Friday, December 5, 2008

Congress to J-Street: "Where Have You Been!"

Members of Congress welcoming J-Street, some of whom are pictured above:  Jan Schakowsky, Steve Cohen, Keith Ellison, Bob Filner, Bill Delahunt, David Price, Tom Allen, and many others. 

The Advisory Council of J-Street, the new peace lobby, met in Washington in mid-September to plot (actually, to hear its staff articulate) the organization's strategy for the remainder of the election campaign and the year following. Among the various discussions Jeremy Ben-Ami, J-Street's immensely gifted Executive Director, had planned for the day was a lunchtime forum with eight of the congressional representatives who had accepted the lobby's endorsement.

We thought this would be a courtesy meeting, with gracious if not perfunctory remarks. J-Street had already signed up over 70,000 to its email network--the number is now over 90,000--but J-Street is a very new organization, with little of AIPAC's accumulated clout. What we got was a meeting of unexpected honesty, even poignancy. 

"Where have you been!" California's Rep. Bob Filner asked us, not entirely rhetorically. His challenge was repeated again and again by members of Congress from across the country. As Filner put it, progressive forces in this country used to count on Jewish groups, and nobody doubted the persistence of progressive sentiments among the vast majority of American Jews; a great number of representatives have seen advocacy of a Middle East peace along the lines of, say, the Clinton Parameters as the touchstone of their friendship for Israel, and their absorption by Israel's tragic conflict with, and in, Palestine. 

In a way, the Israel-Palestine conflict seemed to them a kind of litmus test for how American foreign policy would be conducted after Iraq: would there be a Western alliance, coordinating its many kinds of power to pursue peace and common interests, or, a Global War on Terror, with force the only language Moslems and Joe the Plumber are presumed to understand?

Curiously enough, AIPAC's approach has also been to turn the way Israel is supported into a test for managing foreign policy more generally, with a steady drumbeat favoring the use of force on Iran; and it seems that being the target of AIPAC's attention has not been an entirely enchanting experience. AIPAC began as a broad-based organization after the 1973 war, anxious to develop a counterweight to the State Department's traditional coziness with oil interests favoring the Arab version of Zionism. That was then. AIPAC has since become a kind of bastion for self-hating neocons: people who insist they are bipartisan, but who are really quite comfortable with the clash of civilizations, since it allows them to sell Israel as America's biggest Middle East based aircraft-carrier. Think of (though it is unpleasant) Joe Lieberman. 

IF THESE CONGRESSPEOPLE were to be believed--and the meeting was open--AIPAC had become one of the most feared, and secretly loathed, presences on Capital Hill. One got the feeling that a much larger number of congressional representatives were hungry for a broad-based, progressive, Jewish-led (but not exclusively Jewish) organization to (as one Congressman put it) "protect their back." Which brings me to the present.

Jeremy Ben-Ami has set the perfectly reasonable goal of signing up 100,000 people by the end of the year. You can hear his pitch, and explore the J-Street site, by clicking here.  I urge all of you, Jews and not, to get involved.  As the Hebron riots show, Israel and Palestine will blow unless the world forces the people here into a change in the conversation.