October 31, 2010

J Street: A Teachable Moment (originally posted Dec. 29, 2009)

(with Micah D. Halpern)

The rise of J Street has generated a good deal of anxious commentary and criticism in the Jewish community. Instead of seeing J Street as a threat to the American Jewish way of life or to the State of Israel, however, this can become a teachable moment.

Fears that J Street is our new President’s “go to” organization in the community are misleading and counter-productive. Administrations have always played favorites within the Jewish community, based on personal relationships, political support, organizational agendas…and financial contributions. The Obama team is no different. Despite appearances, there is no special loyalty to J Street, or to any other organization.

Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren recently charged that J Street “not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments. It’s significantly out of the mainstream.” The major American Jewish organizations remained silent on this apparent breach of diplomatic protocol, but at least one rushed to condemn a U.S. official who later referred to Oren’s remarks as “unfortunate”. The State Department has now issued a corrective statement praising Ambassador Oren. And yet, every battle the Jewish establishment wins seems to further diminish its influence and prestige.

By raising alarms about J Street, the community establishment has fed a misperception that J Street is the problem. J Street is not the problem. Neither is the Administration. J Street, a new lobbying group which describes itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” is just filling a vacuum left by limitations in the establishment’s bandwidth.

The established organizations have ensured that a mainstream consensus is represented to the U.S. Government based on several assumptions:

– Republican and Democratic administrations have their friends and there is nothing new under the sun.

– Regardless of who gets invited to the Roosevelt Room, at least someone at that table will reflect the community consensus on issues of national and international concern, including Israel. These concerns should not warp or waver just to favor or challenge the sitting President, but often the community does step up to help a President achieve his agenda – and not for partisan purposes.

– No organization has an automatic seat at the President’s table. Relevance needs to be earned, and American Jewry is involved enough in most issues that Jewish organizations and leaders regularly engage in White House statecraft.

– The United States of America has a bilateral relationship with the State of Israel which is defined primarily by contacts between officials of both governments, not community organizations. Nevertheless, American Jews can serve U.S. as well as Israeli interests by intervening at both ends as unofficial facilitators rather than as spoilers.

– Administrations always seek their own counsel on the Middle East, and having those interests around the table with other Jewish organizations can be helpful and adds to transparency.

– The primary goal of a White House meeting is to inform U.S. policies, not to keep score on who is “in” and who is “out”, despite the inevitable contrived intrigue.

– The President of the United States is just that. He is the decider, and he honors the Jewish community by seeking our input, not as lobbyists or complainers but as concerned, patriotic citizens.

J Street offers a credible platform for many of those with different views. Sometimes those views are strikingly different – but it is most unlikely that J Street and their ideas will displace the American Jewish organizational establishment in the immediate future.

Rather than worrying about how much influence they have in American politics and among American Jews, Jewish leaders should be concerned about how little impact they have in areas that Washington now considers relevant. Achieving a lasting Middle East peace in real time is one of those priorities, as is stopping a nuclear Iran, restoring America’s global legitimacy and credibility, economic recovery, health care reform, and climate change.

There are Executive and Congressional initiatives on each of these issues, and the Jewish establishment is letting others lead on what can and should be Jewish concerns – because the future of Israel and of the planet matters to the Jewish community.

As the Presidency and Congress pass from Democratic to Republican control and back again, it is typical for certain Jewish groups to be “in” and others to be “out”. The Obama administration is, admittedly, challenging some of the rules of Washington culture. But over time, the Jewish establishment has itself eroded the post-War non-partisan ethos – that the Jewish community includes Democrats and Republicans, but stands for the collective interests of Americans and Jews.

J Street is not a product of Barack Obama’s election as President, though it may be a by-product of American Jews taking certain things for granted. Most importantly, it should remind the Jewish establishment that if it does not bring innovative ideas that respond to U.S. needs and a broader constituency, others are happy to fill those seats with ideas of their own.

Micah Halpern, a Middle East expert and terror analyst, is the author of “Thugs” (Thomas Nelson, 2007). Shai Franklin is senior fellow for United Nations affairs at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.

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