Culture, Identity, Israel, Politics

An Open Letter to Rabbi Steve Gutow: An Unaffiliated Jew's response to "Why We Need a Liberal Israel Lobby"

Many of you have already had a chance to see a video from the recent: “Why We Need a Liberal Israel Lobby” at the 92Y in New York. The following is a letter written by an attendee at Monday night’s program to Rabbi Steve Gutow, one of the panelists and current executive director of the JCPA. We have also emailed this letter directly to Rabbi Gutow and have invited him to respond. He has been informed that we encourage his response as part of an open conversation and would welcome a full response to be posted on our blog.
Dear Rabbi Gutow,
I was fortunate to attend the panel discussion “Why We Need a Liberal Israel Lobby” at the 92nd St. Y this past Monday evening. While I very much enjoyed the conversation, and I thought your presence on the panel really improved the discussion in a number of ways, I have to say I was generally dismayed by your positions. Your point of view was, if not entirely divorced from reality, heavily influenced by the position you hold in the Jewish American establishment, what your co-panelist Eric Alterman jokingly referred to as “the Official Jews,” and you spent as much time trying to establish your bona fides as a “liberal” as you did trying to dismiss the notion that there was any lack of liberalism in the American public discourse with regards to Israel policy.
Let me be clear: I am not trying to accuse you of insufficient liberalism. I believe that your work on promoting social justice, working towards racial equity and tolerance, assuaging the devastating effects of poverty and defending civil liberties are genuine and valuable. What I am accusing you of is avoiding the basic premise that makes a panel like Monday’s and an organization like JStreet both possible and necessary: that the overwhelming majority of American Jews are not affiliated with a synagogue or Jewish organization, as such the views expressed by the leadership of synagogues and Jewish organizations vary significantly from the views of American Jews as a whole, and that on questions regarding Israel, it is very difficult to publicly express views that do not hew to a very narrow orthodoxy within the context of the synagogue-and-organization-based Jewish community.

Another thing I am not trying to imply is that the organization-affiliated Jewish community is some sort of monolithic, Orwellian place where opinions are handed down from on high everybody recites those positions in lockstep unison. Of course we Jews are famous for expressing a wide array of opinions on a wide array of topics and for disagreeing vigorously and loudly with one another. What I am suggesting is that the opinions that are publicly expressed by the leaders of the organization-affiliated Jewish community are then attributed to Jews in general (of whom they are not representative), and that in the case of Israel those views are both particularly homogeneous and ideologically extreme.
I myself am an unaffiliated Jew, but I was once very heavily affiliated and I maintain many personal relationships with members of the affiliated Jewish community. I can tell you that for years I disengaged from dealing with Israel issues because it was impossible to carry on a conversation without someone getting worked up and without angry, tribalistic and defensive accusations being made. Trying to grapple with the extremely complicated and often horrific Israeli/Palestinian situation was difficult enough on its own, trying to do so while being angrily attacked as a supporter of either terrorism or racism was something that I simply chose not to deal with. I do not think I am the only one to have had this experience, and I do believe that in this way, the public conversation about Israel/Palestine has come to be dominated by extremists on both sides. Conversations between ideological extremists on opposing sides of an issue are not conversations at all, and without being able to honestly and frankly address how to move forward on Israel/Palestine, the region will remain mired in self-perpetuating cycles of violence and retribution.
The problem with trying to advance the line of thought that says “American Jews should be much slower to cry antisemitism and much more publicly tolerant of diverse viewpoints on Israel” is that it implies that American Jews are paranoid and intolerant. The problem with this problem is that sometimes they actually are paranoid and intolerant, and if there is no credible Jewish voice willing to openly explore whether a particular action or individual actually displays paranoia or intolerance then not only does the entire Jewish community look ever more paranoid and intolerant, but the stated positions of the Jewish community begin to appear to be motivated by paranoia and intolerance. Nobody wants to reach an agreement with a paranoid, intolerant bargaining partner because paranoia and intolerance are inherently untrustworthy.
One Jewish tradition I have long felt to be extremely important and often underconsidered is the concept of Kiddush Hashem: the notion that a Jew’s behavior is representative of his God, and, more broadly, of the entire Jewish community. When a public Jewish figure does something I consider laudable I feel gratification and pride, and conversely, when a public Jewish figure does something contemptible I am not only ashamed, I feel indignant at the tarnish they have brought to my own personal reputation. I think we as a community need to do a better job in general of thinking through how the actions we take will be perceived by others, and how those perceptions will either enable or constrain us in achieving our communal goals. A widespread reputation for honesty, thoughtfulness and evenhandedness (combined, of course, with actually behaving in those ways) would do a lot more to combat antisemitism and promote useful Israel policy than circling the wagons against everyone who expresses non-canon opinions about Israel policy.
What an organization like JStreet offers someone like me is a theory on Israel policy that is based on reason, engages honestly and openly with differing points of view on all fronts, and does not demand that any discussion be preconditioned on all parties taking as granted a maximalist view on Israeli power and territory. It gives someone like me, who has more friends who are not Jewish than who are, a way to argue in favor of Israel without relying on religious or ethnic exceptionalism. Most importantly, it gives someone like me, who chose to disaffiliate myself from a wide variety of Jewish organizations, a reason to affiliate with a Jewish organization. JStreet’s approach allows a path to engagement with a very important and difficult set of issues that many American Jews have chosen to avoid because taking them up has always guaranteed short tempers and strident rhetoric. For too long the American conversation about Israel has been based largely on ideological fantasy. JStreet offers an opportunity to move that conversation the reality-based community. For people like me, wearied and appalled by the ideologically-driven administration of the past eight years, that is indeed a welcome opportunity.
Very sincerely yours,
Jesse Beller
Brooklyn, NY

