If J Street, the new left-wing Israel lobby, wants to be taken seriously by mainstream American Jewry, then I would suggest they immediately stop the patronizing argument that all those who disagree with them are ossified Jewish knuckledraggers who see an anti-Semite behind every corner. The New York Times Magazine feature on J Street this past Sunday, which raised the group from near obscurity to high visibility, may have been off in its quotations of its director Jeremy Ben-Ami. But if accurate they represent a nauseating and patronizing position of breathtaking condescension toward ideological opponents that can only sow deep divisions within the Jewish community.
Here are some choice morsels.
On why most of the pro-Israel lobbying groups, whom J Street has come to ‘balance,’ support a hard-line against terror, Ben Ami says that they see “Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you.” Ben-Ami added further that these groups stifle dissent because they argue that “we’re still on too-shaky ground to permit public disagreement.” In Ben-Ami’s opinion Aipac is run by paranoid schizophrenics who fear another holocaust striking at any moment.
On Israel’s recent offensive against Hamas in Gaza, which J Street strongly criticized, the Times relates, “Ben-Ami… acknowledges that moments of crisis for Israel tap into the ancestral impulses… ‘There’s their grandmother’s voice in their ear; it’s the emotional side and the communal history, and it’s the fear of not wanting in some way to be responsible for the next great tragedy that will befall the Jewish people.’”
Get it. If you support Israel’s right to defend itself against missiles raining down on its kindergartens and nursing homes it’s not because you believe in a country’s legitimate right to defend itself against attack but because you’re reptilian Jewish brain has still not gotten over your great-grandmother being disemboweled by Chemielnitzki.
Talk about delegitimizing the other side. And all this from a man who started J Street because right-wing Jews stifle debate!
Is this the way to conduct an honest discussion about Israel’s future, by painting those with whom you disagree as a bunch of loons who see Nazis about to storm Brooklyn?
The truth, of course, is that many people, myself included, who support the organizations that J Street seeks to demonize – AIPAC, the ADL, the ZOA, and others – do so not because we fear the imminent mass extinction of all Jews but because we seek to prevent the cold-blooded murder of even one Jew. In the year 2009 there is no reason that we should have to put up with any anti-Semitic or anti-Israel prejudice, even if it doesn’t lead to gas chambers. Israel shouldn’t have to tolerate any bombs going off in its midst, even if they kill only a handful of Jews. And we support Israel not because it’s the final bunker when the skinheads finally conquer Miami Beach but because, like all proud Americans, we love freedom and democracy and we’re thrilled that the Jewish state is the bastion of those precious values in a region that utterly repudiates them.
I am not one to get easily offended, but reading Ben-Ami’s words, in the New York Times of all places, borders on the anti-Semitic. His caricature of leaders of major Jewish organizations – heroes like Malcolm Hoenlein, Howard Kohr, and Morton Klein – as mistrustful cranks who seek to hijack American foreign policy is deeply troubling, as is his contention that Jews who believe that a tough military posture, after all the terror Israel has experienced in response to two decades of land-for-peace-deals, are paranoid brutes stuck in the past.
I am prepared to accord Ben-Ami the benefit of the doubt, that his left-wing posture on Israel and his strong support of President Obama’s pressure on its government stems from a sincere desire to bring peace to the Jewish state. Ben-Ami is the scion of Israeli patriots and while I strongly disagree with his politics I do not question the nobility of his motivation. Will he not afford me the same benefit of the doubt?
And I would ask Ben-Ami to at least be consistent. On the subject of Israel talking with Hamas, the Times reported that although the United States classifies the group as a terrorist organization, “J Street takes the cautious view that while we should not speak directly with officials, we should engage through intermediaries with the goal of finding interlocutors willing to live in peace with Israel.” But surely Ben-Ami should then, at the very least, publicly advocate that the United States do the same with Al Qaida. Rather than hunt them down in Afghanistan we should be reaching out to them through the Swiss.
I am not here to attack J Street but to make a point. We need many voices in the Jewish community and if J Street feels that left-wing Jews were not being heard in the halls of Congress then by all means let it be remedied by the establishment of an alternative lobby. That’s what democracy is all about. But J Street’s cheap tactics of creating its name by attacking Aipac, the ADL, and the ZOA is shameful. There is room in our community for many voices without creating a civil war. We can be a community of one heart even if we are not of one mind.
Finally, amid Ben-Ami’s cutting words about how we who are disturbed by Obama’s unrelenting pressure on Israel are just a bunch of unreasonable fossils, will he really overlook those whose stated intention is indeed the destruction of Israel, like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Ahmedenijad? Would he argue that the Iranian President’s bark is worse than his bite even as he slaughters his own protesting countrymen in the streets?
No doubt just seventy years after the start of World War II there are still Jews who have not forgotten that when dictators say they want to wipe a nation off the map, and build weapons with that very capability, they ought to be taken seriously. As the great baseball legend Yogi Berra once said, “Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, has just published his newest book ‘The Blessing of Enough: Rejecting Material Greed, Embracing Spiritual Hunger,’ a man selection of the Sony EBook Store. www.shmuley.com.