Commentary Magazine


Topic: American Jews

Breaking Up Conference Won’t Help Israel

The day after J Street failed in its bid for admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the backlash about the vote is growing. The group that represents the largest denomination of American Jewry, the Union of Reform Judaism, is demanding that the Conference change its one group, one vote policy while also openly threatening to leave the umbrella group. An official of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is also demanding changes. Meanwhile liberal commentators are blasting the Conference for its 22-17 vote to deny entry the left-wing lobby and making extravagant claims about this vote symbolizing the growing alienation of the Jewish establishment from the wishes of most of those it purports to represent.

Which means that, all things considered, it was a very good day for J Street. As I predicted yesterday before the vote was held, a defeat at the Conference was the best possible outcome for the left-wing organization that came into existence not to fit in and cooperate with existing Jewish groups and coalitions but to blow them up. The negative vote enables J Street and its various left-wing sympathizers to play the victim and boosts their agenda to first delegitimize groups like the Conference and AIPAC and then to replace them.

But while it is understandable that the Reform and Conservative movements would join the lament about J Street’s defeat in order to assuage some of their liberal constituents who support the left-wing lobby, they should be careful about advancing any agenda that could undermine umbrella groups like the Conference. While such organizations can seem at times to be irrelevant to the day-to-day business of American Jewry, they still serve a vital purpose. If the non-Orthodox denominations help J Street destroy them, they will soon learn that not only will it be difficult to replace them but also they and their constituents will not be well served by the politicized chaos that follows.

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The day after J Street failed in its bid for admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the backlash about the vote is growing. The group that represents the largest denomination of American Jewry, the Union of Reform Judaism, is demanding that the Conference change its one group, one vote policy while also openly threatening to leave the umbrella group. An official of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is also demanding changes. Meanwhile liberal commentators are blasting the Conference for its 22-17 vote to deny entry the left-wing lobby and making extravagant claims about this vote symbolizing the growing alienation of the Jewish establishment from the wishes of most of those it purports to represent.

Which means that, all things considered, it was a very good day for J Street. As I predicted yesterday before the vote was held, a defeat at the Conference was the best possible outcome for the left-wing organization that came into existence not to fit in and cooperate with existing Jewish groups and coalitions but to blow them up. The negative vote enables J Street and its various left-wing sympathizers to play the victim and boosts their agenda to first delegitimize groups like the Conference and AIPAC and then to replace them.

But while it is understandable that the Reform and Conservative movements would join the lament about J Street’s defeat in order to assuage some of their liberal constituents who support the left-wing lobby, they should be careful about advancing any agenda that could undermine umbrella groups like the Conference. While such organizations can seem at times to be irrelevant to the day-to-day business of American Jewry, they still serve a vital purpose. If the non-Orthodox denominations help J Street destroy them, they will soon learn that not only will it be difficult to replace them but also they and their constituents will not be well served by the politicized chaos that follows.

Only hours after their defeat J Street was already attempting to make hay from the vote with a fundraising email sent out to their list. It read, in part:

“Thank you, Malcolm Hoenlein and the Conference of Presidents.”

Yesterday’s rejection of our bid to join the Conference validates the reason for J Street: those claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community don’t in fact represent the full diversity of pro-Israel views in our community—or even its prevailing views.

Thus despite J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami’s public expression of disappointment about the vote, the group was clearly prepared all along to exploit a rejection to further their campaign to brand both AIPAC and the Conference as out of touch. J Street came into existence hoping to do just that, but over the course of the last five years failed miserably to do so. Though J Street’s raison d’être was to serve as a Jewish cheerleader for Obama administration pressure on Israel, it has little influence on Capitol Hill and has even, to its dismay, sometimes been repudiated by a president it supports unconditionally. Thus it hopes to use this incident to gain more traction against mainstream groups.

But those, like Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, who are using this vote to bash pro-Israel groups should be asking themselves why so many members of the Conference which already includes left-wing organizations like Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu would vote against adding one more to their ranks. The reason is that many centrist groups clearly resented J Street’s unwarranted pretensions to speak for American Jewry and to undermine the broad-based AIPAC.

The Conference was created to provide a way for a diverse and cantankerous Jewish community a single structure with which it could deal with the U.S. government. The point was, though its members have often disagreed and true consensus between left and right is often impossible, the Conference still provides Congress and the executive branch an address through which they can reach a broad and diverse coalition of Jewish organizations. Adding one more on the left wouldn’t have changed that but unlike other left-leaning groups, J Street has never had any interest in playing ball with rivals or allies. Its purpose is not to enrich and broaden that consensus but to destroy it. And that was something that groups that had no real ideological fight with J Street rightly feared.

Moreover, the arguments that only groups like J Street can speak to Jewish youth are also easily debunked. Rather than seek to bolster the efforts of pro-Israel groups on American campuses, J Street’s cohorts seem more interested in making common cause with anti-Zionist and pro-BDS groups than in standing together with the courageous Jews who are resisting the boycotters.

But if the Reform and Conservative movements aid J Street in this effort what follows won’t aid their cause. If the formal structures of American Jewry split between those backed by the centrist establishment and the J Street-led left, this won’t advance the cause of Israel or the interests of American Jews. Dividing the Jews in this manner will only serve the cause of those who wish to wage war on Israel’s democratically elected government and to widen the splits between Jerusalem and Washington. That isn’t something that any group that calls itself “pro-Israel” should want. Non-Orthodox Jews who wish to bolster the position of their members in the Jewish state should also be especially wary of anything that will make it harder to make their voices heard in Jerusalem.

Whatever one may think of the Conference or of its decision to play into J Street’s hands with this rejection, the notion that including the left-wing group would strengthen Jewish unity or the community’s outreach to youth is a myth. J Street may have failed miserably in its effort to defeat AIPAC in Washington, but its campaign to trash the pro-Israel consensus and replace it with one that seeks to undermine the Jewish state is still very much alive.

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Anti-Zionists Must Not Be Allowed to Hijack the Jewish Community

This week the Jewish world is discussing two incidents in which large community institutions were forced to account for invitations to prominent writers who are virulent foes of Israel. In one case New York’s Jewish Museum was under fire for inviting academic Judith Butler. In another, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, also in New York, canceled an appearance by New Republic editor John Judis. What both these figures had in common was their bitter opposition to Israel. In Butler’s case, she is a prominent supporter of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on the State of Israel. Judis is the author of a book that questions the legitimacy of Israel’s creation in a revisionist history of President Harry Truman’s role in the creation of the Jewish state, as historian Ron Radosh pointed out in the Jerusalem Post.

Taken together, along with other incidents in the last year involving other BDS supporters being invited to Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, the decision by the two museums to let outraged members and donors derail the events is seen as a sign of a wave of repression in the American Jewish community. Sounding a theme that has become a constant refrain on the left, supporters of Israel are being accused of cracking down on dissent. But the issue here isn’t free speech or even whether Israel’s policies should be debated. It’s whether an extremist anti-Zionist minority will be able to hijack Jewish institutions.

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This week the Jewish world is discussing two incidents in which large community institutions were forced to account for invitations to prominent writers who are virulent foes of Israel. In one case New York’s Jewish Museum was under fire for inviting academic Judith Butler. In another, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, also in New York, canceled an appearance by New Republic editor John Judis. What both these figures had in common was their bitter opposition to Israel. In Butler’s case, she is a prominent supporter of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on the State of Israel. Judis is the author of a book that questions the legitimacy of Israel’s creation in a revisionist history of President Harry Truman’s role in the creation of the Jewish state, as historian Ron Radosh pointed out in the Jerusalem Post.

Taken together, along with other incidents in the last year involving other BDS supporters being invited to Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, the decision by the two museums to let outraged members and donors derail the events is seen as a sign of a wave of repression in the American Jewish community. Sounding a theme that has become a constant refrain on the left, supporters of Israel are being accused of cracking down on dissent. But the issue here isn’t free speech or even whether Israel’s policies should be debated. It’s whether an extremist anti-Zionist minority will be able to hijack Jewish institutions.