5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Rabbi Steve Gutow: An Unaffiliated Jew's response to "Why We Need a Liberal Israel Lobby"

  1. Followers of this debate might wish to check out, a website which seeks to create the safe space where real and sometimes painful issues can be discussed with integrity and reality, but also within a “critically loyal” attitude to Israel. The current “hot topic” is a good example…

  2. I agree with just about everything you say until you get here: “Most importantly, it gives someone like me, who chose to disaffiliate myself from a wide variety of Jewish organizations, a reason to affiliate with a Jewish organization.”
    Why is this an argument for an organization like JStreet? The reason I support J Street is that it is an organization that clearly articulates a policy path which leads to the possibility of a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian situation. This is not an outreach issue. If unaffiliated Jews remain completely unaffiliated and still support congressman, candidates and policies that leads to a just solution to the Israeli and Palestinian situation, I would be perfectly happy. I sure hope nobody at JStreet is doing this as an outreach program. We need JStreet to be spending all their time raising money, supporting candidates and effecting policy.

  3. I’m sorry, but what the fuck is “critically loyal.” It seems like you are advocating for a space where things can be discussed, as long as one’s primary loyalty is to “the Jews.” Well, much of what is at stake in American Jewish debates around Israel and Palestine is precisely where one’s primary loyalty lies.
    Alex, If I told you I was critically disloyal, would that place me outside the bounds of your conversation? It is precisely my critical engagement with the issues of history and power in the conflict that determines my loyalty. If I predetermine my community of solidarity before engaging with the issue, I am also predetermining my conclusions.
    My loyalty is with people fighting for equality and justice. This means I adamantly oppose some Jews and some Palestinians, and I warmly embrace other Jews and Palestinians. If you look at how various interests line up, you will see that this is not a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, but between territorial maximalists (on both sides), two staters (on both sides), and secular democrats (on both sides).
    As an American Jew, the idea that I should have some a priori loyalty to Israel is indefensible.

  4. Aryeh: a fair criticism.
    “Most importantly” is certainly an overstatement. I guess I got a little carried away, and as a consequence failed to properly explore an important issue that the sentence in question only sort of implies, namely: the strident and exclusionary rhetoric espoused by many leaders of the American Jewish establishment acts to alienate large numbers of American Jews and discourage them from joining Jewish organizations. The rhetoric of JStreet works in exactly opposite fashion, and even to the extent that it only encourages affiliation with JStreet, it still empowers and gives voice to a large group whose opinions are underrepresented in the public discourse. Though you’re right to point out that this is far from the primary function of JStreet, I do think it’s a useful and synergistic feature. The more Jews support JStreet, the more weight will be attached to JStreet’s opinions and goals, the more policy makers will be willing to follow JStreet’s lead, the more public exposure JStreet’s opinions and goals will receive, the more Jews will hear about and resonate to JStreet, and so on.

  5. Jesse,
    Who is JStreet lobbying for? Israel? Or itself?
    From your comments, I’m not sure I know anymore.
    Furthermore, what makes AIPAC effective is not merely broad support in the Jewish community – which despite what some here believe, does exist – but that it represents the explicit interests of the Israeli government. In fact, AIPAC states this, that they don’t choose Israeli leaders, and that their mission is to make the best case for Israel regardless of the government in either Washington or Jerusalem.
    Thus, you’ve never had Barak or Livni or Olmert or Sharon or Peres get into a fist fight with AIPAC. When the goals of Israeli policy shift, AIPAC shifts accordingly. It doesn’t see itself as an independent entity pushing an independent agenda, Israeli opinion and interests be damned.
    That is precisely, however, how JStreet operates. Condemning Cast Lead on the first day of operations is not the job of a pro-Israel lobby. This is why JStreet has been marginalized – it’s not a lobby for Israel. It was created to provide cover to those elected officials who were under lobbying pressure from AIPAC.
    Because that’s the job of a lobby, to lobby! AIPAC is the best there is. JStreet is a hack.

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