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The New J Movement – A Reply to Frosh

May 31, 2010 – 9:11 pm20 Comments
Speak out against the war

Another conscience call. Berkeley poster art, Vietnam war era.*

By Mark Baker

Anthony Frosh’s article on J Street and JCall gives everything away when he asks whether the supporters of these organisations are ‘even’ pro-Israel or whether these ‘leftists’ could better be described as ‘pro-appeasement’. It is precisely this kind of delegitimisation of progressive or liberal Zionism that the J phenomenon has come to address. For there is no escaping that the source of the opposition to the new Zionist movement conceals layers of politics – politics that on the surface are about the Israel-Diaspora relationship but push deeper into attitudes about the occupation, the Arab-Israel conflict, human rights, and the fragile prospects for an internationally-brokered peace agreement.

So let me address what I regard as some of the givens of the J movement, which includes ‘J Street’ in America, ‘JCall’ in Europe, ‘For the sake of Zion’ in America, and by implication the New Israel Fund. While each of these have distinct mandates and arise out of specific contexts, they are all organisations whose main protagonists are passionate Zionists who are deeply engaged with Israel. They are not vanished Jews who wear their Jewish identity as a convenience to bash Israel, but they are lifelong Zionists and Jewish activists. All – and I include myself in this camp – share a deep concern for the campaign to delegitimise Israel through means including boycott, divestment and sanctions; all are fearful of a nuclear Iran and the threats emanating from Ahmadinejad; all abhor terrorism and recognise the failures of the Palestinian leadership, and all are vexed by the spread of a new kind of antisemitism which sometimes, but not always, is expressed through a consuming hatred of Israel.

At the same time, as Zionists and as Jews, the supporters of these movements fear that Israel and Zionist ideology are slipping into unprecedented forms of illiberalism and political folly. They – we – fear that the occupation that has lasted almost half a century has produced a political culture which is undermining Israel’s vibrant democracy both inside and beyond the green line, or more pertinently, on that undefined line yet to be established that determines where the borders of Israel and a future Palestine will lie.

Domestically, the threat to liberal values has been unleashed by a strange coalition of forces that include ultra-Orthodox Jews, Zionist messianists and secular ultra-nationalists. Recent manifestations of this include the insidious attack on the NIF and the human rights community in and outside of Israel, the toleration of a Foreign Minister who conducts diplomacy like a bull in a china shop, violent rampages against Palestinians by extremist settlers, and rulings to evict Arabs from their homes in East Jerusalem based on principles that undermine the whole Zionist enterprise.

Zionism, as Peter Beinart argued in his myth-breaking piece in the New York Review of Books, is increasingly forcing Jews to check out their liberal values at the Zionist door. This is not a matter of shame in the sense of self-hatred, nor is it about exilic embarrassment amongst ‘our leftist colleagues’, though there’s something to be said about the dim status of our mandate to be ‘a light unto the nations’. What motivates us is a deep sense of inner moral shame about the corrosive effects of the ongoing occupation, which threaten to turn rule over the territories into an apartheid regime, an unhelpful word, but I’m only quoting the warnings of two former Prime Ministers – Olmert and Barak.

As for the third in the triumvirate, Ariel Sharon, his political volte-face in Gaza was justified with the observation that ‘what you see from there, you don’t see from here.’ This phrase is often hurled against Jews in the faraway Diaspora, even though most Israelis don’t get to see what is happening on a daily basis on the far side of the wall. We are told that we can’t understand the situation from our communities, but this is an odd argument that is selectively applied to criticism of the Right and not to moral and material supporters of the settlements. More than odd, it is morally insidious, because it undoes the very basis of a global form of citizenship – our humanity – that entitles us to form opinions and campaign for and against all sorts of issues– be it Darfur, Soviet Jewry, or the Arizona Laws.

So what it comes down to is this idea that Diaspora Jews are meant to surrender their conscience to the special relationship with Israel and act as agents of the Foreign Ministry (Lieberman) in order to defend Israel against the misguided gentiles and Jewish self-haters.  But as Bernard-Henri Levy, the French philosopher and a lifelong defender of Israel who signed the JCall petition argues: “If you believe in Zionism, Israel is a question that concerns every Jew in the world. It is impossible to tell Jews their word is crucial only when they agree with the government. In that case only supporters of the Likud around the world would have the right to speak.”

