March 23, 2012
‘Many in J Street are pro-peace first and pro-Israel second’
Dr. Gilbert Kahn, professor of political science at Kean University, discusses J Street, its policies and its future.
J Street is both a political vehicle and a form of identity, how do the two go together - or don’t they?
It has become a form of identity and because of that, I believe, it has suffered. There has been a perception of an agenda as a result of which J Street has lost some potential supporters. In addition it is not clear how effective its political efforts have been because some of the positions that it has taken have been beyond the bounds for many of its backers.
One gets a sense that J Streeters (I do not like to generalize) set up their priorities in reverse from most American Jews who are involved in Middle East politics. Unlike other groups, it seems to me that many in J Street are pro-peace first and pro-Israel second. Most activist American Jews feel the need to feel that Israel is secure before addressing the peace issue. Today - leaving aside the Iran discussion, which really can’t be left aside - Israel is in an excellent position to engage the Palestinians in peace talks and could even begin to dismantle illegal settlements and outposts; but for domestic political reasons this government argues that it is too risky to do so when in fact it is not risky from a security perspective - but it is very risky from a political perspective.
You also write that AIPAC “generally follow the direction of the Israeli government.” However, AIPAC critics (J Street activists included) blame AIPAC for only following hawkish policies - they specifically retell the story of AIPAC’s reluctance to accept the Oslo accords. So, following or obstructing?
Both. AIPAC’s history involves being more moderate in one period and more hawkish today. AIPAC did not oppose Oslo but some of their leadership were ambivalent about it. They did not oppose Oslo, but they were not enthusiastic. even in the religious Zionist community there were supporters of Oslo, if for no other reason than the fact that it was the policy of the Israel government.
It seems as if a growing numbers of leftist activists are growing disenchanted with J Street. Where will they go?
How much of J Street’s apparent failure is personal (i.e. the current leader is not the guy) and how much is institutional (i.e. you can’t succeed with such policies)?
You mentioned that “Israel’s leadership, for the most part, has given [J Street] the cold shoulder” – do you see the speech by former prime minister Ehud Olmert to the J Street conference as an important breakthrough in that regard?