The accusation about free speech is a canard. Butler, Judis, and other BDS supporters, such as rocker Roger Waters and writer Alice Walker (who were both invited to the 92nd Street Y last year), do not lack forums to promote their anti-Israel views. Judis admitted as much in an article in the Forward about the controversy. He noted that far from being repressed, Israel’s critics were finding it easier than ever to find forums where they are heard. As is the case with Hillel branches at college campuses around the country that are declaring their willingness to host BDS backers or sponsor programs with anti-Israel groups, anti-Zionists aren’t being silenced. Moreover, the talk about suppression of dissent against Israel rarely takes into account the fact that the mainstream liberal media gives these anti-Zionists equal time on their op-ed pages as well as occasional puffy features where they are portrayed as valiant dissenters even as they are being lionized by newspapers like the New York Times.

The Times can publish what it likes, but institutions that are supported and funded by a broad consensus of the Jewish community are accountable to their donors and the Jewish public. The notion that they should give platforms to individuals who are part of a campaign to delegitimize Zionism and the State of Israel is one that strikes most of those donors as indefensible. They believe their funds should not be used to subsidize programs or promote individuals or produce plays whose purpose is to lend weight to the voices seeking Israel’s destruction.

Those who claim that BDS and anti-Zionism are just another legitimate point of view that deserves a public airing and debate are hypocrites. The BDS cause is one based in a prejudiced view that holds that the Jews are the one people on the planet that are neither entitled to their own homeland or to defend it. Such bias if applied to other groups would be seen as racist. In the case of Jews, the term for such behavior is called anti-Semitism. When combined, as it is by anti-Zionists, with conspiratorial theories about Jewish manipulation of the media or Congress (the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” canard), there is little doubt about the prejudicial nature of the effort.

Judith Butler, John Judis, Roger Waters, and Alice Walker can say whatever they want about Israel in a thousand other, often more prominent, forums than those in the Jewish community. But they are not entitled to have Jewish institutions honor or fund their anti-Israel hate. Upholding that principle isn’t repression. It’s just common sense.

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Obama, Iran, and the Jews Reconsidered

President Obama hasn’t made it easy on his Jewish supporters. Conservative critics—and if polls are right, the majority of Israelis—have always doubted his intentions toward the Jewish state and suspected him of either tilting toward the Palestinians or, as veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller memorably put it, someone who was “not in love with the idea of Israel.” But for the majority of American Jews who remain loyal Democrats and liberals, Obama was, at worst, a satisfactory ally of Israel, and, at best, the misunderstood victim of smears. At times, the president’s penchant for picking fights with the Netanyahu government over settlements, borders, and even a consensus Jewish issue like Jerusalem caused some liberal true believers like lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz to worry about his intentions. But even when the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem was at its worst during the past five years, the president’s supporters could point to the issue of paramount importance to Israel’s security and claim with some justification that he was as solid an ally as could be asked.

That issue was, of course, the Iranian nuclear threat, and from the earliest days of his first presidential campaign, Obama had made it clear that he would never allow them to gain a nuclear weapon. Though he had also mentioned his desire for a rapprochement with Iran in that first campaign, the president’s rhetoric on Iran was consistent and strong. Critics could point to failed efforts at engagement, his slowness to back tough sanctions, and his reliance on a shaky diplomatic process as undermining that rhetoric. Yet administration backers like columnist Jeffrey Goldberg continued to make the case that on this point there could be no doubting the president’s resolve.

But in the wake of this past weekend’s nuclear agreement with Iran and the evidence that the president has not only ignored Israel’s concerns about the deal (as well as those of Saudi Arabia) but appears to want a détente with Tehran that will upend America’s entire stance on the Middle East, it’s fair to say that the president has put his backers into a new and even more difficult test. Liberals may be lining up to take Obama and Secretary of State Kerry at their word that they have not given up their determination to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and even accept the claim that the deal makes Israel safer. But given the administration’s acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and its apparent belief that it is unrealistic to think that Tehran can be forced to give up its nuclear program, belief in its bona fides on this issue can no longer be considered anything more than a leap of faith. At this point, American friends of Israel as well as those who understand the grave threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests and security need to face the fact that this president has abandoned them.

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President Obama hasn’t made it easy on his Jewish supporters. Conservative critics—and if polls are right, the majority of Israelis—have always doubted his intentions toward the Jewish state and suspected him of either tilting toward the Palestinians or, as veteran diplomat Aaron David Miller memorably put it, someone who was “not in love with the idea of Israel.” But for the majority of American Jews who remain loyal Democrats and liberals, Obama was, at worst, a satisfactory ally of Israel, and, at best, the misunderstood victim of smears. At times, the president’s penchant for picking fights with the Netanyahu government over settlements, borders, and even a consensus Jewish issue like Jerusalem caused some liberal true believers like lawyer and author Alan Dershowitz to worry about his intentions. But even when the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem was at its worst during the past five years, the president’s supporters could point to the issue of paramount importance to Israel’s security and claim with some justification that he was as solid an ally as could be asked.

That issue was, of course, the Iranian nuclear threat, and from the earliest days of his first presidential campaign, Obama had made it clear that he would never allow them to gain a nuclear weapon. Though he had also mentioned his desire for a rapprochement with Iran in that first campaign, the president’s rhetoric on Iran was consistent and strong. Critics could point to failed efforts at engagement, his slowness to back tough sanctions, and his reliance on a shaky diplomatic process as undermining that rhetoric. Yet administration backers like columnist Jeffrey Goldberg continued to make the case that on this point there could be no doubting the president’s resolve.

But in the wake of this past weekend’s nuclear agreement with Iran and the evidence that the president has not only ignored Israel’s concerns about the deal (as well as those of Saudi Arabia) but appears to want a détente with Tehran that will upend America’s entire stance on the Middle East, it’s fair to say that the president has put his backers into a new and even more difficult test. Liberals may be lining up to take Obama and Secretary of State Kerry at their word that they have not given up their determination to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions and even accept the claim that the deal makes Israel safer. But given the administration’s acceptance of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium and its apparent belief that it is unrealistic to think that Tehran can be forced to give up its nuclear program, belief in its bona fides on this issue can no longer be considered anything more than a leap of faith. At this point, American friends of Israel as well as those who understand the grave threat that Iran poses to U.S. interests and security need to face the fact that this president has abandoned them.

The disappointment must be especially acute for Goldberg, who has continued to insist that Obama should be trusted on Iran, even insisting that he would, if push came to shove, order air strikes or do whatever it took to make good on his pledge. Thus, to read the latest Bloomberg column from this respected journalist is to see what happens when leaders cut their supporters off at the knees. Though the president has made Goldberg’s previous defenses of his Iran policy look silly, he is still hoping that the bottom line here won’t be complete betrayal and therefore tries weakly to rationalize or minimize what has just happened.

Goldberg’s position now is that demands for Iran to give up its nuclear program are unrealistic. That’s a new position for him, as he has never doubted that Iran’s goal was a weapon, a point that he doesn’t abandon even in his latest column when he rightly reminds us that, “Iran’s leaders are lying” about being only interested in a peaceful program. But also new is his belief that the crushing sanctions on Iran that he has been advocating for years would never bring about Iran’s capitulation. Thus he finds himself lamely accepting the administration’s excuse that a weak deal that legitimizes Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and does nothing to roll back the tremendous progress it has achieved on Obama’s watch is “the least-worst option.”

He justifies this surrender of principle by assuring himself, if not us, that Iran won’t take advantage of the opening Obama has given them. An even greater leap is his suggestion that after investing so much effort in this diplomatic campaign, the administration “might just have to walk away” from its new relationship with Iran once it realizes than Hassan Rouhani and the supposed moderates aren’t in charge in Tehran. This is absurd because, as reports about the secret diplomatic track that led to this agreement tell us, Obama’s efforts to make nice with Iran preceded Rouhani’s victory in the regime’s faux presidential election.

