Establishment’s Rebuff Highlights J Street’s Success in Changing Jewish America

The liberal lobby group will have to adapt to the collapse of the peace process - but it has already sparked a more open and honest American debate about Israel.

Bob Nesson

J Street, the dovish American Jewish lobby, was created with two aims. First, to help Israel achieve a just peace with the Palestinians. Second, to create a more open, honest discussion about Israel among American Jews.

The events of the last two weeks show that mission number one is going nowhere. Mission number two, by contrast, is going quite well.

For mission number one, the unraveling of John Kerry’s diplomatic effort is a disaster. From the beginning, J Street described itself as the “blocking back” in Congress for a President who wants to promote a two state deal but meets resistance from Jewish groups that oppose any U.S. pressure on Israel. When Obama was first elected, that seemed like a plausible strategy, and since then, J Street’s influence among congressional Democrats has clearly grown. But if Obama and Kerry aren’t running the ball, their blocking back can’t do much good.

Absent some crisis that forces Washington’s hand, the U.S.-led peace process is likely dead for the remainder of the Obama presidency, and perhaps forever. The Israeli-Palestinian struggle is moving out of Washington, to the campuses, church groups, labor unions, pension funds and international courts through which Palestinians will seek to Boycott, Divest from and Sanction the Jewish state. J Street is not built for this new fight. Since it supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and wants a foothold in the American Jewish community, J Street cannot join the BDS movement. But it cannot effectively oppose BDS without offering an alternative strategy for ending Israeli control over the West Bank. And J Street’s alternative—the American-led peace process—now looks like no alternative at all.

Given all this, you’d think J Streeters would be despondent. Yet in my experience, they’re not. That’s because J Street isn’t only—perhaps isn’t even primarily—about changing Israel. It’s also about changing Jewish America, the place J Streeters actually live. And that second mission is going far better.

Until J Street came along, liberal American Jews often felt forced to choose between progressive activism that allowed no room for their Jewish identity and a Jewish establishment that offered no room for their progressive ideals, at least not on Israel. J Street has changed that. Its supporters love it—even if it has not brought peace closer—because it has created a space that does not require them to check one half of themselves at the door.

What the American Jewish establishment should appreciate about J Street—but generally does not—is that it is doing kiruv. It brings alienated American Jews back into the communal fold. Without J Street U, for instance, the group’s student arm, lots of left-leaning Jewish kids would never enter their campus Hillel.

On the surface, last week’s decision by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to reject J Street’s application for membership might seem a blow to the group’s effort to open American Jewish discourse about Israel. But it’s actually a victory. First, because when establishment Jewish organizations exclude dissenting views on Israel, they simply remind liberal Jews why they created J Street in the first place.

Second, because by excluding J Street, the Presidents’ Conference discredits itself. With its vote, the Presidents Conference was trying to send the message that it represents a broad American Jewish consensus while J Street represents a left-wing fringe. Instead, the vote exposed how phony that supposed consensus is. The Union for Reform Judaism, whose leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, has become an important J Street ally, responded to the vote by threatening to bolt the Conference. “We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry,” he declared.

Today, far more than five years ago, the press describes the American Jewish community as divided not between mainstream and fringe but between left and right. More and more observers recognize that there are really two Jewish Americas. One is older, richer, more Republican, more Orthodox and more interested in shielding Israel from external pressure than pursuing a two-state solution. The other is younger, more secular, less tribal, overwhelmingly Democratic, less institutionally affiliated and deeply troubled by Israel’s direction. In environments like the Reform movement, the latter is clearly ascendant. J Street is its spine.

How will J Street respond to the irony that it is succeeding in the U.S. at the very moment the U.S. is admitting failure in Israel? In the short term, it may be forced to embrace forms of nonviolent, two-state oriented pressure that it previously rejected as too controversial. Over the longer term, J Street might become the core of a new progressive Jewish movement—especially among the young—that goes beyond Israel to take on domestic issues like immigration, climate change and economic inequality.

At home, J Street is winning. The discussion of Israel among American Jews may be growing more nasty, but that’s largely because the establishment can no longer pretend progressive Jewish voices don’t matter. Since it can no longer ignore us, it has to fight.

Whether any of this will matter in Israel, where the left seems to have barely any fight left in it at all, is a different question altogether.