive.”
The neoconservative right rushed to back Yoffie. Writing in Haaretz, New Republic assistant editor James Kirchick said that J Street’s “policy solutions are saturated with illusions” and its “capitulating stance… is contradicted by over 80 per cent of Israelis.” On the Commentary blog, writer Noah Pollack concluded: “It is time that thinking people started calling J Street what it actually is—an anti-Israel group.”
To oppose Israel’s military action so strongly was a bold but politically risky move for J Street. Aipac has had a free ride for the last eight years but, if Obama is true to his word, a new approach to middle eastern policy is on the way, emphasising diplomatic engagement and talking to enemies. This is J Street territory, not Aipac’s. J Street could become an influential player with the White House. But if Yoffie and Kirchick are right, and their sweeping accusations stick, the Obama team may find it politically too risky to listen.
Talking to J Street supporters, it seems there has been some disquiet over the strong criticism of Israel. But not enough to lead to serious defections. Far more significant is movement in the opposite direction. Since the crisis began, 10,000 people have registered with J Street, pushing online support to over 100,000. Even congressmen who normally toe the Aipac line have been contacting J Street, interested in how they might take a more critical, but supportive, position on Israel.
The positive echo in the liberal blogosphere has been enormous. The Gaza conflict has been attacked by young Jewish writers, many of whom work for think tanks and magazines that have played a major role in creating the Obama presidency. Their blogs have millions of readers, and this no doubt reflects the increasing alienation of young Jews from Israel. Polls show that while 81 per cent of Jews of pensionable age are comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state, only 54 per cent under 35 feel the same.
Despite neoconservative attempts to paint Obama as an Islamist terrorist, J Street knows full well that Jews voted for Obama 4-1. Seventy per cent of American Jews support exerting pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians. A Rasmussen poll published on 31st December showed Democrats more or less evenly divided over Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. On 6th January, the Huffington Post reported that “Obama’s Change.gov site… was deluged in recent days with demands for a statement condemning Israel’s assault on Gaza.” It’s true that, despite this, for a while uncertainty surrounded the precise shape of Obama’s foreign policy team and the path it will follow. Obama amplified his pro-Israel rhetoric after securing the nomination for president. But the appointment of former senate majority leader George Mitchell, who negotiated the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, as Obama’s middle east envoy looks like a move that will please the Democratic base. In the past Mitchell advocated that Israel should talk to Hamas.
Perhaps J Street did not want to attract so much controversy so soon after its launch. But there’s sound evidence, bolstered by the Mitchell appointment, that their political judgement was correct. Anything less might have made them look like a pale reflection of Aipac. As influential blogger Ezra Klein puts it, J Street rejects the view that “to be pro-Israel, an American group’s positions must mirror those of the Israeli public.” Instead, J Street puts America’s public opinion first; and while Israeli government spokespersons and politicians continue to sound like cheerleaders for Bush’s “war on terror,” most Americans —Jewish or otherwise—have now voted to put that war behind them.
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