The New J Movement – A Reply to Frosh
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