Equally absurd is his fainthearted attempt to reassure himself that “everything that has happened over these past months may not amount to anything at all.” Having gambled this much on appeasement of Iran, the administration isn’t backing off. No matter what tricks the Iranians pull in the next six months of talks, they know they’ve got the U.S. hooked and won’t let go. The future of the sanctions regime that neither Obama nor the Europeans ever really wanted is much more in question than Iran’s nuclear program. Only a fool would trust Iran’s word on this issue or believe that once they start to unravel, sanctions could be re-imposed.

All this puts American Jewish supporters of Israel like Goldberg in a tough position.

Liberal critics of Israel, like the J Street lobby that was set up to support Obama’s efforts to pressure the Jewish state to make concessions to the Palestinians, will instinctively back the president in any argument with Netanyahu. And it is true that most Americans are not terribly interested in involving the U.S. in yet another foreign conflict and may accept Obama and Kerry’s false argument that the alternative to a weak deal was war.

But mainstream American Jewish groups, and even most of their moderate and liberal supporters, understand what happened this past weekend was more than just another spat in a basically solid relationship. Try as they might, Obama and Kerry will be hard-pressed to persuade most supporters of Israel that they have the country’s best interests at heart as they embark on a road whose only main goal is to normalize relations with Iran.

Though American supporters of the Jewish state loved his rhetoric during his visit to Israel last spring, the president’s goal here has been to isolate America’s sole democratic ally in the Middle East. As Goldberg aptly pointed out, one of Obama’s prime objectives has been to ensure that Israel cannot act on its own or even in concert with some of its unlikely Arab allies of convenience against Iran. Indeed, that appears to be the only American objective that has actually been achieved with this agreement.

That is why Israel’s supporters cannot hesitate about backing congressional efforts to increase sanctions on Iran despite administration resistance. Jewish leaders were lied to earlier this month when senior officials tried to convince them to back off on lobbying for sanctions (an effort that met with at least partial success at first). They also lied to Netanyahu for months while Obama’s envoys were talking to Iran behind Israel’s back.

Obama has worried Jewish supporters before, but never has he so ruthlessly undermined their faith. The choice for the pro-Israel community is clear. It can, like Goldberg has done, redefine its objectives, and concede defeat on stopping Iran and/or pretend nothing has happened. Or it can find its collective voice and speak out against a terrible betrayal that gives the lie to every Obama statement about stopping Iran. If it chooses the latter, these groups will face the usual “Israel Lobby” calumnies from anti-Semites and Israel-haters who will claim they are undermining U.S. interests. But they cannot take counsel of their fears or be silenced. If they do, they will look back on this moment when it was still possible to mobilize congressional action against this betrayal with regret.

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Left Finds New Way to Demonize Settlers

One of the observations that unites the Middle East commentariat–right, left, and center–is that the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements has been counterproductive to peacemaking efforts. That doesn’t mean everyone approves of settlement building, just that there is wide agreement on one of the enduring truisms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: settlements are not the main obstacle to peace.

But according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, they are the main obstacle preventing American Jews from staying connected to Israel. Yoffie writes in Haaretz:

I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. “Israel is out,” he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.

This was a man who understands the U.S. Jewish zeitgeist, and I was initially stunned by his statement. After all, he was not referring to the assimilated minority of Jews who are distancing themselves from all things Jewish; neither was he talking about the anti-Israel Left. He was describing the mainstream, organized Jewish community, which—sadly, tragically—is drifting away from its deep connection to the State of Israel.

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One of the observations that unites the Middle East commentariat–right, left, and center–is that the Obama administration’s obsession with Israeli settlements has been counterproductive to peacemaking efforts. That doesn’t mean everyone approves of settlement building, just that there is wide agreement on one of the enduring truisms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: settlements are not the main obstacle to peace.

But according to Rabbi Eric Yoffie, they are the main obstacle preventing American Jews from staying connected to Israel. Yoffie writes in Haaretz:

I spoke a few weeks ago with someone who works with American Jewish organizations in planning programs for their meetings and conventions. “Israel is out,” he told me. The demand for speakers about Israel or from Israel has dropped dramatically over the last decade. American Jews are simply interested in other things.

This was a man who understands the U.S. Jewish zeitgeist, and I was initially stunned by his statement. After all, he was not referring to the assimilated minority of Jews who are distancing themselves from all things Jewish; neither was he talking about the anti-Israel Left. He was describing the mainstream, organized Jewish community, which—sadly, tragically—is drifting away from its deep connection to the State of Israel.

There are two important problems with what Yoffie says here, though they are not the main problem with his article. The first is that the American Jewish drift away from Israel is a widely debunked myth. Second, a fading interest in speakers from Israel is not at all representative of American Jews’ connection to Israel.

But the biggest problem with the article is Yoffie’s stated reason for the mythical Jewish detachment from Israel that isn’t happening:

The settlement enterprise, long the central issue of Israel’s internal politics, has become the constant, harping theme of political discussion about the Jewish State, causing concern, dismay, and confusion among even the most committed American Jews.

While some Jewish leaders (full disclosure: I have done this myself) attribute the focus on settlement to unfriendly press coverage in America, in reality the opposite is true. Many American Jews read Israel’s daily press, now widely available in English, and see that the obsession with settlement comes from the Israeli side and not the American side.

Yoffie also calls the settlement movement the “NRA of Israel.” I’m not sure if he’s trying to insult gun owners or Israelis–or both.

Additionally, the settlement-related news today is positive–Israel’s government evacuated a settlement and moved the village’s inhabitants without incident. Even the New York Times was forced to admit, through gritted teeth no doubt, that this was “the first peaceful evacuation of a Jewish settlement from the occupied territories in memory.” (Related question: Whose memory? The reporter’s? Is it now journalistically acceptable to say that you can’t remember the last time something happened and didn’t have any interest in trying to find out?)

But that good news was in the American press, which Yoffie says is no longer influencing Americans. We must look to the Israeli press, then, to see what could be causing American Jews to stop being interested in listening to presentations by Israeli convention speakers. And sure enough, there was some bad news about violent Israelis. From Haaretz:

On Saturday, Israel’s social protest turned violent as thousands of Israelis clashed with police, blocked roads, and smashed bank windows.

“What we saw was not a popular protest but a planned web of events including law infractions and violence,” [Police Commissioner Yohanan] Danino said.

So Israel’s leftist protesters are violent rioters? That is troubling indeed. Perhaps Yoffie will address that in a future column. In the meantime, Israeli leftists should learn how to comport themselves within the bounds of respectability–like the Ulpana settlers. American Jews are watching, you know.

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The Kernel of Truth in Liberal Complaints About American Jewish Leaders

I agree wholeheartedly with Seth’s post from yesterday about J.J. Goldberg’s shocking Forward column, but I’d like to tackle a different angle of the issue: the question of American Jewish leadership.

Goldberg charged that Jewish organizations are shifting their focus from “progressive” political policies to concerns more directly related to the Jewish community, and consequently, American Jews “are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.” This not only implies, as Seth correctly noted, that Goldberg sees traditional Judaism as inimical to the American variety. It also implies that what I’d always considered a somewhat snide slur is actually true: To some liberal American Jews, Judaism really doesn’t consist of anything beyond the Democratic Party platform. Abandon those liberal political concerns, says Goldberg, and Judaism becomes “a religion about nothing.”

The problem with this is that you don’t need to be Jewish to promote liberal causes, and you certainly don’t need to be active in any Jewish communal organization. In fact, you’re arguably better off avoiding such organizations: Jewish groups inevitably end up wasting time and attention on pesky issues like Israel or anti-Semitism, which distracts from the all-important focus on progressive political causes.

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I agree wholeheartedly with Seth’s post from yesterday about J.J. Goldberg’s shocking Forward column, but I’d like to tackle a different angle of the issue: the question of American Jewish leadership.

Goldberg charged that Jewish organizations are shifting their focus from “progressive” political policies to concerns more directly related to the Jewish community, and consequently, American Jews “are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.” This not only implies, as Seth correctly noted, that Goldberg sees traditional Judaism as inimical to the American variety. It also implies that what I’d always considered a somewhat snide slur is actually true: To some liberal American Jews, Judaism really doesn’t consist of anything beyond the Democratic Party platform. Abandon those liberal political concerns, says Goldberg, and Judaism becomes “a religion about nothing.”