The J movement is necessary for Israel and Diaspora Jews because it gives voice to three principles:

First, it reaffirms the diversity of Zionist ideology that has always contained a multiplicity of contesting worldviews, from socialist secularism to religious messianism. Of late, it is the latter variety that has dominated the conversation, in part because of the strong Jewish identity of Orthodox Jews, and the fact that the occupation is not a problem to a majority of them. As the Orthodox Union has written in its opposition to Beinart’s piece: “From a Religious Zionist perspective, premising support for Israel on whether the Jewish State is living up to being a ‘liberal democracy’ is a recipe for trouble.”

In the face of this, I would argue that we are abandoning our Zionism if we do not create a voice that ensures that Israel lives up to its founding ideals of liberal democracy, notwithstanding the challenges of adhering to these values in situations of conflict.

Secondly, it is about not abandoning those Jews for whom liberalism, human rights, and compassionate politics is integral to their identities. Zionism has increasingly become identified with the political Right. Thus, while the rest of the world was inspired by the prospect of the first African-American to be elected to the White House, many young Jews expressed a preference for McCain in the name of their Zionism (‘mugged by reality’ they will argue). In post-election America, Obama is being portrayed by many Jews as an enemy of Israel and the Jewish people, with racist references to his middle name and a paranoid perception of his retreat at Cairo from the ‘clash of civilisations’ paradigm. Not only does the J movement challenge this perception, but it provides a bridge for Jews who want to extend their progressive and Jewish values into their Zionist loyalties. To burn this alternative bridge to Israel will render Zionism irrelevant for many young Jews whose bonds were not forged in an earlier era of imagined innocence.

Thirdly, the J movement has a crucial role to play in Zionist advocacy. Pro-Israel Jewish lobbies are as old as Israel itself, or rather as old as nineteenth century Zionism, or as old as the biblical tale of the spies. Over recent decades the establishment lobbies have veered to the right, adopting a neo-conservative line in relation to the Arab-Israel conflict. I think Frosh is correct in recognising that the alternative lobbies and signatories to petitions are calling upon their governments to pressure Israel in ways that go against the elected representatives of Israel. So let me distinguish between two aspects of the issue – advocacy and lobbying.

The best form of advocacy, in my view, is engagement through authenticity, intellectual honesty, critical reflection, and rational persuasion. Propaganda of any variety provokes counter-propaganda. A lie invites more lies. Heavy-handedness strengthens the hand of recalcitrance. None of this is conducive to peace and moderation. The conflict is not black and white, neither side is a pure victim, nor for that matter is either side free of the label of perpetrator. I can only advocate for Zion through my understanding of Zionism, which means highlighting how the delegitimisation of Israel is based on false assumptions about ethnic nationalisms and misunderstandings about the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, which resists simple categorisations of right and wrong. The J movement has created a space for this that is all too lacking in Australia.

As for lobbying governments through petitions, I concede that this is more problematic. It is not so much about undermining the democratic process from afar, as Frosh argues, because politics and our conscience knows no boundaries. But as one who cares deeply about the Zionist idea, my conscience is also pricked by my failure to throw my daily lot into the Israeli arena where I would shoulder the direct consequences of my politics. Notwithstanding these reservations, to remain silent concedes the public ground to a form of lobbying which makes our government believe they are betraying Jews and Israel by acting in accordance with their own interests and conscience to halt settlements and advance current opportunities to secure a two state solution. I want our political leaders to know that they will not be losing my vote (the so-called Jewish vote) if they pressure both parties to resume peace negotiations, or if they raise the issue of Jerusalem as a shared capital of two states. At the very least, it might protect ministers like Julie Bishop from the folly of her admission about Australia falsifying passports as an apparent means of placating Jewish voters.

The time is ripe for the J movement to strike roots in Australia. As the country that by virtue of its alphabetical ranking was the first to vote in 1947 for the creation of Israel through a partition of Palestine into two states, Australia has a special responsibility to see this conflict resolved in harmony with its initial intentions.  As a proud Australian, Jew, and Zionist, the framework of a J Street here would allow me and countless other Jews to give voice to all of these aspects of our identity. I deliberately choose the expression ‘to give voice’ because the alternative is silence in the face of other voices, a posture which will haunt us when we face a lost generation of Jews, and our own barren conscience.

