For Jewish liberals who have embraced J Street’s mantra of "pro-Israel, pro-peace" activism, the point of their efforts has always been opposition to the right. Whether it was backing the Obama administration on the Iran deal, efforts to exert pressure on the Netanyahu government to make concessions to the Palestinians, or joining in the "resistance" to President Donald Trump, liberal Zionists have focused on their foes on the right.
In practice, that often meant making alliances with those on the left who shared their antipathy for Netanyahu and Trump, but not necessarily their vision of an Israel freed from the burdens of the conflict with the Palestinians.
But the growth of Jewish Voice for Peace and their new campaign that seeks to convince young Jews not to take part in Birthright Israel trips ought to be a wake up call that reminds liberals that the threat to their position comes just as much, if not more, from the left, as it ever did from the right.
In many communities and on college campuses, J Street and Peace Now supporters have treated the more extreme JVP as fellow liberals who shared common goals. Though many disagreed with the latter’s backing for an indiscriminate BDS campaign against Israel - as opposed to boycotts of West Bank settlements - they preferred to think JVP was just a variation on the same theme of opposition to occupation.
But the anti-Birthright campaign should change that.
The #ReturnTheBirthright manifesto isn’t about a two-state solution or settlements. It says Jews should refuse to travel to Israel as long as the descendants of the 1948 Palestinian refugees cannot go home.
That is an explicit endorsement of the "right of return" that is predicated on the notion of erasing the Jewish state. For JVP’s supporters, "Israel is not our Birthright," nor the Jewish "homeland", nor, it suggests, a legitimate state at all: "The modern state of Israel is predicated on the ongoing erasure of Palestinians." Not quite the liberal mantra of "two states for two peoples".
That puts JVP in opposition not only to left-wing Zionists but also to any moderate Palestinians. Even Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has at times renounced the "right of return" because he knows it is incompatible with ending the conflict.
Endorsing the "right of return" places JVP in the same tent as Hamas, Iran and other rejectionists who still dream of wiping Israel off the map.
This isn’t the first extreme position taken by JVP. Earlier this year, their "Deadly Exchange" program vilified Jewish groups that encouraged exchange programs between U.S. police departments and Israel. They blamed police brutality against African Americans on pro-Israel Jews in what can only be described as a blood libel.
While it isn’t surprising that a group that engages in anti-Semitic slurs of that sort would embrace the right of return, this should end any confusion between them and those who identify with Israelis who vote for centrist or left-wing Zionist parties.
Yet the most troubling aspect of this development is that the growing volume of noise from JVP, which would seem to be the result of their ability to draw from the pool of Jewish liberals otherwise attracted to groups like J Street, demonstrates the ability of extremists to marginalize more moderate forces.
In an atmosphere in which Israel and its government are routinely demonized on the basis of unfair or exaggerated charges, a nuanced position that sees the Jewish state as flawed, but still possessing the right to exist, can be a harder sell than one that sees it as bereft of any justification.
Throughout the last century, extremists on both the left and the right have prevailed with similar appeals. Offering simple choices to complex questions is always ‘good’ politics, but especially for those democratic and authoritarian movements most determined to avoid compromise.
The same is true of recent American political history, as the demise of liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats attests.
Liberal Zionists may prefer to blame the rise of JVP on Netanyahu and Trump but their bigger problem now is resisting the impulse to see no enemies on the left. As we saw in the debate about anti-Zionist activist Linda Sarsour, most liberals are not eager to come to blows with anyone who is also identified with the anti-Trump "resistance," lest they find themselves on the wrong side of the argument about intersectionality.
Yet it is precisely pro-Israel liberals - rather than right-wingers, who tend to see all critics as anti-Israel, and thus fail to to make distinctions between liberal Zionists like J Street and JVP - who should be alarmed by the latter’s extremism.
If the debate on the left is no longer about where Israel’s borders should be but about its legitimacy within any borders, than it is time for liberals to understand that complacence about such left-wing allies is no longer sustainable.
Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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