J Street and the Jewish divide

WATCH Jacques Berlinerblau’s video interview with Hadar Susskind, Director of Policy and Strategy for J Street. FAITH COMPLEX By Jacques … Continued

WATCH Jacques Berlinerblau’s video interview with Hadar Susskind, Director of Policy and Strategy for J Street.


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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  • Natstural

    So basically Jstreet is for Jews that want almost nothing to do with being Jewish, but still want to be able to have matzo ball soup during passover.

  • outragex

    This was interesting and enlightening for this now-Jewish reader, but I think Mr.Berliernblau is missing the forest for the trees.The author made no mention of the simple idea that is growing in American thought: that Israel is doing terrible things to the Christian and Muslim people in it’s occupied territories. Also, the future of Israel is ultimately endangered if some workable solution cannot be found. Third, American foreign policy is greatly complicated by the actions of Isreal, our economic client state. Finally, the growth of the militant settler movement doing what they perceive as “God’s will” is worrisome to peace prospects. I think the J-Street group is saying that the American public may decide to stop supporting Isreal eventually if they come to see Isreal as a human-rights oppressor seeking domination instead of a vulnerable ally seeking co-existence. I am not arguing that these criticisms of Israel are valid (billions of words have already been spent in this debate), but I am saying that this article ignores the controversies at the heart of the J-Street issue.

  • esthermiriam

    Video interview nicely done. Thanks.While creating categories for analysis, Jacques and others might want to note that among JStreet’s audience and support are many *non-denominationally* affiliated Jews: members of independent minyanim, e.g., or of groups that are part of the National Havurah Movement and/or Jewish Renewal; others may not currently belong to prayer-focused groups, but *are* affiliated and active in many and various other Jewish organizations and settings.

  • captn_ahab

    J Street is an organization for Jews whose psyche is sufficiently assimilated that keeping their liberal/progressive credentials sufficiently pristine is more important to them than the historical reality of the Israeli Palestnian and their identification with Israel. The refined sensibilities of its members, in concert with advanced English language skills, allows them to pretend they are pro Israel. However, it remains unclear what that really means to them.

  • coloradodog

    I guess one could be pro-peace and pro-Israel at the same time assuming their definition of peace were the same as Israel’s uncompromising one.

  • incredulousinBoyntonBeach

    I don’t understand why this article was written or published. Without actually watching the videos, it is not possible to learn from this article what the issues are, or on what side of those un-described issues J Street stands on. I PRESUME that were I to watch the videos, I would learn what J Street really is. Not having watched the videos (since I expect my newspaper to provide me with written words), I don’t really know for sure.And I really don’t appreciate the slurs on progressive Judaism. Judaism is not static, nor has it ever been static. For those who are unfamiliar with the history of Jewish thought (the closest thing Jews have to a formal “theology”), even the Talmud was subject to formal commentaries, to interpretation and re-interpretation, in writing, over a period of well over a thousand thousand years. And even then, although the Talmud as we know it today was sealed during the West’s Dark Ages, the Jewish debates and interpretations and reinterpretations continued in the form of rabbinic Responsa, as they continue even to the present day. In his own day, two thousand years ago, the famous Rabbi Hillel and his school of followers were actually the Progressive Jews of their time(as opposed to Shammai and his followers, who were the “orthodox” of their day). And for those who don’t know Jewish history, it was the school of Hillel that prevailed — although perhaps some Jews even today might feel that he shouldn’t have. As a Progressive Jew, I am now curious about what this “J Street” group stands for — other than the few specific things that the writer apparently thinks it stands for, as near as I can tell from this article: Buddhism, intermarriage, secularism (whatever that means), and an Israel that should actively disregard the will of its citizens. I don’t understand, of course, what “Buddhism, intermarriage, secularism, and an Israel that should actively disregard the will of its citizens” has to do with Judaism. I thought “J Street” was supposed to be about something Jewish. So maybe I didn’t understand the article. Go figure.

  • yasseryousufi

    The attempts to silence or discredit the J-Street by the “Lobby” seem in line with their usual tactic of not challenging the argument proposed by the person/organization because they know they will never be able to counter that in a legitimate debate. Instead they would hint at ulterior motives (self hating jews in this case) and indulge in character assasination of any such organization/person who as much as suggests that Israel indeed is occupying a land that is not theirs, is occupying a people without giving them basic human rights, is in flagrant violation of the most number of UN resolutions and quite simply getting away with murder. Thats been the Standard Operating Procedure of AIPAC and other conservative Likudnik Jewish organizations of USA and Europe. Well sadly for them, the layers are coming of one by one and more and more honorable Jewish people are standing up and realising that Israel is headed in the wrong direction and basically needs to be saved from itself. So yea the AIPAC have got their work cut out. J-Street, UN resolutions, Israel’s terror raids against indefensible Palestinians and Lebanese, Honorable people like Jimmy Carter, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mary Robinson etc. speaking out, its all shredding the veneer of Israel being a victim instead of a brutal occupier in the eyes of Public opinion. In the end its the Public opinion in US and Europe that will decide the destiny of Israel

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    And M Street? Where is it? What is its position? Any chance of us three million exiled Middle East Jews returning to the land stolen from us? Any chance of our learning where they put the bodies of those they murdered? Any chance?M Street address, please.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    OutragexThe author made no mention of the simple idea that is growing in American thought: that Israel is doing terrible things to the Christian and Muslim people in it’s occupied territoriesIt is also American knowledge that Israel is the only country in the MIddle East in which Muslims may choose their own candidates, vote freely, have their votes counted honestly without hindrance. That and the ability to earn a living, the lack of corruption comparable to other ME nations, rigid class structures, etc., may explain why not a single Israeli Muslim has left Israel to live elsewhere in the MIddle East. Not one. .As for Palestinian Christians, as you know, many Palestinian Christians have fled their Muslim brethren, headed to Israel, which took them as refugees and to the US.Are you suggesting that Israel send them back? That the US send them back? ???

  • mikebustami

    I’m for a J Street. Actually I’m for a J State elsewhere than Palestine. In a large space where Judaism followers can reproduce and practice the unique and rather bizarre rituals they’re fond of.

  • huntyrella

    I am non-Jewish ( and pro-Israel) but after seeing J Street on CNN I am surprised to see them described as pro-Jewish. I reckon they are the administration┬┤s mouthpiece and thus a pro-Palestinian group.

  • Errol1

    Both the article and the discussion seem pretty incoherent and ideological. Not helpful good.I am 65, have lived in Isreal in the early 70s, was a Zionist during adolescence and youg adulhood, am pro-Israel BUT am very strongly against Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.Both the Palestinians and the Israeli’s have given control to their respective extremists so any move toward peace can be reversed by a single crazy move (think the Baruch Goldstein slaughter , Ariel Sharon on the Temple Mount, the assassination of Rabin, Hamas’s actions, numerous Palestinian terrorist actions, etc.) I am pro peace, pro sanity, not the current insanity ans self serving political moves on both sides.