Identity, Israel, Justice, Politics

J Street Local's Bumpy Philadelphia Road

Now that Brit Tzedek has merged with J Street, we’re witnessing the rapid growth of  “J Street Locals” proliferating throughout more than 20 regions across the country. (I’m happy to be attending the launch of J Street Chicago at Emanuel Congregation this Thursday night and even happier to hear that a healthy turnout is expected.)
I’m dismayed, though, to learn that J Street Philadelphia‘s debut is receiving more than its share of ridiculous attacks from certain corners of the Philly Jewish community. I’ve just read that even Penn Hillel has come under fire for renting out its facility to this “anti-Israel” group.
According to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent:

A flap over Hillel of Greater Philadelphia’s decision to lease its space to J Street — for the official launch of its Philadelphia branch — is just one local manifestation of a debate that has roiled much of the national Jewish establishment since the advocacy organization was founded nearly two years ago…
Gary Erlbaum, who sits on the Jewish Community Relations Council’s Israel advocacy committee and is also a board member of the Jewish Publishing Group, has been outspoken in his opposition to J Street, and is upset about Hillel’s decision to host the group’s Feb. 4 event.
“What makes them pro-Israel? If the Palestinians had a lobby, it would be called J Street,” said Erlbaum. “The Hillel building is an inappropriate spot for a group that’s anti-Israel.”

Oh, for God’s sake. A group committed to supporting the two-state solution through a diplomatic means, while safeguarding Israel security and its future as a Jewish and democratic state, is somehow “anti-Israel?”
You know, sometimes when I’m feeling really, really optimistic, I dream about what it might feel like if the American Jewish community actually could tolerate the kind of vigorous and freewheeling debate that they enjoy in the actual Jewish state itself. (Now wouldn’t that be “pro-Israel?”)

40 thoughts on “J Street Local's Bumpy Philadelphia Road

  1. I dream about what it might feel like if the American Jewish community actually could tolerate the kind of vigorous and freewheeling debate that they enjoy in the actual Jewish state itself. (Now wouldn’t that be “pro-Israel?”)
    If you’re looking for vigorous and freewheeling debate about the Jewish state’s future, you could actually move to Israel . . . where you literally might live or die (God forbid) as a result of the decisions which result from some of those debates.

  2. Ah yes, the old “if you don’t live in Israel, then shut the hell up” argument.
    I used to be disgusted by this one, now I just try to be amused…
    So Israel claims me and the rest of world Jewry in order to justify its status as a Jewish state for all Jews everywhere, then tells me I can’t participate in mere debate over issues and actions that implicate me directly?
    Not to mention that as an American Jew, I am a citizen whose tax dollars supports Israel with significant economic and military aid. Yes, that actually implicates me too. “Just hand over the money and shut the hell up?” I’m sorry, but that old tune is starting to sound increasingly hollow…

  3. @SR.
    Nobody here is saying that you should shut the hell up, or hand over any money to Israel, or that the U.S. has to hand over a dime to Israel.
    On the other hand, you could acknowledge that it’s a bit arrogant to bemoan the fact that the American Jewish discourse about the state of Israel has not reached the depth of ISRAELI discourse in Israel, when the events there only affect you in the most superficial of ways.
    I am a citizen whose tax dollars supports Israel with significant economic and military
    If you are arguing that the U.S. shouldn’t provide Israel with such aid, I couldn’t give you a good reason otherwise . . . . but come on man, American aid to Israel probably doesn’t equal 3 cents of your annual tax payements.
    I used to be disgusted by this one, now I just try to be amused…
    I am disgusted by your arrogance . . . so there.

  4. Jonathan,
    Frankly, even if the American Jewish Comm was able to attain a fraction of the level of debate they enjoy in Israel, that would make a world of difference. It’s not an overstatement to say that here in America, there is a McCarthy-esque muzzling effect on views that are viewed as deviating from the official party line.
    You may experience my tone as arrogant (wouldn’t be the first time that charge was leveled at me) but I don’t think it’s at all arrogant to say it would be a sign of positive health in our community if we found the wherewithal to engage in open debate about issues that affect us all to one extent or another.

  5. I don’t think it’s at all arrogant to say it would be a sign of positive health in our community if we found the wherewithal to engage in open debate about issues that affect us all to one extent or another.
    Ok. That’s a different issue.