The problem with this is that you don’t need to be Jewish to promote liberal causes, and you certainly don’t need to be active in any Jewish communal organization. In fact, you’re arguably better off avoiding such organizations: Jewish groups inevitably end up wasting time and attention on pesky issues like Israel or anti-Semitism, which distracts from the all-important focus on progressive political causes.

Consequently, the people who do choose to devote their lives to Jewish organizations – and who, as a result, become “American Jewish leaders” – tend to be precisely those who think Judaism is about something more than just progressive politics, and who consider that “something more” important enough to devote their careers to it, or at least sizable chunks of their spare time. And that is why, even though many are also committed liberal Democrats, these leaders are more focused on traditional Jewish concerns than Goldberg deems proper: Study after study has shown that the more one cares about Judaism – in its traditional sense, rather than as a mere synonym for liberal politics – the more one cares about issues like Israel and Jewish peoplehood. Hence, it’s precisely those who become American Jewish leaders who are most likely to, for instance, defend Israel even when they disagree with its policies, or think that just as your own family takes precedence over strangers, helping fellow Jews in need may take precedence over helping non-Jews.

And in that sense, Goldberg’s second complaint – that American Jewish leaders don’t represent their communities’ real views, and are in fact often well to the right of their communities – contains an important kernel of truth. This plaint, increasingly heard from many left-wing American Jews, clearly overstates the case: Many liberal American Jews agree with their leaders that Judaism is not solely about progressive politics, and thus have no problem with these leaders’ focus on Jewish communal concerns.

But American Jewish leaders are indeed unrepresentative of that specific segment of American Jewry which, like Goldberg, thinks that Judaism is solely about progressive politics. And moreover, they always will be. Because only someone who cares deeply about Judaism in its traditional sense – as a religion and a people – rather than merely as a vehicle for liberal politics will opt to devote his life to Jewish causes rather than generic liberal ones.

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Must Liberalism Exclude Judaism?

J.J. Goldberg’s Forward column today is bound to give the Israeli Absorption Ministry a measure of satisfaction. In late 2011, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s office released a series of videos depicting American Jews as overly secularized, bereft of a religious Jewish identity, and having essentially surrendered any Jewish connection in the name of total assimilation. The ads were offensive and obtuse–any country with Tel Aviv within its borders has some nerve lecturing foreigners about embracing secularism–and were roundly condemned and pulled off the air.

But Goldberg’s column this morning is the boldest defense of the thesis of those ads–albeit unintentionally and too late for the ad campaign. Ostensibly, the column is about the supposed “silencing” of Jewish voices by the Jewish right, as demonstrated by the recent cancellation of a speech by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a Florida synagogue. Leave aside the fact that the real reason the ill-conceived speech was called off was because shul members were told no Republican voices would be permitted to speak as well. (An actual silencing, by which Goldberg isn’t bothered.) And leave aside the incongruity of Goldberg touting the Jewish communities’ “national struggles for tolerance” while in the same column dismissing non-liberal Jews as a “noisy minority” that should not be catered to. The most telling line in the piece is when Goldberg says that integrating non-leftist concerns into the community, thereby diluting the social action efforts of America’s Jews, presents us with the following threat:

We are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.

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J.J. Goldberg’s Forward column today is bound to give the Israeli Absorption Ministry a measure of satisfaction. In late 2011, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver’s office released a series of videos depicting American Jews as overly secularized, bereft of a religious Jewish identity, and having essentially surrendered any Jewish connection in the name of total assimilation. The ads were offensive and obtuse–any country with Tel Aviv within its borders has some nerve lecturing foreigners about embracing secularism–and were roundly condemned and pulled off the air.

But Goldberg’s column this morning is the boldest defense of the thesis of those ads–albeit unintentionally and too late for the ad campaign. Ostensibly, the column is about the supposed “silencing” of Jewish voices by the Jewish right, as demonstrated by the recent cancellation of a speech by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a Florida synagogue. Leave aside the fact that the real reason the ill-conceived speech was called off was because shul members were told no Republican voices would be permitted to speak as well. (An actual silencing, by which Goldberg isn’t bothered.) And leave aside the incongruity of Goldberg touting the Jewish communities’ “national struggles for tolerance” while in the same column dismissing non-liberal Jews as a “noisy minority” that should not be catered to. The most telling line in the piece is when Goldberg says that integrating non-leftist concerns into the community, thereby diluting the social action efforts of America’s Jews, presents us with the following threat:

We are in danger of becoming, in classic Seinfeld fashion, a religion about nothing.

Ironies abound. Judaism’s increasingly “noisy minorities” consist of politically conservative Jews and Orthodox Jews, though there is a fair amount of overlap. So in Goldberg’s telling, integrating observant Jews into the conversation will risk American Judaism being “about nothing.”

Religion, while communal, has a personal element to it, and in a free country it is certainly up to each person how he chooses to practice (or not practice). But the idea that traditional Judaism would destroy American Judaism is a shockingly poisonous concept, as is the implication that those who observe Judaism’s laws and traditions and those who have gravitated toward political movements and parties that respect those traditions–instead of, for example, those who write columns attacking them–haven’t the same right to be heard.

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What Israel Needs From American Jews

Israelis are celebrating their Independence Day today, and it’s not likely that too many of them are spending their holiday worrying about American Jewish efforts to save them from themselves. The imbalance in the relationship between the two sides of the Israel-Diaspora relationship lends a touch of comedy, if not pathos, to the celebrated anguish of liberal American Jews who will spend this day, if not every day, publicizing their angst about Israeli policies and dramatically predicting doom for the Jewish state if it does not listen to their criticisms.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the imperative for “liberal Zionists” to speak out. Israel is a democratic country with a bewildering array of political parties and ideologies (almost all of which have some representation in its parliament), and if American Jews wish to identify with a particular brand of Israeli politics, there’s nothing wrong with that. I may disagree with some of the political views expressed on the Zionist left, but I consider the debate with those who are devoted to Israel but who wish to improve it in various ways, arguments undertaken, as Jewish tradition calls it, “for the sake of heaven,” which ought to be conducted with civility and respect on both sides and mutual commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Israel does not need blind devotion from its foreign friends or from Diaspora Jews. Nor does it require anyone to pretend that the Israeli state is perfect. Its democratic system, its politicians and even its military are no more perfect than those in the United States. But it does deserve a degree of respect that I think is lacking lately from some who call themselves liberal Zionists.

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Israelis are celebrating their Independence Day today, and it’s not likely that too many of them are spending their holiday worrying about American Jewish efforts to save them from themselves. The imbalance in the relationship between the two sides of the Israel-Diaspora relationship lends a touch of comedy, if not pathos, to the celebrated anguish of liberal American Jews who will spend this day, if not every day, publicizing their angst about Israeli policies and dramatically predicting doom for the Jewish state if it does not listen to their criticisms.

We have been hearing a lot lately about the imperative for “liberal Zionists” to speak out. Israel is a democratic country with a bewildering array of political parties and ideologies (almost all of which have some representation in its parliament), and if American Jews wish to identify with a particular brand of Israeli politics, there’s nothing wrong with that. I may disagree with some of the political views expressed on the Zionist left, but I consider the debate with those who are devoted to Israel but who wish to improve it in various ways, arguments undertaken, as Jewish tradition calls it, “for the sake of heaven,” which ought to be conducted with civility and respect on both sides and mutual commitment to Jewish peoplehood. Israel does not need blind devotion from its foreign friends or from Diaspora Jews. Nor does it require anyone to pretend that the Israeli state is perfect. Its democratic system, its politicians and even its military are no more perfect than those in the United States. But it does deserve a degree of respect that I think is lacking lately from some who call themselves liberal Zionists.

