On March 24, the lobby group J Street began its “Making History" conference in Washington D.C. The conference attracted about 2,500 people - far less than the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, which attracted 13,000. AIPAC, which advocates for U.S. support of Israel, with little concern for the Israeli government’s policies, is the primary lobbying group for American supporters of Israel. While both J Street and AIPAC claim to embody sincere Zionist beliefs, J Street’s approach to Israeli politics hurts Israeli democracy because it tries to take control of it.
J Street’s opposition to the conservative nature of Jewish lobbying groups and right-wing Israeli policies has led to a backlash by some Israeli government officials. Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, for example, was quoted urging Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to boycott the Making History conference, and Barukh Binah, Deputy Ambassador to the United States, speaking to J Street, reproached the group from the podium.
The problem is that J Street attempts to influence Israeli policy, unlike AIPAC, which aims to influence American policy. This is more than a subtle difference. Rather than lobbying for Israel, J Street lobbies for American pressure on Israel to change its policies toward the Palestinians and the Arab world.J Street intends to be the liberal, Jewish American voice in discussions of Israel’s conflict with its neighbors. It claims that Israel must change the way it sees the conflict with the Palestinians in order to achieve the Zionist goal of a permanent, legitimate Jewish state. But if the purpose of J Street is to lobby for change from within Israel, then there is a major flaw in the organization’s mission.
That is not to say that changes in policy are not needed here. But J Street states that it provides a “political voice to mainstream American Jews” regarding Israel. In other words, the organization is not a social movement, but a political movement. There is nothing wrong with having a liberal Jewish-American voice. But by dressing up as a Jewish lobbying group in order to change Israeli policy from the United States, J Street is destabilizing Israeli democracy. That democracy, J Street claims, is the very characteristic they have been trying to reinforce.
J Street believes that American pressure is needed in order to sustain Israel’s Jewish, democratic nature. Their goal is to strengthen Israel as a “vibrant democracy” by advocating an end to the occupation, but they avoid the fact that Israel is a democratic state, which means its citizens have the responsibility to decide how the state should act. We, Israeli citizens, do so via fair elections. And being Jewish does not earn someone a vote in those elections.
The Deputy Ambassador to the United States was being shortsighted when he told conference-goers that more than anything Israel needs American Jews to “stand by us;” blind support by groups like AIPAC is unhealthy in its own right. But Binah was correct when he said, “Israelis must bear the ultimate burden.” That burden is the conflict with the Palestinians, a taxing military occupation and endless security threats. But it is also to ensure the Jewish state’s existence and legitimacy independently. It is up to Israel to enact the policies that protect its own future, not up to the Americans to force it into their desired future.
This is symbolic of the greater problem with Zionism today: it seems that many Diaspora Jews find it good enough to send money, or to assert their right, as a Jew, to an absentee vote. If we are talking about having a voice in society, then that is enough. But it is not enough to earn the right of enacting political change. Democracy demands more than sending money and having an opinion. This state was built for the Jews of the world, but that does not mean that the world’s Jews automatically get a say in the state’s decisions. The members of J Street have the opportunity to make aliyah and affect real change to Israel’s policies as citizens - if that is what they really want.
J Street will have a negative affect on the democratic nature of Israel in the long run, but not because of the political policies they advocate. The danger of J Street is in its foreignness. These types of political movements need to be born domestically, within Israeli society; not imposed on us from American political action committees. Israelis must be able to create the solutions to the conflict, and when we do, we will have earned our legitimacy as an independent, Jewish, democratic state. We will have made our own future. But J Street weakens Israeli democracy when it tries to dictate policy from abroad, and the Zionist goal suffers as a result.
Nathan Hersh served in a combat unit of the Israel Defense Forces until 2011. He currently studies at the International Program in Conflict Resolution and Mediation at Tel Aviv University and is a contributor to FriendaSoldier.com.