  6. To Shalom Rav,
    You say: “So Israel claims me… then tells me I can’t participate…”
    Israel told you this? When? Who exactly- I would like to speak to them.
    You add:’I am a citizen whose tax dollars supports Israel with significant economic and military aid.”
    Let’s get something straight. I agree that you have every right to speak out. Period.
    But US aid to Israel is a small (all be it needed) part of Israel’s budget and a tiny part of USA’s budget. US gets much in return (intelligence, cooperation on arms testing, use of ports for the military when needed, etc.). More important is the political backing the States provides.
    The US supports many countries around the world with aid. Some of this is self-interest and some humanitarian. But it does not mean that it gives every US citizen the right to try to effect policy as a result.
    I agree that you have this right to speak out about Israel – but not because your tax dollars come here.

  7. Meir Eynaim, whose side are you on here? Of course every US citizen has the right to try to effect policy (in Israel or any other place in the world) as a consequence, not just of tax dollars spent, but as a matter of conscience. For example, do I not have the right to advocate for policy change in China with respect to its Tibet policies? I assume you don’t think it would be wrong of me to affiliate with a group that lobbies Congress for such purposes, correct? Similarly, I have the right to try to effect policy in Israel. My argument is only made stronger if it’s the case that my tax dollars, in whatever small way, are being used in a manner that is in conflict with my ideals. I have the right to try to effect change in the country where those dollars are being received through direct action (e.g. letters, emails, protests, etc., etc.) and through trying to influence my government to influence the other country. Anything else would be undemocratic.
    Jonathan1, your argument is thin. Based on your comment I assume you think Erlbaum is justified in speaking his mind about Israel, yet you suggest that that J Street and it’s supporters need to move to Israel in order to engage in more vigorous debate about Israel. Why the double standard? Erlbaum makes some purposefully inflammatory comments about a segment of the American Jewish community with as much right to advocate for their views on Israel as Erlbaum has to advocate his. Why don’t you suggest that he move their as well?

  8. Based on your comment I assume you think Erlbaum is justified in speaking his mind about Israel, yet you suggest that that J Street and it’s supporters need to move to Israel in order to engage in more vigorous debate about Israel
    You assumption is incorrect. I don’t think that J Street and its supporters need to move to Israel to engage in more vigorous debate about Israel. But, the whole “it’s hypocracy that there isn’t the vibrant debate about Israel in Philadelphia’s Jewish community that there is in Israel” line is a thin argument. Philadelphia Jews just don’t have the stake in Israel that actual Israelis have. Period . . . if a Philadelphia Jew really wants to become part of that intense Israeli debate/drama/tragedy, then he/she could very easily move to Israel.
    Where did I even reference Eribaum above? In any case, if Eribaum is upset at what he perceives as the lack of dedication to Israel in the Philadelphia Jewish community, then he can actually move to Israel, where people are really affected by these issues.
    American Jewish community with as much right to advocate for their views on Israel as Erlbaum has to advocate his
    Who is disagreeing with this? (You sure do make a lot of assumptions.) America is a free country, and American Jews are free to advocate for their views on Israel however they wish.

  9. All well and good, except that is not the clear meaning of what you said when you first commented on this piece. In response to the comment:
    “I dream about what it might feel like if the American Jewish community actually could tolerate the kind of vigorous and freewheeling debate that they enjoy in the actual Jewish state itself. (Now wouldn’t that be “pro-Israel?”)”
    You said:
    “If you’re looking for vigorous and freewheeling debate about the Jewish state’s future, you could actually move to Israel . . . where you literally might live or die (God forbid) as a result of the decisions which result from some of those debates.”
    I presume you can understand that while you are now claiming that the only thing you meant by this is that if one is interested in more vigorous debate on Israeli policy, then one should move to Israel, where the stakes are higher and where more open debate is the norm, that you actually seem to be siding with Erlbaum’s attempt to silence a group espousing a view of Israeli policy that conflicts with his opinions.
    Yes, a wider range of debate is the norm in Israel, but why would we not want to achieve that level of debate in the US? You understand that by calling on those who wish for more open debate to move to Israel to achieve these goals, that you are aligning yourself with those in the American Jewish establishment who have no need or desire for debate, people who want Hillel not to rent its facility to an “anti-zionist” organization like J Street. So forgive me, and the others for our confusion on this, but please clarify where you actually stand on this issue. Do you think that the debate over Israeli policy in the American Jewish community should be open to a wide range of views, or do you think that people who wish to engage in debate (which by definition means the people who hold views that differ from the establishment’s) should move to Israel in order to express themselves?
    PS: How do you get italics to work on this board?

