A documentary simply titled The J Street Challenge has been stirring up much debate and controversy in recent weeks. I wrote about it here when it was first released, but since then the debate surrounding it has only grown louder. Most recently a dispute arose as supporters of the left-wing lobby group J Street protested the showing of the documentary at Greater Philadelphia Hillel as part of an event discussing what it means to be pro-Israel. With J Street bidding to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, it seems this is not a debate J Streeters want to be the focus of right now. But for years J Street and those who share its views have been calling for just such a debate. This documentary, featuring such figures as Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz and Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, is the most concerted effort yet by mainstream Zionism to answer J Street’s claims with clear counterarguments.
This is what “Liberal Zionists” on the Jewish left have been demanding, they must be so pleased that someone finally took them seriously enough to reply, right? Wrong. As ever, rather than take on any of these accusations directly, they have simply gone for that tried and tested method of shutting down debate by demonizing anyone who criticizes their views. The most recent, and indeed most astonishing example of this comes from Bradley Burston writing in Haaretz. In his piece J-Streetophobia, and the U.S. Jewish right’s hatred for American Jews Burston argues that this documentary is a window into the minds of what he calls “the Jewish right,” exposing how this seething faction is driven by its resentment of the rest of the Jewish community. In fact most of the voices in this film seem broadly in line with the pro-Israel consensus.
What is perhaps most striking about this line of argument is the one-directional set of standards that it operates on. When Jewish liberals in America criticize, condemn, and yes at times demonize Israelis, they tell us they do it out of love. Yet when those with a more “hawkish” perspective have the temerity to try and pick holes in liberal arguments, well then it must obviously be motivated by hate. It’s not a particularly sophisticated worldview: liberals are innately nice and conservatives are by their very definition nasty.
Of course Burston is arguing nothing new here; the view he promotes is simply that of Peter Beinart, the movement’s would-be theorist in chief. In his manifesto for liberal Zionism The Crisis of Zionism, Beinart even claims that, contrary to popular belief, it is actually Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who has the problem with President Obama. This, explains Beinart, is because Obama, as a liberal and thus a “Jewish President,” reminds Netanyahu of what he most dislikes about Jews. Presumably all of this is supposed to be profound, yet reading these lines many will have felt as if they were entering some kind of Alice-through-the-looking-glass inversion of reality.
The liberal Zionist argument regularly portrays the Likud-led Israeli right as little more than a fascist gang hell-bent on transforming Israel into a banana republic. The settlers are portrayed as still more frightful, ultra-religious crazies whose shadowy influence pulls unseen strings in the corridors of the Israeli government so as to keep the rest of Israel hostage in an imperialist conflict. Those speaking in The J Street Challenge on the other hand at no point try to frame Jewish liberals as even remotely ill willed. They simply seek to show how a well-meaning worldview has become quite precariously misguided and how the leadership of this movement has demonstrated a tendency toward dishonesty at times. Yet, Burston describes the film as “odd-man-out bitterness and the burning, bully pulpit venom of marquee personalities in the American Jewish right.” That description itself might sound pretty venomous to most observers.
Of course, there is no such thing as J-Streetophobia, although there is plenty of critique of those J Street activities that run directly counter to the mainstream view. Yet one cannot help but reflect on the familiar pattern of how liberals have also been known to try and deflect comment on extremist Islam by labeling it Islamophobia. If in doubt, shut down the debate with cries of bigotry. Since liberal Zionists keep calling for an open discussion within the American Jewish community about Israeli policies, why don’t they stop demonizing and start debating? Could it be that they suspect that in fair fight they wouldn’t win?