Identity, Israel, Politics

Who are we trying to convince?

j_street_largeThe following is a guest post by Naomi Goldenson.
In discussions this morning about internal Jewish dynamics, people wanted to know how it is that we get the organized mainstream to see that it’s in their interest to make the conversation more inclusive. This invariably turns into a conversation not just about how to get them to accept critical pro-peace views, but how to keep young people involved in general and various other continuity concerns. Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund pointed out that decline in support of Israel may not be the symptom of lack of engagement in Jewish community. We may be confusing cause and effect.
At the same time we heard about the need to state our pro-Israel credentials up-front and often. When someone from the audience questioned why she should have to do this, the reply was pragmatic: just deal with it because it will make people listen to what you have to say. For some American Jews, however, having to do this is not a question of principle. Many American Jews do not necessarily have that “pedigree.” Are their voices less important? And for Jews who did not attend Jewish summer camp, never traveled to Israel, and know little Hebrew, why should they feel any connection to Israel?
At the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, we are in the midst of an identity workshop about Israel and difficult questions. One topic of discussion has been the significant differences in how Americans and Israelis identify as Jews. We often base our identity on experiences that are specific to this country: being just another religious minority, supporting a separation of church and state, supporting civil rights, and social justice. It’s no surprise then that most of us so strongly support President Obama. Not only do we support President Obama for domestic political reasons, but, as Sokatch also pointed out, most of us believe him to be “pro-Israel.” Most Israelis don’t agree. Israeli and American Jews are not the same thing. As an organization of American Jews, J Street ought to also focus on convincing Americans who do not already strongly identify with Israel, whether they be Jews or non-Jews.
This afternoon, General Jones, President Obama’s National Security Advisor, provided an excellent rational for why they should care. He spoke about President Obama’s strong support for Israel, as exemplified by his efforts to engage the issue from the very beginning of his term. Not only that, he made a strong case for why this is in America’s interest as well as Israel’s. He said that if he had to advise the President to solve just one international problem this would be it, because the ripples effect so many other conflicts around the globe.
If we emphasize the reasons that we should care about this issue as Americans (without trying to make everyone into an ardent Zionist), this will engage additional people, including disengaged Jews who legitimately need another reason to care. And in general, if we emphasize the unique aspect of our identity as American Jews, then whether we are talking about Israel or not, we may also find more points of connection with Jews who feel alienated from mainstream organizations.

3 thoughts on “Who are we trying to convince?

  1. Naomi, I was in the same breakout session that you mention above. Like the student, I am an older Jew who also has roughtly the same attachment to Israel that I would to, say, Switzerland, and I do agree with your sentiments.
    Moderates or universalists are generally denounced as self-hating Jews and we are not in general welcome or listened-to in many congregations or (especially) within Jewish Federations. JStreet’s grassroots strategy does not depend on those of us who have been relegated to standing outside embassies, lobbying congressmen, or writing letters to the editor. It depends on Jews who are closely engaged in their [more politically conservative] congregations and other institutions. But JStreet’s lobbying efforts can be supported by any of us.
    What this will mean for activists such as Brit Tzedek members who have been absorbed into JStreet remains to be seen. Many Brit Tzedek members are regular shul-goers; some are not. It will be interesting to see what kind of home members farther to the left of JStreet’s center will find over time. I suspect there will be a little attrition, but even the majority of bloggers in attendance who have been accused of being anti-Zionist One State Hamas-loving goyim expressed support for JStreet’s existence, if not acceptance of their tactic.
    Peace in Israel-Palestine is a discussion that has to begin in earnest within the Jewish community, and everyone realizes that kind, gentle, and safe words have to be used initially.
    The fact is: this is where we are.

  2. The tactic I get, it’s the demand for ideological support of israel that puts me off. We need to two states because that is the quickest route to end the occupation. It’s the insistence on ideological pro-israelism (which as I’ve said before makes no sense as an ideological lable, what we are really talking about is Zionism). The trouble is, liberal Zionism is even more non-sensical. Liberalism
    is predicates on individual human dignity and thus equality before the states. That is where we get the idea of rights from. Zionism (or at least any form of statist or political Zionism, which
    is the Zionism of this pro-israel buisness) must discriminate in favor of Jews (and thus against others). What would it mean to have a Jewish state (not just a state with a strong Jewish cultural
    component) if not to discriminate in favor of Jews? What would be the Jewishness of a state that had robust equal protection in all areas of law? Why, it would be a liberal democratic state, not a jewish one.
    If need to pretend as a matter of public discourse that liberal zionism is possible in order to end the occupation, that is a tactic I can support. But to the extent that jstreet actually demands that it’s members be ideologically Zionist or “pro-israel” they are going to have a hard time recruiting thoughtful and consistent liberals.

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