Much ink has been spilled and great deal of space on the Internet has been wasted debating the dubious merits of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, but as off target as his views about American Jewry may be in many respects, his ignorance of Israel has made it a symbol of all that is wrong with the liberal Jewish critique of the country. It’s all well and good for Beinart and other American Jews to wish for peace or to argue that different policies might bring it closer. It’s that they operate in an intellectual vacuum in which the real world dilemmas of Israeli life and the realities of Palestinian nationalism don’t exist.

That’s why, despite the fact that the vast majority of Israelis desire a two-state solution and are no more enamored of extremist settlers than Beinart, they support the government they elected in 2009 and are almost certain to return it to power when it faces the electorate sometime next year. They do not see their country walking off a cliff bent on suicidal policies as Beinart and others preach. Instead, they believe they are undertaking prudent measures of self-defense and asserting their right to exist in peace and freedom. Israel has achieved much in its 64 years of existence, but it cannot magically transform the political culture of the Palestinians that rejects the legitimacy of any Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn.

This is a basic truth that most Israelis intuitively understand but which continues to elude some of their liberal American friends. Israeli Independence Day is as good a day as any for some of these preening liberal Zionists to ask themselves why is it that the average Israeli regards their impulse to save Israel from itself with a mixture of humor and contempt? After a generation of territorial withdrawals, peace accords and peace offers that have been consistently rejected by the Palestinians, Israelis are right to view those who act as if the history of the last 20 years never happened as simply irrelevant.

Those American Jews who support Israel against the assault on its existence are often accused by their foes of believing in a mythical Israel and having no conception of the real place. But despite the naivete of some who wish to hear no evil of Israel, it is those liberals and left-wingers who believe that the Jewish state can unilaterally create peace or in any way diminish the ideological and religious opposition of the Muslim and Arab worlds to its existence who are really living in a fantasy world.

Liberal Zionists and other so-called progressives should not feel inhibited from putting forward their vision of what Israel can or should be. But what they first need to do is to show some respect for the people of Israel and demonstrate some understanding of the limits to which their ideas can alter political reality on either side of the security fence. Without that respect and understanding, Israelis are to be forgiven for viewing American liberal Zionism as a thin façade for self-righteous and ignorant claptrap.

 

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Survey: Even Liberal Jews Not Crazy About Obama’s Israel Policy

The Public Religion Research Institute, recently in the news for its survey on Catholic attitudes toward the Obama administration’s decision to include religious institutions in its contraception mandate, today released the findings of its polling on American Jewish values: “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012,” a report based on its recent survey of 1,004 self-identified American Jews. Here is one of the key findings highlighted by the report:

When asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half (46 percent) of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent). Fewer than 1-in-10 say that a sense of cultural heritage and tradition (6 percent) or a general set of values (3 percent) are most important to their Jewish identity.

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The Public Religion Research Institute, recently in the news for its survey on Catholic attitudes toward the Obama administration’s decision to include religious institutions in its contraception mandate, today released the findings of its polling on American Jewish values: “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012,” a report based on its recent survey of 1,004 self-identified American Jews. Here is one of the key findings highlighted by the report:

When asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half (46 percent) of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent). Fewer than 1-in-10 say that a sense of cultural heritage and tradition (6 percent) or a general set of values (3 percent) are most important to their Jewish identity.

This is a strong theme of secular liberalism running through the report, authored by PPRI’s Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox, who recently contributed an essay on President Obama for an anthology of presidents and religious influence. The organization’s surveys often focus on testing the Obama administration’s most visible narratives on policy issues. (The previous three surveys were on whether religious liberty is under attack, Americans’ opinion on economic inequality, and whether Catholics support the contraception mandate.)

“Chosen for What?” tests many of these themes among the Jewish population, with similar findings. Tikkun olam, for example, is held to be either somewhat important or very important to 72 percent of respondents. On religion, however, a full 41 percent say it is not too important or not at all important. About 18 percent of respondents said they do not believe in God.

Partisan splits account for some of the other issues polled. On health care, for example, Jewish Republicans say they would overwhelmingly support a Supreme Court decision overturning Obamacare, while Jewish Democrats favor keeping the law by about the same margin. A majority of Jewish independents would favor overturning the administration’s health care reform law.

While the poll paints a picture of a markedly liberal American Jewish community, that fact should give Obama supporters pause on certain issues. Though only 4 percent say Israel is the most important issue for them in the upcoming presidential election, Obama gets mixed reviews for his Middle East policies: “Twenty percent report that they agree with the president’s policies and that they like the way he is executing these policies. Fifteen percent say that they agree with the president’s policies but don’t like the way he is executing these policies. About 3-in-10 (28 percent) say they disagree with the president’s policies.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets high marks, which may help explain why even many of those who agree with Obama’s Mideast policies don’t like the way he carries them out, which usually involved picking a fight with or expressing his contempt for Netanyahu. A majority (59 percent) also support the U.S. taking military action against Iran’s nuclear program if sanctions fail.

This polling institute is led by outspoken allies of, and current or former advisers to, President Obama (as Alana pointed out last month, David Saperstein is its chairman), that polled what turned out to be a mostly liberal population with very liberal answers (high support for abortion in all cases and a majority who think Israel’s “ultra-Orthodox” are too powerful and a “major problem”), and still the president can’t find broad support for his treatment of Israel.

This is a subset of the population ready to defend the president’s policies. They are, however, still waiting for a defensible Israel policy.

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Study Debunks Crisis of Zionism Myth

The Jewish People Policy Institute has just published a new paper by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman on the so-called Distancing Hypothesis, analyzing “trends of distancing and… policy proposals for strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel in the time of the distancing discourse.” The 53-page PDF comprehensively evaluates current surveys, contains 77 footnotes, walks the reader through dizzying charts, and is worth reading just for the appendices.

The authors outline a series of straightforward recommendations, including an emphasis on the methodological and normative value of discussing “attachment” rather than “distancing.” Along the way they note:

There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of U.S. Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies that included a longitudinal comparative examination indicate a sustained and even increased level of attachment. In short, there is no evidence of distancing as compared to the past.

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The Jewish People Policy Institute has just published a new paper by Shmuel Rosner and Inbal Hakman on the so-called Distancing Hypothesis, analyzing “trends of distancing and… policy proposals for strengthening the attachment of young American Jews to Israel in the time of the distancing discourse.” The 53-page PDF comprehensively evaluates current surveys, contains 77 footnotes, walks the reader through dizzying charts, and is worth reading just for the appendices.

The authors outline a series of straightforward recommendations, including an emphasis on the methodological and normative value of discussing “attachment” rather than “distancing.” Along the way they note:

There is no conclusive evidence of an erosion of U.S. Jewry’s attachment to Israel. On the contrary, the studies that included a longitudinal comparative examination indicate a sustained and even increased level of attachment. In short, there is no evidence of distancing as compared to the past.

The findings are in line with the consensus of polling and trends in American-Jewish philanthropy, to say nothing of the near-universal rejection of Peter Beinart’s call to economically suffocate Israeli communities he doesn’t like while funding Israelis who live where he wants them to.

The exception proving that rule has been Lara Friedman of Americans for Peace Now, who embraced Beinart’s call after returning from a vicious anti-Israel hatefest at which she and her organization were on the speaker list. Her participation in that conference was as out of the mainstream as her support for Beinart.

On the other side, for example, is liberal Tablet editor-in-chief Alana Newhouse. Last week, Newhouse wrote in the Washington Post that Beinart’s book and campaign have “ruined his chance to be a leader for many” progressive American Jews. She specifically pointed out what might be called Beinart’s epistemic solipsism, noting that his book “offers little in the way of personal reporting on the Israelis or the Palestinians themselves” and relies instead on secondary sources and his impressions of same.

Newhouse’s comment is not the first time Beinart’s lack of enthusiasm for field reporting has raised eyebrows. But his habit of taking what’s inside his head and generalizing outward extends beyond his research and analysis, and into his entire ethical case against Israel. He condemns Israel’s presence beyond the Green Line on account of the toll it takes on his conscience. He blasts Israeli self-defense campaigns because they complicate conversations with his child. And he’s personally haunted by the audio tracks of YouTube videos showing Israeli police actions, so he declares that Zionism is in crisis.