  10. that you actually seem to be siding with Erlbaum’s attempt to silence a group espousing a view of Israeli policy that conflicts with his opinions.
    Ok. Well, I am not siding with Erlbaum’s attempts to silence J-Street. I don’t know how much more clear I can make it.
    I would have written the same thing had Erlbaum posted something here with that point.
    You understand that by calling on those who wish for more open debate to move to Israel to achieve these goals, that you are aligning yourself with those in the American Jewish establishment who have no need or desire for debate, people who want Hillel not to rent its facility to an “anti-zionist” organization like J Street.
    I’m not saying that anybody has to move to Israel. I’m trying to say that if a person is not satisfied with the level or type of “Israel involvment” in their American community, they might consider actually moving to Israel, instead of making weak comparison’s between Israeli political debate in Israel and Israeli political debate in the USA.
    Do you think that the debate over Israeli policy in the American Jewish community should be open to a wide range of views, or do you think that people who wish to engage in debate (which by definition means the people who hold views that differ from the establishment’s) should move to Israel in order to express themselves?
    Not only do I think it should be open, but (maybe I’m wrong?) isn’t it pretty open already?
    But, you are correct in the sense that I do question the integrity of those who take it upon themselves to lobby the American government from the position of “helping save Israelis from themselves” (whether it’s in the form of Morton Klein or Jeremy Ben-Ami.) . . . maybe that makes me an Erlbaumian.
    <> … <>

  11. “Not only do I think it should be open, but (maybe I’m wrong?) isn’t it pretty open already?”
    It’s not really open if people like Erlbaum prevail in their attempts to marginalize a group like J Street, which as Meir Eynaim points out, is a group that is not out of step with many figures in the mainstream of Israeli opinion.
    “I’m trying to say that if a person is not satisfied with the level or type of “Israel involvment” in their American community, they might consider actually moving to Israel,”
    Well, I don’t disagree with that, except that the issue is not really the “level of Israel involvement”, but rather, the level of debate. There is surely a difference and that’s what we were discussing here.
    “But, you are correct in the sense that I do question the integrity of those who take it upon themselves to lobby the American government from the position of “helping save Israelis from themselves” ”
    So you are saying that if Israel decided it was in its best interest to become one bi-national state for its Jewish and Arab citizens, both within and outside the green line, that you would also question the integrity of a person in the US who speaks out and lobbies against such a move because s/he feels it will lead to Israel’s destruction? That is, you would speak out against a “rightest” advocating against a “leftist” policy on the grounds that the advocate was trying to “help save the Israelis from themselves”?
    I obviously still don’t get how to do italics if you were trying to explain it to me, I appreciate it, but I guess I’m a little dense.

  12. It took me about 10 months to understand the italics, and I still can’t explain it.
    So you are saying that if Israel decided it was in its best interest to become one bi-national state for its Jewish and Arab citizens, both within and outside the green line, that you would also question the integrity of a person in the US who speaks out and lobbies against such a move because s/he feels it will lead to Israel’s destruction?
    If they are going up to Capitol HIll and presenting their position as “saving Israel from itself” than I most certainly would have a probably with her/him.
    That is, you would speak out against a “rightest” advocating against a “leftist” policy on the grounds that the advocate was trying to “help save the Israelis from themselves”?
    Who do you think Morton Klein is? So, let me turn it around on you: In 1994/1995, when Morton Klein and his crowd were running around DC, working around the clock to save Israel from the freely-elected Rabin Government and its policies, would you have had a problem with Klein? Because I sure as hell did.

  13. No, I don’t have a problem with him doing that. I disagree with him, but he’s entitled to advocate and attempt to influence policy. It’s called democracy. All I’m suggesting is that J-Street be given the same respect.

  14. People who decry an alleged “McCarthy-esque muzzling effect on views that are viewed as deviating from the official party line” need desperately to read a book on the McCarthy era.

  15. rc-
    I think you’re underestimating the professional implications in some parts of the organized Jewish world of stepping outside the party line. I can tell you that in the world of Conservative rabbis, it is rare to find a rabbi (who keeps a steady job) and advocates a line that regularly takes Israel to task. People constantly have to qualify statements, couch their true beliefs in very pareve language and sometimes outright lie.
    People do lose their jobs over this. Do I think it’s a historically accurate analogy? No. But there is certainly a fear-based silencing in Jewish communal institutions. We’re not in the same place as 8 years, or even 5 years, ago, but an online community like Jewschool was created for people who felt silenced. I’m not saying that extreme right-wing Zionism is the norm of the average Jewish community in America, but there is a certain something to the nature of the debate here that leaves one feeling outside the camp that they are an unwelcome and uninvited viewpoint.

