Rosner's Domain: Roberta Seid on why J Street is bad for Israel
Posted by SHMUEL ROSNER
A couple of days ago I linked here to a long interview with J Street's founder Jeremy Ben-Ami. Now it's time for the opposition to speak up. And opposition means Roberta P. Seid.
Seid earned her doctorate at UC Berkeley in European Social History, taught Gender Studies and European history at the University of Southern California, and currently teaches a course on Israel at UC Irvine. She is Education/Research Director of StandWithUs, an international Israel education organization, and was a member of the America Israel Demographic Research Group (AIDRG) which analyzed Palestinian and Israeli demography. Dr. Seid has authored and co-authored books and articles in these fields in both the scholarly and non-scholarly press.
She was answering my question on the way to J Street's conference - she's there to follow and protest, not to show support. Here we go:
1. How is J Street "frequently endorses anti-Israel, anti-Jewish narratives"?
In StandWithUs' extensive experience covering anti-Israel events, speakers, and organizations, we have found certain patterns: they exclude context, draw moral equivalencies, defend defamations and one-sided narratives under the banner of free speech, use half-truths and outright lies to stain Israel and Jews, or promote speakers who delegitimize Israel. Unfortunately, J Street has exhibited a pattern of doing some or all of these things.
Some examples: J Street:
Refused to condemn the bias and misrepresentations of the UN Goldstone Report, faulted the Israeli government for not cooperating with the investigation, and urged "the Israeli government to establish an independent state commission of inquiry to investigate the accusations, something Israel has done on several occasions in the past."
"7 Jewish Children" J Street endorsed Washington DC's J-Theater production of "7 Jewish Children" in March, 2009, claiming it would stimulate "rigorous intellectual engagement.”" Even the BBC would not air the piece after British Jewish leaders condemned it for historical distortions and for portraying "Israeli parents as inhuman triumphalists who care little about anything except their children's feelings and who teach them that Arabs are sub-human and must be hated."
Launched a public letter campaigns to support programs with anti-Israel bias, such as Bob Simon's "60 Minutes" biased view of the settlements in January, 2009. J Street launched a campaign to defend Simon against CAMERA and Abe Foxman's criticisms. Foxman called the show a "hatchet job on Israel."
Adopted the anti-Israel interpretation of why Charles Freeman did not get appointed to a top intelligence post in the Obama administration. J Street refused to take sides in this controversy, but afterwards objected to the outcome, writing that "It cannot be a litmus test for service in the American government that you have never criticized Israel or its policies publicly." In fact, the Freeman appointment was scuttled because of Freeman's apologia for China’s brutal crackdown in Tianamen Square in 1989, his position as president of MEPC, an Arab lobby group partially funded by Saudi Arabia and the Bin Laden family, and because he did not "criticize" Israel, but rather fulminated against it in a series of screeds that repeated false anti-Israel charges.
Praised Jimmy Carter without denouncing the misrepresentations and pernicious influence of Carter's book that claimed Israel had instituted apartheid vs the Palestinians. J Street posted and urged distribution of Nancy Kaptur's (D-OH) speech which called for Jimmy Carter's op ed against Israel actions in Gaza to be entered in the Congressional Record. Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's executive director, praised Jimmy Carter in 2009: "You have to respect him, which I don't think everybody has done... And he deserves more respect and more thanks than he has gotten."
Blamed Israeli policy for Palestinian terrorism instead of recognizing the existence of extremist terrorist groups and strategy among Palestinians, portraying Palestinians solely as helpless victims instead of active agents in their policy choices. "But we're not doing a very good job at creating a secure home by conducting ourselves in this manner towards another people that are a minority, and that are powerless, and treating them in a way that forces them essentially to become terrorists, and leads to us being again in danger" (Ben-Ami in Salon interview).
2. Do you think criticizing Israel is necessarily "anti-Israel"? if not - where do you draw the line?
Of course criticizing Israeli policy is not inherently anti-Israel. Israelis do it all the time. There clearly will be different policies heatedly debated as Israel tries to deal with the difficult situation it is in today.
