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J Street broadens public debate on Israel

By Antony Loewenstein - posted Friday, 13 November 2009

Distinguished South African judge Richard Goldstone wrote the UN report on Israel’s December/January war against the Gazan people. It detailed war crimes by both Israel and Hamas and demanded both entities fully investigate the serious charges of targeting civilians and infrastructure.

“Pro-Israel and pro-peace” lobby J Street, an 18-month-old group that held its first conference in Washington DC in late October, backed a bipartisan congressional resolution that slammed the Goldstone report and called on Washington to “oppose and work actively to defeat one-sided and biased action” in the UN regarding Goldstone’s recommendations.

Is this what J Street means when claiming it wants to “broaden the public and policy debate in the US about the Middle East?” In reality, Israeli crimes are shielded from accountability once again, further undermining its legitimacy.


After its four-day conference it’s clear the new “movement”, of which Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks, is conflicted and desperate for change. The event attracted more than 1,500 people: from devoted Zionists to activists, anti-Zionists to 1948 fighters, Palestinians to Rabbis and bloggers, to the elderly. Many participants craved inclusion inside the tent, sick of spending years marginalised for not toeing a hardline, pro-settler, pro-Israeli government mindset.

J Street wants a two-state solution and “Jewish, democratic state” but many attendees, a vocal minority, felt deeply uncomfortable even with the concept of a Jewish state. Although most of the many panels did not engage on issues such as boycott, divestment and sanctions, a one-state solution, the siege on Gaza and complicit IDF soldiers in the West Bank, I heard countless audience members speak about the concept of justice for all, not Zionist benefits only for Jews.

Dan Sieradski, formerly of website Jewschool, said during an unofficial blogger’s panel that, “as a Jew we’re being asked to support the undermining of international law and human rights and blindly support Israel. That’s why many young Jews are turning against Israel.”

J Street allowed these discussions to take place but proscribed script boundaries on debate. Gaza and Hamas were largely ignored. Goldstone was slammed. The corrupt Palestinian Authority was praised as a partner in peace. Barack Obama was the only hope to bring peace.

Unlike the leading Zionist lobby group, AIPAC, which could never acknowledge that an Israeli occupation of Palestinian land even exists - something J Street did constantly, though always in the context of impeding a long-term future for a “Jewish, democratic state” - it was hard to escape the conclusion that Ben-Ami felt both invigorated and petrified with the passion unleashed at the conference. He told me that his views are “mainstream” and Jews wanted vigorous discussion over Israel and its future.

Praise is due for this sentiment. The toxic nature of American public debate over the Middle East has impeded honest appraisal for debates. Even during the J Street conference itself, countless politicians, such as Illinois Representative Jan Schakowsky, spoke about an Israel that doesn’t exist; an Israeli in their minds always striving for peace. The Palestinians were an after-thought at best, though some politicians did acknowledge the financial penalties from the Jewish community if politicians ever dissented from the official, Zionist line.


Nobody seemed to acknowledge the problem of America siding so strongly with one side in the conflict at the expense of the other. Most Palestinians I met in the West Bank and Gaza in July were under no illusion about Washington’s priorities and it wasn’t for their well-being.

The sickness within Israel society itself was not ignored. Ami Ayalon, former politician and head of the secret service Shin Bet, told a packed audience that the urgency of finding a two-state solution was lost on many Israelis and Americans. The alternative, he feared, was an increasingly radicalised society and religious, Jewish fundamentalism. He called, like Gideon Levy in Haaretz argued a few months ago, for a referendum in Israel on whether to end the occupation once and for all or maintain its apartheid infrastructure indefinitely.

The final day of the conference saw hundreds of delegates make their way to Capitol Hill to lobby politicians on key J Street talking points. It was stressed in the briefing notes that reaching a two-state solution “is both a fundamental American interest and essential to the survival and security of Israel as a democracy and home for the Jewish people.” The fact that half a million Jewish settlers now live on occupied Palestinian land surely makes such a prospect impossible.

The need for Jewish introspection over Israeli criminality is both essential and morally proper but angst-ridden deliberation won’t solve the Middle East crisis. Clear-headed acceptance of historical wrongs and Zionist culpability is the only way to tackle the impasse. J Street undoubtedly represents a fresh challenge to the stranglehold of doctrinaire Zionism. There is room in American life for diverse views on Israel, Judaism, Zionism and Palestine but talk is no longer enough.

J Street is a Zionist organisation and proudly so. That is its right. But let’s be clear about the desperate need to consider alternative thinking to the failed 1990s Oslo myths that talked about peace and reconciliation but merely accelerated the colonial project.

The situation has only worsened since.

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About the Author

Antony Loewenstein is a freelance journalist, author and blogger. He has written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Haaretz, The Guardian, Washington Post, Znet, Counterpunch and many other publications. He contributed a major chapter in the 2004 best seller, Not Happy, John!. He is author of the best-selling book My Israel Question, released in August 2006 by Melbourne University Publishing and re-published in 2009 in an updated edition. The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. His 2008 book is The Blogging Revolution on the internet in repressive regimes. His website is at and he can be contacted at

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