  16. To Ayajewhuaska: I have no disagreement with you regarding one’s right, or that of anyone else, to speak out. I pointed out that, indeed,I accept that without question.
    But I see it as a fundamental right you have by living in a free society and by believing, as one who values right from wrong, that you can hopefully bring about good. However, to say, as did Shalom Rav, you have that right regarding Israel because a few dollars of your taxes go there is off the mark. Does a university student who may not yet pay taxes have any less right? I think not. Your right would not be diminished if the aid were to stop.
    I too want to know how to do italics. It looks as though Jonathan1 will keep it secret.

  17. Thanks Meir. I don’t disagree with you, as you must know from reading my post. My point was that the taxes argument only bolsters the underlying concept that you and I both agree on. If taxes = your sole right to speak, then I agree we have a problem.

  18. Meir Eynaim-
    You wrote:
    “Let’s get something straight. I agree that you have every right to speak out. Period.
    But US aid to Israel is a small (all be it needed) part of Israel’s budget and a tiny part of USA’s budget.”
    What’s your definition of small? according to conservative estimates, in 2008 and 2009 the US gave Israel $2.5 billion in aid, ALL as a grant. This is according to documents provided by congress. For missile defense alone, over $200 million were allocated. By 2015, plans are to give Israel $3.5 billion.
    That’s a significant amount of money, and what’s more important than the actual number is the proportion of how it’s doled out to Israel in comparison to other nations. And that number shows a gross imbalance and should tell people that from US perspective, this alliance has little to do with anything other than military strategic value, and any student of US military history knows what ends up happening to countries when the US decides supporting it is no longer in its interests.

  19. And that number shows a gross imbalance and should tell people that from US perspective, this alliance has little to do with anything other than military strategic value, and any student of US military history knows what ends up happening to countries when the US decides supporting it is no longer in its interests.
    This is true, Justin–although I’d add that the Evangelical Christian influence within the Republic Party has something to do with the alliance as well.
    But, does this reality not debunk further the “if Israel wants American Jewish support it has to listen closely to what American Jews think” theory?
    Aside from the fact that $3.5 billion comes out to about $11 per American (if I did my Math right,) the U.S. aid to Israel probably doesn’t have so much to do with the American Jewish community in 2010. I think Justin agrees with me (correct me if I’m wrong), but most American Jews don’t give a damn about Israel one way or another (why would they?)
    So, it just makes even more hollow the idea that Bibi (or whoever sits in the Prime Minister’s chair) needs to listen closely to Malcolm Hoenlein, lest the American rug will be pulled out from under Tel Aviv’s feet.

  20. Why don’t you let Justin speak for himself, Jonathan1? I agree with both of you about why the US gives the aid, but I don’t agree with your tacked on point about most American Jews not caring about Israel. I don’t think that’s true, but I don’t know for sure. I don’t think you know that, and I sure didn’t get from Justin’s post that he meant to somehow infer that in this case (even if he does actually happen to believe it). And even if he does believe it, he probably doesn’t know it to be true either.
    I suspect an Israeli PM listens to (certain) American Jews because they and/or their organization have lots of money, power and influence that can be spent/ wielded in Israel, the US, or in ways that otherwise may “benefit Israel”. They are also often likely a useful conduit to other avenues of American government and power. But you are quite right that the military aid will continue until it no longer is in US interests to supply it.
    Shabbat Shalom.

  21. Because in past comment sections Justin and I had agreed on that point (if my memory serves me correctly.)
    Of course none of us can prove it, but in my very limited life experience most American Jews really aren’t interested in Israel one way or another.

  22. I can prove it. Go to any Jewish individual in America who doesn’t actively attend synagogue or JCC or do stuff with NJWC or ORT or whatever (which, btw, the unaffiliated are most American Jews) and ask them if where Israel falls on their priorities and concerns. That’ll give you an answer. Remember, it is usually the case regarding political issues and the like that 10% of the population provides 90% of the ideas, so it may seem in the media like Jews sway political power or that Jews make the US government continue to provide aid to Israel, that’s nonsense. The US gov’t does not aid Israel because it’s near to the hearts of 4% of the electorate. That’s preposterous. Maybe it’s for the military foothold it gives them in the region… Maybe it’s military intelligence and equipment Israel gives the US? It’s not, I assure you, because of wealthy US Jews or the political clout of the Jewish community.
    Back to whether or not American Jews “care” about Israel, I’m nearly positive it’s very well publicized through surveys and reports that Americans Jews feel little connection and have other political priorities that reflect mainstream American concerns.

  23. Go to any Jewish individual in America who doesn’t actively attend synagogue or JCC or do stuff with NJWC or ORT or whatever (which, btw, the unaffiliated are most American Jews) and ask them
    Actually, try going to any Jewish individual in American who DOES actively attend synagogue or the JCC, and most of them will probably give you the same answer (of course that’s based on my life experiences, maybe others here have had different experiences–but it’s hard to imagine.)