Not so much, it turns out.

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Peter Beinart’s End Zone Dance

The day he published his 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books castigating the American Jewish establishment for too-strong support of Israel, Peter Beinart tweeted that it was the “hardest thing I’ve ever written.” As Noah Pollak noted at the time, there was nothing easier than Beinart’s criticism; there was already a wide market for it within the media.

Beinart subsequently received a book deal from Times Books, the publishing arm of the New York Times, and the book will be published next month. Last week, he circulated an email that Rabbi David Wolpe describes as “an end zone dance, a strutting lack of humility.” Here is the beginning of Beinart’s email:

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The day he published his 2010 essay in the New York Review of Books castigating the American Jewish establishment for too-strong support of Israel, Peter Beinart tweeted that it was the “hardest thing I’ve ever written.” As Noah Pollak noted at the time, there was nothing easier than Beinart’s criticism; there was already a wide market for it within the media.

Beinart subsequently received a book deal from Times Books, the publishing arm of the New York Times, and the book will be published next month. Last week, he circulated an email that Rabbi David Wolpe describes as “an end zone dance, a strutting lack of humility.” Here is the beginning of Beinart’s email:

Sometimes you get lucky.
I’ve spent the last year writing a new book, The Crisis of Zionism. It tells the story of how a young Barack Obama fell in love with the Jewish social justice tradition, only to discover the deep chasm between that tradition and the American Jewish Establishment when it comes to Israel.
It tells the story of an Israeli Prime Minister who rejects the very tradition that Obama reveres.
Finally, it offers an agenda for what American Jews — especially young American Jews — must do if we don’t want to be the generation that watches the dream of a democratic Jewish state die.
And that’s where I get lucky. Because by a wonderful convergence of events, the book will be released at this year’s J Street National Conference. …

The assertion that the Israeli prime minister (along with the American Jewish establishment) “rejects” the Jewish social justice tradition that Barack Obama “reveres” (ever since he “fell in love” with it at summer camp) lacks a certain nuance and subtlety. And the email goes on from there.

Rabbi Wolpe provides a substantive rebuttal of the email – particularly its invocation of the American civil rights movement as an analogy for those who rain rockets on children in Sderot – and offers some rabbinic wisdom for Beinart’s “smug dismissal” of Israel’s democratic leadership. He describes the email as “demagoguery” and suggests that Beinart is “better than this.”

It is a fairly low bar. But if the email is any indication, the coming book will exhibit the same lack of proportionality that Jeffrey Goldberg suggested in his 2010 interview of Beinart. Goldberg noted “the unseemly interest the left takes in Israel’s moral failings,” which ignores the fact that no other country does “a better job of protecting individual rights and freedoms while at war with a foe that seeks its physical elimination,” and he pressed Beinart to put the criticisms in his essay in context:

Are Israel’s failings, in fact, so terrible, especially given the line-up of enemies Israel is facing? I’m asking you to confront reality, not your utopian vision of what a Jewish country should be. The reality is that there are organizations and countries trying to physically eliminate the Jewish state. Even with this existential problem, Israel still manages to be the freest and most democratic state in the Middle East, and one that even grants its Muslim citizens the right to build minarets and wear burqas, unlike many countries in Europe. Again, I’m asking about proportionality. … [V]ery little (the settlements, etc.) is actually that different than it was five or ten years ago, except that Israel removed its settlements from Gaza and got rockets in return. …

[Muslim extremists] are pointing 40,000 rockets at Israel from Lebanon right now — and they are not pointing these rockets at Israel in order to bring about the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank. They are seeking the physical destruction of 5.5 million Jews in their historic homeland. I take this seriously, and I think you should take it seriously, as well. …You don’t have to be an Israeli extremist to believe that the Arab side is not especially enamored with the ideas of peace and compromise, despite the existence of Salam Fayyad and other Palestinian moderates. Perhaps we here in America should take these Israeli concerns more seriously, and have more respect for the hard-earned experience of Israelis.

Beinart’s email suggests he has gotten over his hand-wringing about the “hardest thing I’ve ever written.” He is positively giddy about the book-length version. What luck.

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Who’s Not Listening to Israeli Soldiers?

On Tuesday, Peter Beinart chastised American Jews for not listening more closely to Israeli soldiers. “There’s nothing American Jews love more than Israeli soldiers, except perhaps, Israeli spies,” he wrote in a piece in the Daily Beast titled “U.S. Jews Should Heed Top Israeli Soldiers Who Oppose Bombing Iran.” “So perhaps American Jews should start noticing that an astonishing number of Israel’s top soldiers and spies are warning against bombing Iran.”

A few years ago, I witnessed a debate inside the Israeli Knesset between two former heads of Israeli military intelligence, research and assessment, General Yaakov Amidror and General Danny Rothschild. The veterans disagreed on everything — technology, threats, solutions, defensible borders, control of territory and disengagement. During my service in the military, I saw the same phenomenon among officers at every rank. In robust democracies “listening” to soldiers—or civilians—is almost never a shortcut to obvious or unanimous answers.

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On Tuesday, Peter Beinart chastised American Jews for not listening more closely to Israeli soldiers. “There’s nothing American Jews love more than Israeli soldiers, except perhaps, Israeli spies,” he wrote in a piece in the Daily Beast titled “U.S. Jews Should Heed Top Israeli Soldiers Who Oppose Bombing Iran.” “So perhaps American Jews should start noticing that an astonishing number of Israel’s top soldiers and spies are warning against bombing Iran.”

A few years ago, I witnessed a debate inside the Israeli Knesset between two former heads of Israeli military intelligence, research and assessment, General Yaakov Amidror and General Danny Rothschild. The veterans disagreed on everything — technology, threats, solutions, defensible borders, control of territory and disengagement. During my service in the military, I saw the same phenomenon among officers at every rank. In robust democracies “listening” to soldiers—or civilians—is almost never a shortcut to obvious or unanimous answers.

With that in mind, Beinart is as guilty as anyone of not listening to Israeli soldiers. Consider all the Israeli generals whose opinions he casts aside because they differ from his. On the matter of Gaza and the West Bank, he rejects the opinion of former Chief of Staff General (ret.) Moshe Ya’alon, who opposes disengagements on security grounds. He disregards the former head of Israel’s General Security Service, Avi Dichter, who warned that “the evacuation [from Gaza] is dangerous, and the retreat will give the Palestinians a sense of victory and encouragement for terrorism.” Beinart dismisses the assessments of withdrawals of former head of Israeli intelligence, General Zeevi Farkash, former Israeli Air Force Chief General Ben Eliyahu, and former military secretary to the prime minister, General Gadi Shamni. He also rejects the advice of current National Security Advisor General Amidror, who believes control of territory is essential to defeating terrorism.

On the Iranian threat, he casts aside the warnings of former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, that a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is the best way to keep Israel safe.

Beinart has every right to favor withdrawals from territories and oppose a strike on Iran, but this has little to do with his listening to Israeli soldiers.

The heart of the Iran question is complex. What to do when a brutal theocracy regularly threatens to destroy a member state of the UN and is on the verge of acquiring the most deadly weapons known to man?

Instead of addressing the issue on that basis, Beinart prefers tendentious guilt-by-association. He writes, “Netanyahu’s taste for the apocalyptic flows less from his Jewishness than from his conservatism—a conservatism learned during his close association with the Republican right while he served as a diplomat in Washington and New York in the 1980s.”

Iran does not stand in violation of the Genocide Convention because Netanyahu was hanging out with Republicans in the 1980s. Former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani said triumphantly, “an atomic bomb would leave nothing in Israel.” Does his actual “taste for the apocalyptic” flow from his time spent secretly cavorting with Republicans in the 1980s?

Seventy percent of Israel’s population and 80 percent of its industrial capacity resides on a tiny strip of coastal territory, which two nuclear bombs could obliterate. Israeli military officials who work day and night to thwart this scenario aren’t fear-mongering right-wingers. They despise war, but many of them have come to the conclusion after painstaking deliberation that only Israeli jets can stop Iranian nukes. It was Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, after all, who described his nuclear program as a train without brakes.

