J-Streetophobia, and the U.S. Jewish Right's Hatred for American Jews

A new film was meant to be an expose of J Street. Instead, it sheds light on a message that marquee names on the U.S. Jewish right have for the vast majority of their fellow American Jews: You're stupid. We hate you.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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J Street supporters holding a rally in Boston for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
J Street supporters holding a rally in Boston for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.Credit: Bob Nesson
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

One measure of the success of J Street has long been the breadth of energy, creativity, persistence and financial and human resources expended by the American Jewish right in an effort to kill it.

The latest go at this is a documentary called "The J Street Challenge: The Seductive Allure of Peace in our Time." It is a film remarkable in many ways, not least because of the light that it shines, as its promotional material states, on "a significant issue facing the American Jewish community."

Startlingly, as the film unfolds, you come to realize that the significant issue, the specific Pandora's box that is being pried open before your eyes, turns out not to be J Street at all.

Around halfway in, what was meant to be a fair but pointed indictment of J Street becomes instead a remarkable expose of the odd-man-out bitterness and the burning, bully pulpit venom of marquee personalities in the American Jewish right.

They have a message for that vast majority of American Jews whose thinking is – for lack of a better word - liberal, that is, people who vote Democratic, who want to see a two-state solution as soon as possible and who see no contradiction between caring for, and criticism of, Israel:

You're stupid. We hate you.

For sheer bile, none of the guest commentators comes close to Ruth Wisse, who is Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard.

Her voice bobbing and weaving in sarcasm, Wisse ridicules young J Street adherents and other Jews to her left – those who profess both love of Israel and a strong commitment to peace - with a singsong combination of verbal upper cuts and body blows:

"Because they are so sensitive, and because they are so good hearted, (they think to themselves): 'All I have to do is to go out there and apply this good-heartedness in the world, and it will be improved. And wicked Israel is not as good-hearted as I am.'

"The stupidity of this kind of innocence in a world which is so complicated, when you belong to a people with such a tortured history, of trying to arrive at the good, in the midst of being persecuted and prosecuted, falsely, over so many centuries – I mean, it’s almost intolerable."

At this point, it may be fair to ask, is this film intended to persuade anyone who does not already wholly subscribe to its views? Especially because, however inadvertently, the extensive screen time devoted to footage of J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami and other well-spoken leaders and activists of J Street, winds up being remarkably, almost shockingly, positive.

Yes, there are misdirections and misrepresentations here, but on the whole, J Street comes off as a group to which young people can actually relate. Its opponents, cranky, creaky, are unable to offer much more than "American Jews, abandon any hopes you may have for Israel."

In stark contrast to their claims that American Jewish doves are irrelevant dilettantes whose views have no grounding in Israeli reality, perhaps the most powerful moment in the film is a J Street clip of an interview with Robi Damelin,

an Israeli woman and peace activist whose son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper in 2002, while David was doing IDF reserve duty at a roadblock in the West Bank.

"To support Israel today is to support Israel getting out of the occupied territories, because we can't go on like this," Damelin says.

"How many more children need to die?"

Through it all, the attacks on the motives and intelligence, and even the Jewishness of American Judaism's liberal majority, only grow in intensity. There is particular animus reserved for those who believe that dovish positions are in line with Jewish values.

At one point, speaking at a Boston synagogue, Ben-Ami declares, "We do believe that it is our role to repair the world, to seek peace and pursue it, and to be a light unto the nations."

A chorus of interviewees attacks the notion. Noah Pollak, executive director of the neo-conservative Emergency Committee for Israel says: "It's part of the sort of Tikkun Olam world view. What it is, is it's a confusion of politics and religion. It’s this idea that Judaism is liberalism, and liberalism is Judaism."

Responding to J Street honoree Peter Beinart's reference to "Jewish values as envisioned by the Hebrew prophets," Pollak expands: "Unfortunately, the Torah does not actually have much in it that would guide one on the response to the Iranian nuclear program or the way to conduct the peace process.

"So when they talk about Jewish values, what they really mean is liberal values.

"This is sort of one of the last refuges of people who, maybe, don't have a lot of confidence in their ideas," he concludes. "It's easier to say 'Well, my heart's in the right place. These are my Jewish values.'"

Next up is Ruth Wisse: "It's just some idea that they have, of perfecting the world. Oh, making the world a sweeter place. And they know how to do it, presumably."

Then there is Boston University Professor Richard Landes: "One of the dimensions of the problem is what a number of people have called moral narcissism. It's an overwhelming concern about personally being a moral person, and really not caring about the consequences, outside of one's own solipsistic concerns.

"The world is a messy place, but for moral narcissists, the key thing is, 'I want to feel good about myself.'"

Landes' coup de grace?

"I think the people in J Street feel good about themselves, and I think they draw people who want to feel good about themselves."

Batting cleanup is Charles Jacobs, whose Americans for Peace and Tolerance organization sponsored the film. "So, Jewish idealists, especially the young ones, are looking for social status and moral purity, and Israel taints them. When they think Israel is behaving badly, they feel some collective guilt. And they need to get out from under the burden of that guilt.

"Even though they say they're for social justice, that's not it, because it doesn't matter to them that tens of thousands of Arabs have killed Arabs in gruesome ways. It doesn't matter to them that Muslims hang homosexuals in the city square. It doesn't matter to them even that Arabs have black slaves in Sudan.

"This is all beside the point. Because the point, for them, is not social justice. It's expiation."

There's more. Much more. Like Ruth Wisse, again, on those who sympathize with J Street and its views: "They align themselves on the Arab side, in the lopsided Arab war against the Jews. Do they have a right to align themselves on the Arab side? Every right in the world. What they do not have a right to do, is to pretend that they are on the Jewish side."

But you get the idea.

Leaving the screening, I was grateful to have seen the film, if only to learn a little more about the American Jewish right. But I was still left to wonder if the donors who funded the film got their money's worth. Why would you want to insult the very people you need to convince? After all, I thought:

I've never met anyone who likes to be called stupid.

I don't know a soul who appreciates being called harmfully naïve.

I've yet to encounter the person who is grateful for being informed that, when it comes to what they openly and sincerely love – they are the enemy.

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