  24. “The US gov’t does not aid Israel because it’s near to the hearts of 4% of the electorate. That’s preposterous.”
    Not at all. Former AIPAC intern, AIPAC campus rep, and Hill resident here. AIPAC has for many years be perceived to be the second most powerful lobbying group in the US, after AARP. Jews are well-recognized political and community organizers and donors. While we can identify many other justifications for the $$, they are secondary.
    That’s the “threat” of JStreet. If Congress sees that Jews aren’t singleminded on what’s best for Israel, members of Congress are free to deviate from the AIPAC requests.

  25. Not at all. Former AIPAC intern, AIPAC campus rep, and Hill resident here. AIPAC has for many years be perceived to be the second most powerful lobbying group in the US, after AARP.
    Didn’t this motto come from one magazine article (from like a decade ago) which put AIPAC second to AARP in ranking DC lobbies?
    That’s the “threat” of JStreet. If Congress sees that Jews aren’t singleminded on what’s best for Israel, members of Congress are free to deviate from the AIPAC requests.
    And, as I’m sure you know from your time at AIPAC, AIPAC takes its cue from the policies of whatever Israeli government is in power at the time . . . it doesn’t on its own determine what’s best for Israel, and it doesn’t operate in DC to work for what it’s determined to be best for Israel (Israeli elections be damned) . . . but–trust me–to make this criticism is highly controversial in this forum.

  26. The instinct to defend Israel against divergent opinions is a natural self protection survival defense mechanism. Certainly it is understandable that one might feel reticent about expressing one’s opinion and take umbrage at others who do not show similar reticence. But ultimately it is unnatural to suppress one’s opinions and Israel’s choices are a matter of life and death in either direction. True, if Israel seeks a peace that is not there to be had, people will die. But also if Israel passes up a chance for peace, people will die. And democracy is a value that Israel is also in danger of losing and with it the battle for legitimacy. Reticence is not a guarantee that the right choice is being made. Ultimately those who feel strongly should express their opinions.
    The market place of ideas should be open and may the best idea win. Is there danger? Of course. Are some people arrogant about the rightness of their opinion? Of course. But there is no way to avoid the battle of ideas that is already raging.

  27. It started with a Fortune study over a decade ago, but has been replicated continuously since then. A quick internet search shows a National Journal result from 2005. More significantly, I’ve heard the “fact” repeated in recent years by government representatives, think tank politicos, and political science professors.
    Have you read JJ Goldberg’s “Jewish Power”? It contains, in part, a fascinating look inside the pro-Israel lobby which is based more on perception than anything. I haven’t read the book in a long time (it was published over a decade ago) but I think it was an early advocate for something like JStreet.
    To your second point, the issue isn’t from whom AIPAC takes its cues, but from whom Congress does.

  28. Ok. For arugment’s sake, even if AIPAC is the second most poweful lobby in DC, I’d still put it at most third in ranking the reasons for U.S. support [far behind (1) the vastly integrated and interdependent relationship between the two nations’ military industries and (2) the Evangelical Christian support for Israel and its influence within the Republican Party]
    Wasn’t the premise of Goldberg’s book something like: most American Jews are Democrats and hold postitions far to the Left of the leaders of America’s large Jewish organizations (correct me if I’m wrong please)? If that’s the premise, then we all agree on that. But, those American Jews are “Left” on American issues, not Israel issues . . . because they probably aren’t interested in Israel, one way or another, IMHO.
    Assuming that Congress makes its decisions on Israeli aid from AIPAC’s directives (and that’s quite an assumption), then at least we can all agree that AIPAC tries to influence Congress from the “pro-Israel” perspective. And we can all agree that AIPAC takes its “pro-Israel” positions from the policies of whatever freely-elected Israeli government happens to be in power at the time.
    And we can all agree that the ZOA and J-Street also try to influence Cogress from the “pro-Israel” perspective. Except those groups have no problem lobbying against the policies of the freely-elected Israeli government . . . because they are working to save Israelis from themselves . . . from barrricaded Chicago and Philadelphia and New York . . . and if Congress influences Israel to adopt some of ZOA’s or J-Street’s “pro-Israel” positions, and those positions lead to disaster (God forbid) . . . then those groups will just go back to the drawing board, to come up with new ways to save Israelis from themselves.

  29. @Shalom Rav.
    Ok. So, maybe millions of Americans should call up their Congressional representative and demand that the U.S. stop giving Israel aid. I couldn’t give you one reason why the U.S. has to give Israel a dime.

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