From 0 to 160,000+ members in two years is certainly a pace any organizational speed demon would love. It is also a pace Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder, has experienced. J Street, a pro two state solution alternative to the more traditionally conservative pro Israel organizations like AIPAC, has quickly rocketed to a place at the mainstream Jewish organizational table.
J Street is the new Jewish highway for the many disaffected Jews that support Israel but that are having a harder and harder time defending and/or supporting some of Israel’s social and political policies. J Street could also prove to be the most inviting path for the growing “I don’t care” block among young Jews who are now several generations removed from the Holocaust and the post Balfour struggles to found the state.
Based on various surveys, many Jewish youth increasingly view the Jewish homeland with a one dimensional, inch deep prism focused mainly on Palestinian living conditions, West Bank settlements, barriers, violence and the cringe-inducing results that arise from the ultra-Orthodox influence over social and political issues. Too many don’t recognize that despite the many issues Israel faces, some thrust upon Israel, some self-induced, Israel has in a short period of time become a stunning economic success story, with a lower unemployment rate and higher GDP growth rate than the vast majority of countries in the world.
Yes, Jewish groups can continue to fund free Birthright trips to “reattach” the young and surveys do show they have had success in moving some of the uninterested into the interested/aligned with Israel camp. But one week trips are mere moments in time. It’s not enough. Their value can be easily subsumed by Israeli actions that are perceived to be unaligned with the more liberal, more civil rights oriented natures the great majority of Jews share.
J Street’s more nuanced positions can help reattach the young and also the uninterested or disaffected of all age groups. Instead of feeling that they have to choose between either defending or not defending Israel, J Street helps Jews feel less encumbered by the “Israel already has enough enemies so Jews must be 100% supportive” crowd leaving them able to adopt a more comfortable but still strong pro Israel position: Israel isn’t perfect but we strongly support her and can and WILL work to encourage her to adopt policies that help secure Israel’s long term survival as a Jewish democratic state.
That approach surely is more appealing than defending the wink and nod Israeli governmental actions (inactions?) that allow illegal settlement expansion or the occasional Palestinian home detruction procedures that result from defacto and dejure discriminatory land ownership and allocation policies. It is vastly more appealing than trying to defend the high unemployment of Palestinians and the ultra-Orthodox — the former an undesired result of poor education and discrimination and the latter an expected result of government subsidies for the over 65% that elect to spend their lives immersed in religious studies instead of working. And why feel ANY need to defend our crazy uncle,the Shas religious head, Ovadia Yosef, when he says that ALL Palestinians are evil people and should “perish,” and that “G-d should strike them with a plague?”
Sure, we can blame others for causing Israel to do what it does or causing people to say outrageous things. Hamas does launch missiles. Lebanon, Syria and Iran do fund terrorism. We can continue to blame (what seems like) the world for just not getting the fact that Israel lives under existential threats every day of its existence and because of that must sometimes err on the side of a disproportionately strong defense. Israel absolutely does not live in a halycon neighborhood. When a tree falls in the forest Israel must be there to verify and hear it or she risk threats to its citizens.
But, unless Israel wants to continue to try to live this way indefinitely — and U.S. support and patience is threatened more by the passage of time than it’s enhanced by AIPAC-like lobbying efforts — it must continue to take reasonable risks for peace. Organizations that encourage strident down the line support for whatever the current Israeli government chooses to do are less a friend than those, like J Street, that refuse to act as enablors of what they feel are unproductive policies or actions.
Israel needs fewer American organizations that act as sycophants, afraid to form their own core beliefs separate from whatever Israeli government is in charge, and more that act as visionaries focused on the core actions needed to secure Israel’s future existence. J Street not only fills that role but its core beliefs are mirrored by Israelis like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (the IDF’s most decorated soldier) who recently told a Tel Aviv conference that a nuclear Iran is less of a threat than failing to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. J Street’s beliefs are also endorsed by former Foreign Minister and Kadima Party head Tzipi Livni who has said multiple times that “the risks of an on-going conflict are greater than the risks of peace.”
Israel isn’t perfect and has far to still go but Israel remains a remarkable, even magical place. To acknowledge the problems and challenges shouldn’t act as a disqualifier from the strong Israeli supporter category if the latter is also acknowledged as well. The truth is this: Most Palestiniams now living within Israel want to remain in Israel even when there is a two state agreement reached. Living conditions are better and religious tolerance is still higher in Israel than in the West Bank or Gaza or in the neighboring Arab states. Israel has a great story to tell. But the world needs to be able to listen. Complaining that no one understands the threats Israel lives under or that there must be latent anti-semitism in an anti-Israel position, is unlikely to be the most effective way in persuading others to come over to your side.
If Israeli and American leaders would adopt the “J Street way” of a more nuanced but still strong Israel support platform, Israel’s actions and intended message should produce a result that the world is more receptive to hearing.Then the world is also more likely to hear that tree in the forest when Israel says it fell.