Sen. Bernie Sanders is right about one thing. The former and perhaps future candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination is correct when he told the J Street conference this past weekend that opposing the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “does not make us anti-Israel.”
That’s true. Many Israelis don’t like Netanyahu, and many oppose his policies. Americans can support the Jewish state—and its right to exist and to defend itself—while still thinking that its government is wrong on key issues. To the extent that the group lives up to its slogan of being “pro-Israel” as well as “pro-peace,” it is entitled to a place in the proverbial Jewish tent.
But to acquit it, at least in principle, of the charge of being “anti-Israel” is not the same thing as saying that the group is innocent of taking stands on the Middle East that are profoundly disingenuous, if not completely dishonest. Moreover, to the extent that members provide cover for a Palestinian Authority that continues to be the main obstacle to peace and to try to obfuscate the truth about the conflict with the Islamist terrorists of Hamas, they neither help Israel nor further the cause of peace.
All of which goes to explain why, despite the array of Democratic Party officeholders and Obama administration alumni at their conference, J Street is utterly irrelevant to efforts to solve the conflict with the Palestinians.
J Street’s purpose for most of the last decade was to serve as a Jewish cheering section for the Obama administration’s policies of creating more daylight between the United States and Israel, as well as to support the Iran nuclear deal. The unpopularity of those stands among most pro-Israel activists, including liberals who backed President Barack Obama, explains why J Street has fallen far short of its goal of eclipsing the mainstream AIPAC lobby.
Since January 2017, J Street has defended Obama’s legacy and reflexively opposes the policies of President Donald Trump’s administration even when they’re supported by most Jews, such as his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and demands that the P.A. stop subsidizing terrorism. Such stands are wrongheaded and mindlessly partisan, but as long as it’s still willing to oppose the BDS movement that targets economic warfare against Israel, then it places the organization in the Zionist camp.
Moreover, the focus on J Street misses what has become the real change to the pro-Israel cause among American Jews. The rise of Jewish Voices for Peace, an openly anti-Zionist organization dedicated to opposing Israel’s existence as a Jewish state, has diminished J Street’s importance. JVP’s support for the Palestinian “right of return,” which is synonymous with Israel’s destruction and other anti-Semitic stands, makes it a more natural partner for pro-Palestinian and leftist groups active on American college campuses. With leftist opposition to Israel being driven by intersectionalism—the belief that the war against Zionism is the same as the struggle against racism—J Street has lost ground to its more radical left-wing competitor. Indeed, to the extent that J Street serves as a liberal opponent of BDS, it could actually serve a useful purpose.
But the problem is that the organization is so committed to the struggle against Israel’s government that it often makes common cause with some of the Jewish state’s enemies on campus, and as such spends more time attacking Israeli measures of self-defense against terror than in fighting BDS and anti-Zionism. The same is true of its official pronouncements at its conference when it provided a platform for the P.A.
At the J Street conference, a P.A. representative claimed that a Palestinian state would “celebrate the Jewish connection to Jerusalem.” The crowd at the conference applauded this statement, as well as his claim that the P.A. wants a two-state solution, even though it has repeatedly rejected offers of statehood and won’t recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.
Only a few days earlier, P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas told WAFA, its official news agency, that it would not “surrender . . . any part of Jerusalem.” As always, the P.A. says one thing to its own people and another to its foolish apologists in the West. J Street also opposes the Taylor Force Act, which conditions American aid to the P.A. on ending its practice of paying salaries and pensions to terrorists and their families, and ignores the P.A.’s daily incitement of hatred against Israel and Jews in its official media and schools.
Many at the conference, including Sanders, denounced the “blockade” of Gaza, in addition to the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces in fending off attacks on the border by continued Hamas-organized “Marches of Return.” To oppose the blockade is to support the free flow of arms and munitions to a terrorist state. And to treat a march, whose purpose is Israel’s destruction and whose participants consider hurling firebombs to be a form of nonviolence, as anything but an attack is not consistent with being “pro-Israel” or “pro-peace.”
Unlike J Street’s supporters, the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand the truth about the P.A.’s repeated rejection of peace. They know that neither Abbas nor his Hamas rivals want a two-state solution. Until that changes, most Israelis regard any talk of territorial withdrawal as madness. Israelis who share J Street’s views, like the left-wing Meretz Party, remain marginalized.
What’s wrong about J Street is how far it strays from the job of supporting Zionism from a liberal perspective, rather than just hating Trump and Netanyahu, and how out of touch it is with Israeli public opinion. Despite the obsessive attention it gets from some on the left and right, the most important thing to know about J Street is not what it believes, but how irrelevant it is to the reality of the Middle East.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — the Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.