I think Sharansky did an excellent job clarifying when criticism of Israel crosses the line from being reasonable to unreasonable.
The line between what is legitimate criticism of Israel and anti-Israel positions are those I mentioned in answer 1 above. I think Sharansky's "3 D's" are a good litmus test: Delegitimization of Israel; Double standards when judging Israeli actions; Demonization of Israel, particularly misrepresenting all it has done for peace and to improve the condition of its minorities. To his 3 D's, I would add "decontextualization" - ignoring the context for Israel's actions and drawing moral equivalencies between Israel and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah which would probably fit in Sharansky's "demonization."
More specifically: 1) Forcing Israel to adopt policies that are against the will of its democratically elected government; 2) Blaming Israel alone for the ongoing conflict and calling for pressure only on Israel to change policy, as J Street does; 3) Ignoring context, particularly the serious security threats Israel faces and could face in an imposed solution, and ignoring the failures of the PA and the problematic reality of it being able to be a peace partner when it is a divided between Hamas and Fatah.
3. J Street seems to be quite successful - do you agree with this assessment, and how do you explain this success?
J Street has gotten a lot of publicity. It's well funded and well connected, and has used a lot of major PR to get widespread attention. But how successful it will be remains to be seen. That's why our work is so important: Americans need to know what this organization actually stands for and whom it does or doesn't represent. Then they can make their decisions. Because so many American Jews oppose the policies they advocate, I tend to believe they will not be very popular in the Jewish community, though they very likely will continue to gather support from organizations and individuals who have generally been hostile to Israel.
4. You're "concerned because J Street echoes many of the charges in Walt and Mearsheimer's The Israel Lobby, and denigrates mainstream Jewish organizations across the political spectrum". But J Street's founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami had said (in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, referring to Walt and Mearsheimer) that "when the analysis of that lobby veers over a line and essentially says that all of American foreign policy is controlled by this one lobby and this one interest group, to me, personally, this does smack of the kind of conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This notion that somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes, this is when you cross that line." So, can we now delete one concern from the list?
I read the Goldberg interview. Ben-Ami has tried to distance himself from the Walt-Mearsheimer book with good reason. But he cannot deny that he echoes many of its themes, and many of his claims do make it sound like there is a "diaboloical" conspiracy out there. It is no accident that Walt is so pleased J Street was founded.
After all, the whole raison d'etre for the founding of J Street is their claim that mainstream Jewish organizations do not represent mainstream young Jews or liberal Jews, that these Jews have had no voice or are silenced, and that there is a need for a new direction in America's relationship with Israel.
But Ben-Ami goes even further.
He paints all the mainstream Jewish organizations as right wing, and as imposing "one voice" on the Jewish community - despite the bipartisanship of AIPAC and the different alignments of different Jewish organizations. He even has argued that being "hawkish" on Israel is a litmus test for acceptance by mainstream Jewish organizations. Consider his comments to Salon:
"And it greatly disturbs me and it greatly disturbs a very large number of progressive American Jews, who believe very strongly in Israel but feel that the way in which the American Jewish community's voice has been expressed on these issues doesn't reflect our values or opinions. Only the voices of the far right have been heard. They've really hijacked the debate when it comes to Israel." Ben-Ami in Salon interview.
"Another key reason that J Street is urgently needed, Ben-Ami said, is to heal a dangerous and growing schism in the Jewish community... If we say that in order to be tied to the established Jewish community, either through federations or synagogues or any institutional entity, you have to go through a litmus test of 'do you stand with Israel right or wrong on everything' before we'll let you feel comfortable in our institutions, we're going to drive all these people away. We're going to lose an entire generation."
For his part, Ben-Ami said politicians on the Hill had reacted extremely positively to J Street's launch. "About the only thing that we can do to drive America away from Israel is to press our luck too far, keep on saying 'Is it pro-Israel enough?,' keep demanding that we have 32 preamble clauses that say how bad the Palestinians are." Ben-Ami said the politicians he spoke to wanted to make sure that the U.S.-Israel relationship was not damaged by such overkill, and were grateful that a new organization would "give them a little bit of relief from this constant pressure."