Mark Baker is Director of the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University and Associate Professor of Holocaust and Genocide studies.

Image source: Berkeley Daily Planet

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20 Comments »

  • malkmus says:

    hear hear!

  • larry Stillman says:

    I’m glad you commented on Frosh’s piece because I found it so devoid of a connection to  political realities other than right-wing spin that there was little of substance to argue with.

    I just couldn’t deal with, particularly when critics etc. are seen as appeasers –this coming from a person and others  commentators several generations younger than us who appear to now have little context for what went on 40/50/60/70 years ago in terms of such signifiant things as  socialist Zionism (for all its faults), or the struggles of the union movement in this country for social equality.

    It’s quite harsh to raise this point about a lack of historical consciousness of where we came from,  because we were accused of precisely the same by our elders 30 or 40 years ago now in many cases when we began to be conscious that something was very wrong with the Zionist dream.

    Thus  Mark, I think you’d find that many on the Jewish left, who come out of leftist Zionist or other perspectives, have held related such views for years–but we have never been accepted, but instead vilified for our strong opposition to the bad side of Israeli politics.  Some on the left–and I cannot be accused of being one–came out of the communist party and elsewhere, which must seem like Mars to younger people, but it has to be seen in context for all their sins which they have atoned for. Such people came out of the background of the fight against fascism and Nazim, where there were few alternatives. Unfortunately, the triumph of McCarthyism in the Jewish community only pushed such people to the side, leading to a long-standing cultural and political split, which is perhaps contributory to some of the local problems today, because of the split between social progressives who didn’t take to the party line on Israel, and other, much more conservative patricians.

    Of course, you may disagree with this viewpoint, and argue that in fact, the left’s attitude merges into non-and-anti-Zionism with some people, or post-Zionism with others.  I think this argument  also part of the confusion about the nature of Zionist identity within and external to Israel (that shelilat ha-golah –denigration of diaspora viewpoints, including left diasporic viewpoints), and the complete lack of nuance on both sides of the fence.   This as you suggest, has probably led many people to just drop out of sight.

    But you do make a good point and make it well, that Zionism has become identified with the political right, and particularly, a lack of compassion for ‘others’ –I’d take it a step further, that the organized Jewish community has taken that step further and ‘checked out’  and increasingly built a fence around itself in a market-oriented winner takes all society (with no criticism offered of the neo-liberal disasters in Israel), and a strong attachment to powers that be.   I particularly see this lack of concern and a cynicism about the ‘other’ in many of the articles and posts on Galus, and as well, an inward-looking religiosity that again, checks out of social engagement or a universalist interest that can live happily with the interests of more secular people, Jewish, otherwise, or in-between.

    Additionally, it’s distressing that this young neo-conservative attitude, buffered by incessant propogranda and perceptions of weakness not just in Israel, but within the Australian or US Jewish community (bizarre, as all the data shows)  leading into a kind of blindness about thinking of Israel as a nation state that cannot be separated from international forces and trends, and it can somehow, ‘go it alone’ –It’s a complete fantasy, and the tragedy of the country’s leadership and diaspora grandees.  I’m amazed in fact, to just have read an editorial in today’s Beirut Star which says ‘ Will Israel finally take heed of the slow changing nature of its relations with the world, and of ways this metamorphosis seeps into its own population? If it continues to keep its eyes closed, the fallout could be severe, because when a blind colossus takes a wrong step, things can easily get broken.’  (The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

    In fact, I’m a little surprised about the Beinart article–perhaps I have missed something of the context — is it that it’s coming from the mainstream rather than the edge that has made it so cutting and controversial?

    There is another question, and that is the question of organized Jewish life–what did Groucho say about not wanting to be a member of any club etc — I think a lot of Jews on the edge are like that –congregational and traditionally-affiliated life is not their gig, YET, they continue another form of strong cultural or other affiliation.  But this community has offered so little to them for so long, that as we well know, they are lost.  More Jewish schools isn’t the answer, nor is Zionism– supporting experimentation, diversity and far less attention to edifice building is probably a much healthier thing. But I just don’t know if the Australian Jewish community has the cultural and intellectual diversity to support this or to engage in mature thinking about itself or the future of Israel as another form of Zionism and democracy for all its people.

  • frosh says:

    “Little substance to argue with…”
     
    Larry, really?
     
