By Jacques Berlinerblau
A few weeks back it was hard to be Jewish in Washington D.C. and not hear about the ructions surrounding J Street — the “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Lobby.” Truth be told, it was hard to be Outer Mongolian in Washington D.C. and not hear about the ructions surrounding J Street.
Strangely enough–it never ceases to astonish me– not everyone lives in the nation’s capitol. So some of you may be asking: “What is J Street?” Others who have followed the conflict are charging that J Street is not what it says it is. And still others who are sympathetic to the group claim that a right-wing campaign of willful disinformation has sought to distort its message.
It is for these reasons that we at Faith Complex thought it would be prudent to shed some light on this question. This interview with Hadar Susskind, Director of Policy and Strategy for J Street, (WATCH THE VIDEO) will familiarize you with some of the group’s basic positions. Next week, we will air a discussion with a perceptive critic of J Street, Michael Goldfarb, online editor of the Weekly Standard.
Both Susskind and Goldfarb are articulate and impassioned and these interviews will give you a good sense of the central issues in this debate. What I would like to add to their remarks is an observation about what may be the broader significance of the whole J Street kerfuffle.
It seems to me that a variety of simmering tensions within American and world Judaism came bubbling to the surface this past month. Moving from the most to the least obvious:
The Old versus the Young and the Restless: According to the recently published (and controversial) “Beyond Distancing” study, American Jews under 35 feel less attached to Israel than their elders over 65 years of age. This same study went on to pin much of the blame for the younguns’ lack of enthusiasm towards the Jewish State–somewhat ungallantly– on intermarriage. We’ll get back to that in a moment.
The experiences of the two cohorts are clearly different. Jews, let’s say, under 40, obviously never personally experienced the Holocaust. Few were even alive during the wars of 1967 and 1973 when Israel’s very existence was under threat. And if they were alive they were watching reruns of Gilligan’s Island as opposed to The Sorrow and the Pity. It could be argued that this un-traumatized generation is more prone than their elders to believe in concessions, summitry, peace, the essential goodness of human nature, and so forth.
Why is this relevant? Because commentators have repeatedly suggested that J Street’s core constituency is comprised of younger Jews, alienated from major Jewish organizations and federations. If this is, in fact, true then the recent controversies point to a generational divide. That young and old Jews do not see eye to eye on politics was something that flared up in the 2008 presidential election (remember Sarah Silverman’s “Great Schlep” video where junior Members of the Tribe were urged to convince bubbie and zadie to vote for Obama)?
J Street’s activism could be read as an attempt to move a generation of Jews with a very different worldview into the (left precinct of the) Zionist camp–kind of like a campus Hillel, but for foreign policy (though see my discussion with Susskind about J Street U).
Homeland versus Diaspora: Obama’s approval ratings in Israel stand (or slouch) at a dismal 4-8%. In the United States, conversely, they hover in the mid-sixties among Jews. For J Street, the radically different levels of support point to a possibility and a problem. In terms of the former, they have a large stock of potential recruits–across all Jewish age groups–among liberals who generally support the president and his Middle East foreign policy. On the down side, they risk becoming a Pro-Israel group dramatically at odds with the citizens of the country they claim to support!
The Taciturn versus the Talkative: Jewish dinner tables are often the domain of brutal, albeit often quite entertaining, verbal beatdowns. They are fields of discursive combat in which the varied flowers of the Jewish critical genius are perennially in bloom. What has re-emerged in the J Street debate is a conversation about what should and should not be said in front of those who do not sit at the table.
Israel is a vibrant democracy. Like all democracies it has its flaws. But ought Jews rehearse those flaws publicly, especially when this may aid and abet actors who are anti-Democratic and oblivious to their own flaws? “No!” say many Jews, cap-smacking their more garrulous brethren much as Skipper would do to wayward Gilligan.
The More Traditional and the Less Traditional: The director of J Street, Jeremy Ben Ami, was quoted in an article as saying that the members of his thirtysomething staff were “all intermarried” and attending “Buddhist seders.” Ben Ami later denied making the comment about the intermarrieds, but the analytical toothpaste was out of the tube. What if less traditional Jews have an elective affinity for J Street’s message?
In an outtake from this interview, Susskind mentioned to me that although all types of Jews came to his conference, he did notice a good deal of representation from the Reform denomination, along with secular Jews and unaffiliated Jews.
Reform Judaism is the largest American Jewish denomination. Aside from being politically liberal it is the one segment of institutional Judaism whose outreach to intermarrieds has been exceptional. It would seem to be a logical bastion of support for J-Street.
Among Secular-Humanistic and unaffiliated Jews in general one will find higher intermarriage rates and/or a re-thinking of Halakah (traditional Jewish law). Multiple and often unprecedented modes of Jewish identity are being forged among such groups and here too one could imagine J Street achieving a foothold.
Whether Reform, Reconstructionist, Secular Humanistic and unaffiliated Jews will gravitate to J Street, while Conservative, Modern Orthodox and certain ultra-Orthodox Jews may shy away from it, is a surmise that requires further investigation.
(Research assistance: Jonathan Cohn)
Jacques Berlinerblau is associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He is the author of several books including, “Thumpin’ It: The Use and Abuse of the Bible in Today’s Presidential Politics” (Westminster John Knox).
By Jacques Berlierinblau |
November 22, 2009; 3:46 PM ET
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