"Lost" on J Street?

j_street_largeThe following is a guest post by treyfe. He is a stay-at-home father and observant, atheist Jew who is trying to be a good ally, while staying true to the best traditions in Judaism.
One of many surprises for me at the J Steet conference was the role intermarriage played in both J Street’s self-concept and the efforts to criticize other organizations. I was ready for challenges to my identity as a leftist, but as a product of intermarriage? Really, it is all interconnected!
So for those of you joining us late, J Street had its big roll out in the New York Times Magazine September 9, in a mostly positive portrayal. To illustrate their youthfulness, J Street’s staff is listed as being an average age of 30. What’s more, “They’re all intermarried,” Ben Ami says. “They’re all doing Buddhist seders.” The Buddhist seders comment was perhaps exaggeration. (And why must Eastern faiths be the intermarriage ad absurdium?) None of the published letters to the editor addressed intermarriage. Their characterization seems to be bolstering J Street’s youthful, cosmopolitan, non-ghettoized bonafides.
Fast forward to the interview in the New Yorker with Ben-Ami on the eve of the conference. Here Ben-Ami is called out by Jeffrey Goldberg to affirm this or repudiate that. He adopts what Goldberg rightly calls a Seinfeldian tone to dispute his quote, and Goldberg makes the old joke about improving the gene pool as a peace offering. Tablet helpfully corroborates that indeed “at least one [staff member] is married to a rabbinical student.”
Also in the run up to the conference, Masa, of the infamous “Lost” video, became sponsors without visible controversy. So are J Street cosmopolitans seeking enlightenment from their charoset or are they hunting lost Jews?
As it turned out from the conference itself, the answer is, sort of, both. J Street led much more strongly with their desire to “save young Jews” than the more nuts and bolts of creating an alternative/counter to AIPAC. The rhetoric echoed, but did not specifically reference, that of anti-intermarriage groups. However, the intermarried nature of younger Jews was described as part of the profile of this demographic that J Street seems to be banking on reaching. Once again, intermarriage is being made into a proxy for people’s fears, and hopes, and J Street’s work is in turn made into a proxy for “bringing Jews into back the fold.”
So how do I feel about all this as a participant in the “Jews of all Hues” conference Kung Fu Jew covered? Appropriately, mixed. I am happy J Street went to the trouble of saying the Seinfeldian “NTTAWWT” — “Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That.” (Something that, for example, Barack Obama could have done more of when people accused him of the crime of being a Muslim, rather than implying that there was something wrong with it.) I am excited that they see intermarriage as a fact and even a potential source of strength and learning.
My general worry about J Street, however, is that they will not learn enough from the failures of past “keep ’em in the fold” efforts: namely preachiness and a lack of true acceptance of a wide range of views. It could even be argued, as J.J. Goldberg does, that the emphasis on outreach to young Jews will undermine their lobbying efforts. I am fine with that, as long as it leads J Street to evolve and become more inclusive and effective. I believe this would have a more lasting effect than getting this or that resolution passed or voted down. I am unwilling to fault J Street for being too ambitious, especially at this earlier stage. But clearly many choices lie ahead and I hope they have the flexibility and creativity that will be required.

6 thoughts on “"Lost" on J Street?

  1. Wow, reading that interview is pretty cringe-worthy.
    Anyway, thanks for posting this; I have been following the J Street hubbub, and the sort of debate between whether the conference was about lobbying or shifting the terms of Jewish identity politics, and the intermarriage questions seems to fit in there very saliently. I find Ben-Ami’s Seinfeldian posture somewhat frustrating because it seems like whatever J Street’s actual friendliness towards non-traditional Jews, he still needs to prove HIS and his organization’s “cred” by his emphatic insistence that there is no intermarriage in *their* office. It’s still buying into certain hierarchies of Jewish identity as necessary to be taken seriously as a voice in the Jewish world. And I get that, I sympathize with the need for J Street to establish its legitimacy so decisively, but it does mean the perpetuation of a condescending “intermarriage is ok for other people” attitude.

  2. Well put, treyfe. But I do think it should be noted that J Street isn’t about getting resolutions voted up or down. Right now the pressure we’re putting on Congress is to back the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts – a break from a lot of lobbying goals in the past. I think this will be more effective, and it’s important not to underestimate the power of that diplomacy.

  3. Hannah, I agree that Ben Ami should have been more forceful. His obeisance to Goldberg is indeed cringeworthy, and does sound caution about how JStreet will stand up to the ongoing attacks.
    Renaissanceboy, I was definitely a little too dismissive of lobbying, but I worry JStreet is erring in the other direction by placing their faith in “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” Obama’s diplomacy. What is the plan if he doesn’t succeed in his diplomatic efforts? Finally, I got interesting offline feedback posing a link between anti-intermarriage hysteria here and demographic hysteria in Israel, which did rear its ugly head at the conference.

  4. If the same organization could not both provide space to process internal Jewish differences and advocate effectively for one political position, as JJ Goldberg claims, then I would prefer that JStreet advocate effectively for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine, even if they have to disown me and others to their left.
    This may sound incredibly cynical from someone who happily promotes JStreet at every opportunity. But if JStreet is successful in its political work that will inevitably open up more space for the rest of us with time. And luckily we do have other organizations to help us process our identity issues and ideological differences.
    Even more luckily, I do not agree with the premise that the two things cannot both occur within the same organization. Everyone who agrees that our country should be actively promoting peace in Israel/Palestine should continue to support JStreet, and bring up our issues from within. JStreet’s positions are remarkably mainstream, and as that is more broadly realized, our presence to the left will not be seen as so threatening.

  5. What the heck is an “observant, atheist Jew” anyway? Do they follow halakha despite their rejection of G-d as the author of those laws?

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