The 'previously silent' majority
The majority of American Jews are finally waking up to the impact of letting a vocal right-wing minority speak for us in national politics.
Three months ago, when J Street was launched, The New Republic posed a simple question: "Who does the new Israel lobby represent?" J Street, for those who haven't heard, is a new political voice for pro-Israel Americans in favor of active U.S. leadership to achieve a two-state solution, and assertive diplomacy to end conflicts in the Middle East peacefully.
For a long time, it's been a cardinal rule of U.S. politics that American Jews are represented in Washington by a cadre of large political donors whose positions skew fairly far to the right of the American Jewish community as a whole. They have successfully convinced elected officials and candidates for office that they actually speak for the entire community.
In the wake of Barack Obama's visit to Israel this week, as part of a broader visit to the Middle East, it's time to take a look at how that dynamic is changing and what emerging new political voices from the American Jewish community may mean for U.S. policy toward Israel and the Middle East.
As The New Republic itself acknowledged, American Jews are, by and large, politically liberal. They opposed going to war in Iraq five years ago and are against preemptive military action against Iran today. They don't line up well with the bigoted, backward views that prevail among some of the supposedly strongest pro-Israel voices in politics, like Pastor John Hagee, whose Christians United for Israel (CUFI) held its national convention this week.
Hagee, by way of background, blames Hurricane Katrina on the gay community of New Orleans, opposes any territorial concessions by Israel for peace, and actively seeks to bring about the end of the world to hasten Armageddon and his vision of redemption. Though established national and local Jewish organizations have given Hagee a platform - and Senator Joe Lieberman was scheduled to be a keynote speaker at his convention - these are views far beyond the pale for the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community.
In Washington, the generally moderate voice of the Jewish mainstream has been overshadowed by community leaders who rattle sabers at Iran but provide little vocal support for Israeli diplomacy.
The revolution afoot in 21st-century American politics enables the silent majority of American Jews to do what hasn't been done before - namely to mobilize a broad and less organized base of moderates in a politically meaningful way. Today, for the first time, technology enables a large number of small political donors to challenge - and topple - the status quo. That is an essential lesson from Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination, with its roots in the success of movements like MoveOn.org and the presidential campaign of Howard Dean (for whom I worked as national policy director).
It is this broader revolutionary wave that J Street is looking to ride, as it begins to flex the political muscle of the "previously silent" majority. With over 50,000 people on its e-mail list already, in just the past week it has garnered well over 30,000 signatures on an open letter to Congress regarding Iran - saying no to war and yes to active, aggressive diplomacy. As pressure builds from many other sources, Congress has shown signs of reconsidering its ill-advised haste to pass a resolution likely to add to rather than defuse tensions with Iran.
In the 2008 elections, JStreetPAC, the first pro-Israel, pro-peace political action committee (PAC) will endorse 30-40 Congressional candidates and raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to promote their candidacies.
The majority of American Jews are finally waking up to the impact of letting a vocal right-wing minority speak for us in national politics. We have had enough of alliances between our community's leaders and the neoconservatives, which helped bring us the most disastrous foreign policy this nation has ever endured - undermining not only American interests around the world but the long-term security interests of Israel and the stability of the Middle East. Polling released last week by J Street (and available at www.jstreet.org/poll) shows that majorities of American Jews favor strong American leadership in promoting diplomatic solutions in the Middle East and are supportive of the compromises needed to achieve peace and security in the region.
More importantly, perhaps, American Jews are becoming increasingly concerned that controversial figures like John Hagee are defining what it means to be pro-Israel in America from the platforms they are offered at conventions of major national Jewish organizations and local community events. In J Street's poll, American Jews oppose alliances with Hagee and CUFI by a 4-to-1 margin.
Whom does J Street represent? Simply put, the majority of Americans who believe in a secure, democratic and Jewish Israel, who value the special relationship between Israel and the U.S., but who will be silent no more when faced with leaders and policies that disserve America, Israel and the American Jewish community.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is the executive director of J Street.
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