When Israel launched Operation Cast Lead, the organized American Jewish community was unanimous in its support. Except J Street.
The self-styled "pro-Israel, pro-peace" organization immediately released a statement that was a parody of moral equivalence. "While there is nothing 'right' in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers," the group declared, "there is nothing 'right' in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them." Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's director, deemed the mission - supported by 81 percent of Israelis, according to a poll conducted by Channel 10 - as "counterproductive," and repeated the hoary slogan that Israel's actions would "deepen the cycle of violence."
This was too much even for Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and one of the most prominent American liberal Jewish leaders, who condemned J Street's posturing as "morally deficient," "appallingly naive" and "out of touch" with mainstream Jewish opinion. A self-described "dove," Yoffie, writing in the Forward newspaper, acknowledged that he initially "welcomed the founding of J Street," but that its reaction to Cast Lead went too far. "Doves take note," he warned. "To be a dove of influence, you must be a realist, firm in your principles but shorn of all illusions."
As its tepid response to Cast Lead implies, however, J Street is neither realist nor firm in Zionist principles (indeed, one of its most prominent Israeli supporters, as listed on its own Web site, is Avraham Burg). Worse, the group's policy prescriptions are saturated with illusions about the nature of the Arab-Israeli conflict. On J Street, Hamas can be a partner for peace - if only Israel would stop fighting. Nothing has distinguished its brief role thus far in American politics other than frequent criticism of Israel and opposition to measures meant to safeguard its security. Last year, for instance, J Street campaigned against a congressional resolution calling for tougher inspections of air and sea cargo into Iran, falsely claiming that the measure called for a "naval blockade" of the Islamic Republic.
What makes J Street's pretensions to being "pro-Israel" so dubious is that it advocates policies overwhelmingly rejected by Israelis. For instance, direct negotiations with Hamas, which is opposed not just by the governments of Israel, the United States, and the rest of the Quartet, but also by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Such negotiations would undermine the legitimate representatives of the Palestinian people, embolden a genocidal terrorist organization, further erode the credibility of the peace process, and ultimately cause more harm to the Palestinians themselves, who have suffered terribly under Hamas rule.
The American Jewish Committee's latest annual survey of American Jewish opinion found that 68 percent of American Jews believe that Israel "cannot achieve peace with a Hamas-led Palestinian government." So how can J Street claim to represent "the broad, sensible mainstream of pro-Israel American Jews," as Ben-Ami repeatedly asserts, when that very constituency opposes its signature policy? And how can J Street claim to be "pro-Israel" when its capitulating stance on the first major Israeli military offensive since the Second Lebanon War is contradicted by over 80 percent of Israelis? J Street is more extreme than even the Arab League, which tacitly supports Israel's assault on the Iranian proxy.
The area where J Street could be most damaging is in lobbying the United States to apply more pressure on Israel. "J Street believes the only option at this point for Israel and the U.S. is to work urgently and immediately to achieve a cease-fire now that stops the violence, ends the rockets and eases the blockade of Gaza, rather than allowing a ground campaign to proceed," Ben-Ami advised, writing in the early days of the campaign. It requires a mind either stunningly ignorant of the recent history of the situation or actively hostile to Israel (or both) to think that the United States can simply wave a wand that magically "ends the rockets" coming from Gaza. Hamas has rejected such overtures repeatedly. What could Israel and the United States do, that they haven't already tried, to bring about such a resolution?
There is a qualitative difference between those who question the strategic wisdom of Cast Lead and those who question its underlying legitimacy. The former voice skepticism about whether the operation will benefit Israel's long-term interests, but ultimately prioritize the security and sovereignty of Israel in their calculation. The latter, by equating terror attacks with self-defense, delegitimize the morality of Israeli self-defense itself. For if Cast Lead - a mission to neutralize the threat from a terrorist organization responsible for the firing of some 7,000 rockets into Israel and constitutionally obligated to the murder of Jews and the destruction of their state - is unjustified, then the very principle of self-defense is unjustified. Those who counsel otherwise do not support Israel's "security." They support its surrender.
James Kirchick is an assistant editor of The New Republic.
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