    It’s one thing to disagree with my viewpoint, but to claim my article is devoid of substance is just moronic.  My article was short, sharp, and to the point. Did you even read it?  Your comment has not addressed any of my clearly laid out points. By contrast, The Hasid was able to find plenty of substance in my article with which to argue.
     
    It pains me to say that you seem to be confusing “substance” with long, semi-coherent, unstructured and repetitive waffling that so often characterises your writing.
     
    Oh, and “several generations younger”?
    Either you have a problem with language, or a problem with basic arithmetic. 

    You’ve got a good heart Larry, but this doesn’t absolve you of the repsonsibility to use your brain.
     

     

     

     

  • ariel says:

    Mark,

    Those who share the ideology of the New J Movement (as you call it) have a legitimate viewpoint in the left-Zionist spectrum. The problem is when you share these views with the world and they use you as a figleaf for deligitimising Israel.

    For example, I have no problems crticising individual Israeli policies when I’m at shule or over dinner with other Jewish friends. But if a work or uni colleague asks me about Israel, I will lavish Israel with praise and defend her ardently.

    Why? Just like a parent does not criticise (I would hope) their only child in public, but saves the criticism for the privacy of home, so too with Israel.
    Out there, the parent will say “vot, mine only son is naughty? chas ve’shalom! He’s an angel!”. In private, the child will be given a good dressing down and possibly sent to his/her room. So too should we behave vis-a-vis Israel.

    Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that the enemies of Israel see our disunity as a source of weakness and exploit it every day. Even though we see it as a strength, others do not.

    I encourage all supporters of J-Call, J-Street et al (inlcuding Larry) to join together with the ZFA and StandWithUS! in conducting rally in support of Israel’s right to do exist and to defend that existence, even if it means pissing off a few million ignorant, bigotted people (c.f. Gaza flotilla). If we love Israel, then this is one incident in which we must support her. Just as we would support our own children if they were bullied at school.

  • frosh says:

    http://www.jstreet.org/blog/?p=1094

    In the link above we can see that J Street does not even have the moral clarity to condemn the abhorrent behaviour of the flotilla “activists”

    Furthermore, they call theirs a blog, but do not even allow comments.  Are they afraid of free speech?

  • Sam says:

    The link provided by Frosh in the previous post to the J Street commentary of the Flotilla event says it all about their overall view of Israel.
    The description given in this blog that  the primary aim of the six ships, was carrying items of humanitarian aid to the citizens of Gaza is almost certainly a deliberate misreprentation of the true purpose.  It is a view that is being espoused by such as the EU and Turkey and, should have no place in any commentary by an organization purporting to be comprised of committed Jews and friends of Israel. Unfortunately whatever comes out of independent investigation of the incident will have little import as it has already become a massive public relations disaster for Israel.  And that was the ultimate aim and result. Definitely a case of mission accomplished. Just ask all the international journalists on board the flotilla.

  • rachsd says:

    Not sure if people saw but JStreet was on the 7:30 report tonight. Jeremy Ben-Ami’s speech about Obama being the American President with the best chance to make peace in the Middle East was pretty poor. You’ve really got to believe that America is the centre of the universe to believe that!

  • ariel says:

    rachsd, people also still belive that Bill Clinton did more for African Americans than any other president. Why? because he made dozens of speeches on the topic, but did nothing. Like K-Rudd; these guys are all talk and no action (or very poorly considered action). Yet, we fall for it all, because they know how to talk…

  • Ittay says:

    ariel,
    you criticize bill clinton, for being all talk, but forget to mention there have been many positive outcomes from his “dozens of speeches” see here for some examples
    http://www.clintonfoundation.org/what-we-do/
    Furthermore, whilst political speeches have not yet brought peace to the Israelis and Palestinians, i would rather hear a thousand more clichéd speeches from Obama, Netanayahu and Abbas than have them express their differences through more violent means.
    And that is exactly what J Street is advocating for.

  • SJa says:

    I agree with Ittay’s sentiments.

    I would rather have the US being engaged and trying to bring Israelis and Palestinians to an agreement, irrespective if they stuff up or not. 

    For all the talk of George Bush being ”pro-Israel”, with the limited involvement of the US in the I/P conflict during his terms, one would hardly call him a success in this area.

    Is there really an alternative to a detailed agreement, such as for example what Clinton proposed back in early 2001 (the forgotten clinton parameters)?

