Tough Love

by Jonathan Chait | February 4, 2009

Last year, a new Middle East lobby called J Street was formed to push American Jewish opinion in a more conciliatory direction. "What we're responding to," wrote J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami last year, "is that for too long there's been an alliance between the neo-cons, the radical right ofthe Christian Zionist movement and the far-right portions of the Jewish community that has really locked up what it means to be pro-Israel."

Israel's supporters do have a distressing tendency to define their position in maximalist terms. Witness the absurd controversy that surrounded Barack Obama's banal observation last year that "nobody has suffered more than the Palestinians." But J Street's main accomplishment seems to be replacing right- wing shibboleths with left-wing shibboleths.

Right-wing Zionism thrives on a sense of victimhood and encirclement. J Street has won a cult following among liberal bloggers by tapping into an equivalent narrative of persecution and bravery. Ben-Ami last year denounced conservatives "who, through the use of fear and intimidation, have cut off reasonable debate on the topic." Here, J Street has borrowed heavily from Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, who argued that "the Lobby" controls the U.S. foreign policy debate in part by silencing critics. (J Street adviser Daniel Levy described the Walt-Mearsheimer book as a "wake-up call.")

Inhibition, though, seems to be in short supply. In fact, there's an air of competitive, can-you-top-this taboo-shattering bravura, like a bull session about affirmative action in the offices of the Dartmouth Review. In 2006, Jimmy Carter published a book comparing Israel to South Africa. Time columnist Joe Klein recently accused "Jewish neoconservatives" of "divided loyalties." (What about Gentile neoconservatives like Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld? Are they chopped liv ... uh, ham?) Often such declarations are accompanied by boasts of personal courage. Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle dramatically declared, "It will not do my career much good to say it, but here goes. America has an influential Israel lobby in large part because of ethnic affinity." And yet the fearful consequences never seem to arrive. Even Walt himself, despite having his thesis widely debunked even by those inclined to agree with him--a Nation reviewer called it "a mess"--has been hired to write for Foreign Policy and now enjoys more prestige than ever.

J Street, perhaps reflecting Ben-Ami's background in the Clinton administration and the Howard Dean campaign, shares the contemporary liberal obsession with rhetoric and framing. It's not a frivolous concern. Many Jews casually interpret "pro-Israel" to mean support for the Likud platform. Thus the answer to what is properly the subject of debate ("What is good for Israel?") is presupposed by a label.

J Street's own rhetoric, though, pulls off an analogous trick. It calls itself the "pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby." Well, who opposes peace? Everybody has their own iteration of peace, from Hamas (all Jews decide to leave the Middle East or submit to Islamic rule) to the Israeli settler movement (Palestinians decide to move to Jordan or submit to perpetual Israeli occupation) to more reasonable compromises in between. Among advocates of a two- state solution, the debate focuses on whether Palestinian or Israeli intransigence is the major impediment. Labeling an ideology "pro-peace" presupposes the answer to the question "What is the best way to achieve peace?"

Likewise, conservatives employ crude dualism--either you unquestionably support everything Israel does, or you support its enemies. J Street flips the dualism around--either you're with the settlers and the Christian right, or you're with the J Street mainstream. This is a clever way to build J Street's appeal to American Jews who, for the most part, distrust the Christian right. But Israel's battle in Gaza has exposed the inconvenient fact that J Street sits outside of the Jewish mainstream. Not only Likud supported the attack, but also centrist Kadima, liberal Labor, and even (initially) left-wing Meretz. American Jewish opinion on Gaza hasn't been polled, but it generally tends to track Israeli Jewish opinion.

Which leads to the question of what exactly J Street thinks it means to be "pro-Israel." Some of its spokesmen invoke "tough love" for Israel, and Ben-Ami compares J Street's mission to taking the car keys away from a drunk friend. J Street is no doubt sincere in its belief that Israel would benefit from a more dovish line. But, if the conservative definition of "pro-Israel" raises the threshold too high, J Street's sets it too low. Even people we think of as harsh critics of certain countries would embrace them if they were willing to adopt radically different policies. Dick Cheney no doubt thinks Iranians would stand to gain by taking up a pro-American foreign policy. Does he qualify as pro-Iran? Stephen Walt recently aped J Street's logic, writing, "The sooner we redefine what it means to be 'pro-Israel,' the better for us and the better for Israel." Is Walt--whose book portrays Israel as a force for evil throughout its existence--pro-Israel?

When Israel began its counterattack against Hamas, J Street declared that it would not "pick a side." As J Street put it, "there is nothing 'right' in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing 'right' in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them." J Street didn't merely suggest Israel's action has gone too far--a notion I would endorse--but that no moral distinction could be drawn between its actions and the wanton, deliberate murder of civilians.

There is, to say the least, a delicate balancing act involved in declaring your love for a country while deeming it the moral equal of a terrorist death cult. At some point you begin to sound like the Saturday Night Live version of Joe Biden. ("I love John McCain, he's one of my dearest friends, but at the same time, he's also dangerously unbalanced.") J Street isn't "anti-Israel"--a buzzword that's probably best avoided altogether or reserved for those who wish Israel harm--but "pro-Israel" does not seem the most apt description.

If the essence of your work is reframing the terms of debate, then your terms ought to mean something. I say this in the spirit of tough love. A true friend to J Street doesn't reflexively defend it. J Street's best interest requires me to point out when it advocates moral absurdities and meaningless tripe. Surely J Street would agree.

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