Beinart writes that “shifting power balances and increased threat levels” coming from Iran are “a far cry from Netanyahu’s language of existential destruction.” Others believe when a country threatens genocide, it should be taken seriously. Iranian euphemisms for Israel’s destruction such as “erased from the pages of history” don’t placate Israeli fears much. Nor does the Iranian leader’s reference to Israel as a “black and dirty microbe” and the subsequent parading of Shihab-3 missiles covered in banners reading, “Israel must be uprooted and erased from history.”

No one outside of a tiny circle of theocratic, apocalyptic, terrorist fanatics knows if Iran will actually use nuclear bombs. But would you bet the lives of millions of civilians on the guess that the Iranian regime’s stated goal is no more than a rhetorical ruse?

By all means, Americans should listen to Israeli soldiers—those who agree with them and those who don’t. But let no one slander those dedicated to stopping the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism from attaining the most deadly weapons on the planet as right-wing warmongers unwilling to listen to Israeli soldiers.

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The Silent Young Jewish Majority

It has become an accepted point of Jewish communal debates in recent years that young American Jews are “distancing” from Israel. However, a contrarian view, that holds that a feeling of attachment to the Jewish state is at least as strong among young Jews as it is for older Jews, has been gaining traction of late, and it is buttressed by a recent poll, sent out yesterday by Mitchell Bard’s American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

The poll posed questions to 400 American Jewish undergraduate students and found that 66 percent of them view themselves as feeling “very close” or “fairly close” to Israel. By design, this question of a feeling of closeness is the same posed in the AJC’s 2011 annual survey of American Jewish opinion, which found that 68 percent of the general Jewish population also described their feeling toward Israel in similar terms. This, as well as the polls other results mean, according to Bard, that “Contrary to the claims of some outspoken critics, young Jews do not feel alienated from Israel.”

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It has become an accepted point of Jewish communal debates in recent years that young American Jews are “distancing” from Israel. However, a contrarian view, that holds that a feeling of attachment to the Jewish state is at least as strong among young Jews as it is for older Jews, has been gaining traction of late, and it is buttressed by a recent poll, sent out yesterday by Mitchell Bard’s American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise.

The poll posed questions to 400 American Jewish undergraduate students and found that 66 percent of them view themselves as feeling “very close” or “fairly close” to Israel. By design, this question of a feeling of closeness is the same posed in the AJC’s 2011 annual survey of American Jewish opinion, which found that 68 percent of the general Jewish population also described their feeling toward Israel in similar terms. This, as well as the polls other results mean, according to Bard, that “Contrary to the claims of some outspoken critics, young Jews do not feel alienated from Israel.”

One rather large caveat should be recognized when looking at the survey results: 43 percent of the interviewees attended a Jewish day school or yeshiva. According to the most recent surveys, there are about 230,000 students in Jewish day schools out of a school age population of about 1.2 million. So, realistically, about 20 percent of young Jews today attend day school. And, as the poll found, they are much more likely to express strong support for and a feeling of connection to Israel than their peers who have not.

Still, the basic results seem clear. Most young Jews feel connected to Israel in roughly the same proportion as their elders. They largely aren’t, though, speaking up about it. And their voices are largely not heard in the debate surrounding their views that continues to roil the Jewish world.

Perhaps the most important point these results, buttressed by the fact of Birthright, represent is that the current American Jewish generation may be a lot more like the last one than most people seem to want to recognize. Not terribly well-educated about Israel or other Jewish matters, it may nevertheless view a positive disposition toward Israel as a fundamental aspect of Jewish authenticity. Far from being beset by the supposed anti-democratic turns of a Jewish state they can no longer identify with, they, like their parents, view with pride a state and society they mostly don’t understand.

The Jews whose views of Israel are changing rather seem to be emerging non-Orthodox leadership. Many of them – from writers, philanthropists, rabbis and others – do seem to be more outspoken in their critiques of Israel and distancing from the Jewish state than was the case in the past.

But rather than leading the Jewish future – on this issue at least – these leaders may face a more uncomfortable reality of proposed constituents unwilling to follow them away from Israel and who instead say things like, “I’m a Zionist, pure and simple.” All of which means that a future where the attention-grabbing young Jews of today find themselves outside of their own community tomorrow may just be more likely than any other scenario.

 

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The Jewish Dissent Canard

Yesterday, Marc Tracy, a blogger for Tablet, posted a response to Jonathan Neumann’s COMMENTARY article, “Occupy Wall Street and the Jews.” As an aside, he posited that “dissent and heresy” constitute the “other, dialectical half” of Judaism’s obsession with “laws and authority.”

This, in its pithy way –stated as a fact so self-evident that it need not be justified – illustrates well today’s central American Jewish argument over Judaism and Jewish authenticity, revealing how far from the true facts of things a small but well-placed minority of writers, philanthropists, and activists have strayed
and how, by so doing, they have set the latest roadblock to an invigorated American Jewish future.

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Yesterday, Marc Tracy, a blogger for Tablet, posted a response to Jonathan Neumann’s COMMENTARY article, “Occupy Wall Street and the Jews.” As an aside, he posited that “dissent and heresy” constitute the “other, dialectical half” of Judaism’s obsession with “laws and authority.”

This, in its pithy way –stated as a fact so self-evident that it need not be justified – illustrates well today’s central American Jewish argument over Judaism and Jewish authenticity, revealing how far from the true facts of things a small but well-placed minority of writers, philanthropists, and activists have strayed
and how, by so doing, they have set the latest roadblock to an invigorated American Jewish future.

The basic claim is this: A central aspect of the Jewish tradition (“half” of it, let’s say) is opposition. Figures like Hannah Arendt or Spinoza are cast as the central Jewish protagonists in a supposedly long-arching tradition.

More charitably, the claim is most likely driven by a vague sense of the Talmudic tradition, the great and awe-inspiring discussions that characterized the intellectual life of the long-vanished academies at Sura, Pumbedita and elsewhere.

Perhaps there is justification in casting this tradition as “dialectical,” if one is reaching for the ancient Socratic sense of the word. More likely though in its common usage today it is derivative of the Hegelian tradition popularized by Marx and, especially when coupled with the supposedly sacred values of dissent and heresy, little more than an intellectual club thought to be sufficiently sturdy to batter away all opposing arguments.

This is the central problem with the “Judaism as dissent” meme. Modern terms and ways of thinking about politics are coupled with a thin Jewish veneer to make far-reaching and radical claims about the Jewish past and future. Clothed in supposed authenticity, they are cast as, at a minimum, worthy halves of a Jewish tradition we all must grapple with.

The great intellectual tradition of the Jews has always been based on an expansive conception of truth and obligation, and not just halfway. The fire of the Talmudic tradition is driven by the conviction by interlocutors like Hillel and Shammai that they were in search of eternal truths God had revealed to the Jewish people, not by the postures of dissent or, even less, heresy. The Talmud in fact has its own idiomatic heretic: Elisha ben Abuyah, a brilliant student derided in the text as acher, “other,” precisely because his radical dissent from those truths eventually moved him outside of the community.

Today’s partisans of Jewish dissent likely believe that they are replenishing a tradition stunted in those American synagogues where rituals like responsive English readings are indeed stale and inauthentic.

Glorifying dissent though is simply today’s version of packaging the Jewish tradition in a contemporary box deemed more palatable than the true tradition, whose wonders only reveal themselves through patient and difficult study and are usually not in style on Madison Avenue.

Worst of all, the dissent posture so attractive to this cohort and the world they live in probably does not have nearly the resonance those inauthentic synagogues had for our parents’ generation, and so does not have the resources sufficient to match even their accomplishments. Which means that in the efforts of writers like Tracy, if they cannot be dissuaded from their strange path, we are seeing the emergence of a tiny yet indulged and influential American Jewish generation with little chance of appealing to anyone but itself and therefore doing its part to ensure that another generation of American Jews must pass before we can find one able to grapple honestly with the majesty of its own tradition.

 

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Will Obama Go Back to Fighting Over Jerusalem?