  • Rachsd says:

    Just to clarify, my previous comment was not a criticism of Obama or his efforts in the peace process. It’s kinda obvious though that Clinton had the best chance of making peace, and that since the second intifada, it’s been a lot tougher going regardless of who the American president is. I’m wondering whether Ben-Ami was just sweet talking the US administration, or whether he has an inflated opinion of America’s importance in such matters, that would lead him to believe that regardless of the situation on the ground, etc…

  • ariel says:

    ittay,
    the problem is that you present only two options: talk in cliches and do nothing, or violence.

    a third, more effective option, is not to talk publicly at all (this just draws the attention of extremists) and to do it all behind the scenes quietly.

    in any case, until the PA confronts Hamas and Islamic Jihad like Ben Gurion confronted the Irgun with the Altalena – lehavdil - any Palestinian state won’t be worth the paper its drafted on.

  • Ittay says:

    i agree with you ariel.
    now the big question is, how do you get representative israeli and palestinian leaders who are willing to make the big compromises for peace to a table where they can sit quietly for a few weeks and hammer out an agreement that will leave both sides disappointed becuase of the compromises they made, but relieved because the conflcit be over.

  • ariel says:

    first, the palestinians need a leader willing to do what arafat was not: to sign any document with the words “END OF CLAIMS AND CONFLICT” at the bottom.

    once that has happened, the rest needs to be done in complete secret, with no media or public access and without the knowledge of anyone except those present.
    if all parties are convinced that there will be no spotlight on them, they may be persuaded to get involved.

  • ittay says:

    I am pretty sure that the current fatah leadership of abbas and fayad would happily sign a document that says “end of calims and conflict” and the same day that netanyahu signs a document that says “end of occupation over Green Line.”

    and here is proof of this from none other than alan dershowitz
    http://www.jpost.com/International/Article.aspx?ID=175430

  • ariel says:

    ittay,
    this is preciselt the problem: equating israel’s presence over the green line with the conflict ending.

    first, nobody in their practical mind believs Israel will abandon every inch over the green line. the major communities will remain part of israel and in exchange, some of the arab towns in israel will become part of a palestinian state.

    secondly, the entire document would itself be a blueprint for israel evacuating the relevant areas. there would be no need for it to be stated at the end. that would be like negotiating an employment contract and at the end having the words “I AGREE TO WORK FOR YOU” at the end.

    on the other hand, there would definitely be an explicit need to end such a document detailing israel’s flag leaving and the palestinians’ rising, with the statement END OF CONFLICT. barak was willing to sign it in 2000; arafat refused because of these words.
    arafat wanted an agreement  which would detail israel’s leaving, but reserve his right to continue armed conflict. it is that part that is constantly overlooked.

  • ittay says:

    ariel,
    in reagrds to the question of why camp david failed, i strongly suggest you read this piece from Uri Avnery of Gush Shalom
    http://www.johnboyle.com.au/bi/12_lies.htm
    You can see a map of “barak’s generous offer” here
    http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article518.shtml

    That said, i do agree with you that even if Israel did make a fair offer at Camp David, Arafat would have still rejected it.

    Thankfully, Fatah now have a new leadership under Abbass and Fayad that are serious about ending the conflict as evidenced by their crackdown on Hamas and security cooperation with Israel in cities like Jenin.

    The point of the J Movement that Mark is supporting is to put pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians to stop making excuses and blaming each other for the mistakes of the past. The problem with the traditional US lobbies such as AIPAC and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) is they are stuck in the “my county right or wrong” paradigm. This needs to end for there to be any hope for a just peace.   

    There are hundreds of joint Israeli and Palestinian NGO’s who operate according to the philosphy i described. You can see a list of them by going to this site http://www.ipcri.org/ and clicking on the word “links”

  • ariel says:

    ittay, your description of the J Movement is the inherent problem
    It is the job of Israelis and Palestinians to lobby their own leaderships to pull their respective fingers out.
    It is our job to support them, not tell them that they’re too stupid to know what’s good for them.

  • ITZIG says:

    READ:

    1948, Israel, and the Palestinians—
    The True Story
    Efraim Karsh

    If the Naqba was really a crucial fiction, then it didn’t happen as they like to say it did.

    So it was not Israel’s original sin.

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