Similarly, in the issue about Charles Freeman's appointment, J Street expressed views that could have come from Walt and Mearsheimer - that "it cannot be a litmus test for service in the American government that you have never criticized Israel or its policies publicly," when in fact Freeman's rejection was not just because of his Israel positions, and when his "criticism" of Israel in fact included defamatory tirades that demonized and delegitimized Israel.
All these arguments resemble those of Walt and Mearsheimer.
5. Your Walt-Mearsheimer accusation is just an example to what many people might see as criticism too aggressive in tone and not properly nuanced when it comes to accuracy. Did you not cross a line when you've turned your legitimate criticism of J Street's into war of words that is hardly productive?
J Street is the group guilty of an aggressive tone and a total lack of nuance. It has painted mainstream American Jewish organizations with one brush as "right wing," and demanding "group think" for acceptance, and has made the preposterous claim that J Street alone is pro-peace, suggesting all these other groups are pro-war. That is nonsense and frankly dishonest.
I'm not sure what you’re referring to when you say we are "too aggressive" in tone. Our press releases, statements, and ads simply laid out J Street's positions with documentation. We consider these positions and methods harmful for Israel, but all we did was explain what those positions were. Readers can then make informed decisions. J Street never denied that it advocates these positions. Nor did we attack J Street's founders. We pointed out that J Street has donors and supporters who have been affiliated with groups or countries that have historically been hostile to Israel, from Human Rights Watch to a member of the NIAC. J Street didn't deny these affiliations. It defended them. But it is certainly legitimate to ask why such individuals would support a pro-Israel organization - or whether they would influence it in ways that could be harmful to Israel.
We are not engaged in a war of words with J Street. We just have very serious concerns about their positions, and we wanted to educate the public about J Street's positions.
6. Please explain your strategy: you think J Street is harmful, you think its ideas are wrong - how do you intend to try and oppose it in an effective way?
We are fulfilling our mission: education about Israel and issues related to Israel. We and others who are concerned about J Street have already succeeded because the problems with J Street's self-portrayal and its positions are now open and on the table, and being vigorously debated, as they should be.
7. Is there a danger that you're seen as "conservative" (namely, tend to be supportive of the Republican Party) - and that's effectively preventing you from being effective with most Jewish Americans? How can you convince the perplexed that your organization is not in the business of political character-assassination?
What does this have to do with the Republican party? We are looking at J Street's content and ideas, not their political affiliations. We have not used political labels, and this is the first time this question has been brought up in an interview. StandWithUs is non partisan. Our Board of Directors includes people from all parties and our students are a mix of liberal and conservative. We focus on correcting misconceptions and promoting education and information, not on endorsing political parties.
The issues about J Street are not about "conservative" and "republican" versus "democrat" and "liberal." They are about the American Jewish community and the best ways it can support Israel and further movement toward peace in the region. Unfortunately, J Street has tried to make this about liberal vs conservative in order to marginalize mainstream organizations and views, but support for Israel crosses party lines and the liberal-conservative divide. According to polls, 96% of Israelis feel the current U.S. administration's policies are not friendly to Israel. That result certainly crosses a wide political divide. The same is true here in the U.S.
We are certainly not in the business of "political character assassination." We are a non-partisan Israel education organization. J Street has every right to hold its opinions, express them, and form an organization to support them. Other American groups, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have an equal right to express their views and to challenge and debate J Street positions - and to inform the public about J Street positions that are cause for concern.
J Street isn't concerned about being seen as far left even though it recently affiliated with both the Union of Progressive Zionists and BrizTzedek. It seems rather that the groups that challenge J Street are from the mainstream though J Street has tried hard to marginalize them as "right wing" and "hawkish."
8. How can we measure your success or failure to achieve your goals?
The best way to measure our success or failure is by whether or not there is vigorous, thoughtful, and factual debate about J Street's positions and what it really represents. Our main goal is to bring clarity to the fact that the variety of groups under J Street's umbrella endorse positions that the vast mainstream of Israelis and supporters of Israel from other countries would find of grave concern and potentially harmful to Israel.