The announcement today that 238 housing units will be built in Jerusalem will have no impact on whether there will ever be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The houses will go up in Ramot and Pisgat Ze’ev, Jewish neighborhoods that were created in the 1970s after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War struck down the barriers that rendered those parts of the city that had been occupied by Jordan between 1948 and 1967 Jew-free. Approximately a quarter of a million Jews already live in East Jerusalem, and the notion that they will all be chucked out of their homes in order to allow the city to become the presumably Jew-free capital of a Palestinian Arab state is a fantasy. If the PA doesn’t want to negotiate with Israel, and it is more than obvious that by calling for building freezes they are looking for an excuse to bug out of the talks to which they have been dragged by President Obama, then whether or not Jews build homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in their own capital won’t make a difference.

But this issue is precisely the one that caused a blowup between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government last spring, when Washington seized on another such innocuous announcement and declared it a mortal insult to the United States because Vice President Biden happened to be passing through the town at the time. The United States has never recognized Israel’s rights in all of Jerusalem, but the decision to specifically oppose building in existing neighborhoods and to, in effect, treat them as being as illegitimate as the most remote West Bank settlements was unprecedented. But contrary to Obama’s expectations, and those left-wing supporters who had been egging him on to fight with Israel (J Street), Netanyahu didn’t fold and was warmly supported by not only the majority of Israelis but by most American Jews, too. The result was that the administration soon backed off and began a charm offensive designed to ingratiate the president with American Jews who were offended by his decision to pick a fight over Jerusalem.

However, with the midterm elections only a few weeks away, the immediate political incentive to downplay the president’s distaste for Israel’s government and his willingness to butt heads with it over Jewish rights in Jerusalem will be removed. Though much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment has not missed the fact that it was the Palestinians and not the Israelis who blew up Obama’s peace initiative, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s Jewish charm offensive will remain in place after November 2.

Though the expected rout of his party in the elections will give President Obama far bigger problems to deal with than Jewish homes in Jerusalem, a decision to push harder against Israel to force “progress” toward a peace the Palestinians don’t want will be an indication that Obama hasn’t the flexibility or the understanding of the region that will enable him to learn from his errors. While the Middle East peace process is not the only or even the most important foreign policy challenge that Obama will have to confront this winter (not with Iran flexing its muscles in the region), one of the more interesting indicators of how a post–November 2010 Obama will govern will be whether he can resist the temptation to return to his fight with Netanyahu.

The announcement today that 238 housing units will be built in Jerusalem will have no impact on whether there will ever be peace between Israel and the Palestinians. The houses will go up in Ramot and Pisgat Ze’ev, Jewish neighborhoods that were created in the 1970s after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War struck down the barriers that rendered those parts of the city that had been occupied by Jordan between 1948 and 1967 Jew-free. Approximately a quarter of a million Jews already live in East Jerusalem, and the notion that they will all be chucked out of their homes in order to allow the city to become the presumably Jew-free capital of a Palestinian Arab state is a fantasy. If the PA doesn’t want to negotiate with Israel, and it is more than obvious that by calling for building freezes they are looking for an excuse to bug out of the talks to which they have been dragged by President Obama, then whether or not Jews build homes in existing Jewish neighborhoods in their own capital won’t make a difference.

But this issue is precisely the one that caused a blowup between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government last spring, when Washington seized on another such innocuous announcement and declared it a mortal insult to the United States because Vice President Biden happened to be passing through the town at the time. The United States has never recognized Israel’s rights in all of Jerusalem, but the decision to specifically oppose building in existing neighborhoods and to, in effect, treat them as being as illegitimate as the most remote West Bank settlements was unprecedented. But contrary to Obama’s expectations, and those left-wing supporters who had been egging him on to fight with Israel (J Street), Netanyahu didn’t fold and was warmly supported by not only the majority of Israelis but by most American Jews, too. The result was that the administration soon backed off and began a charm offensive designed to ingratiate the president with American Jews who were offended by his decision to pick a fight over Jerusalem.

However, with the midterm elections only a few weeks away, the immediate political incentive to downplay the president’s distaste for Israel’s government and his willingness to butt heads with it over Jewish rights in Jerusalem will be removed. Though much of Washington’s foreign policy establishment has not missed the fact that it was the Palestinians and not the Israelis who blew up Obama’s peace initiative, it remains to be seen whether the administration’s Jewish charm offensive will remain in place after November 2.

Though the expected rout of his party in the elections will give President Obama far bigger problems to deal with than Jewish homes in Jerusalem, a decision to push harder against Israel to force “progress” toward a peace the Palestinians don’t want will be an indication that Obama hasn’t the flexibility or the understanding of the region that will enable him to learn from his errors. While the Middle East peace process is not the only or even the most important foreign policy challenge that Obama will have to confront this winter (not with Iran flexing its muscles in the region), one of the more interesting indicators of how a post–November 2010 Obama will govern will be whether he can resist the temptation to return to his fight with Netanyahu.

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Why Bother?

As I observed on Friday, onlookers and officials could barely muster the forced smiles and rote expressions of optimism that normally accompany the “beginning” of (OK, the never-ending, fruitless) direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The New York Times confesses:

There is little confidence — close to none — on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met. … Yossi Beilin, for example, who left politics in 2008 after years as a leftist member of Parliament and government minister, said Friday that the Obama administration was wrong to set a one-year goal without consequences.

“I think this is a huge mistake by the U.S. administration,” he said by telephone. “There is not a chance in the world that in a year — or two or three — peace can be achieved. The gap between the sides is too big. Netanyahu did not come to power to divide Jerusalem or find a solution to the Palestinian refugees.

And now even the mainstream media don’t bother to conceal the PA’s game:

[Mahmoud Abbas] was hoping that the Obama administration would impose a solution, which he imagined would push Israel to yield more land and authority to him than the Netanyahu government favored.

That is why the Palestinians wanted only indirect talks brokered by the Americans. But Mr. Abbas failed to obtain what he sought, and the administration pushed him toward direct talks. He has agreed only from a position of weakness, he and others say.

Abbas did not disappoint, threatening “that the new round of Middle East peace talks announced Friday by the Obama administration could be over as soon as they begin if Israel continues new construction on the West Bank.” Bibi has already said he will not extend the moratorium. Abbas, you see, is already planning his escape route from the talks.

Umm, did the Obama team not realize all this? And really, what is the point? As one canny observer put it:

Nothing good has ever come of decades of American meddling in the Israeli-Arab “peace process”—at best, it’s been a monumental waste of everyone’s time; at worst, it produced the Second Intifada—and nothing good can come of this latest and most farcical effort.

On the merits, the time and effort invested in the counterproductive “peace process” cannot be justified. But Obama persists, one can surmise, for reasons that have nothing to do with a “two-state solution.” (For that, as George Will correctly observes, is “delusional” at this point.)

Imagining his mere appearance on the stage and a huge amount of suck-uppery to Muslims would deliver the peace that has eluded his predecessors, Obama invested a huge amount of his personal credibility in brokering a deal. He elevated this issue to the top of his foreign-policy agenda. He strained our relationship with Israel to the breaking point. To give up now, as his domestic standing is crumbling, would be a blow — both personal and political — too great to endure. He is merely postponing a humiliation, and at the price of further fraying ties with Israel and provoking yet another intifada when talks inevitably end and Israel is fingered as the culprit.

And, if Obama did not have the endless “peace process” to hide behind and to discuss with the increasingly irritated American Jewish community, what would there be to talk about? Oh, yes, the existential threat to Israel, the rise of a hegemonic-minded Iran, the drift of Turkey into the Islamist orbit, the rearming of Hezbollah, the abominable state of human rights in Muslim countries, and the failure of his administration to do much of anything about any of these issues. Just as Arab despots in the region point to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to distract “Arab street” from their own shortcomings, Obama has used the “peace process” like a gaudy bauble to dangle before American Jews, elite opinion makers, and the media. And to a large degree, he’s suceeeded in lulling them into a semi-catatonic state (and snagging himself a Nobel Peace Prize, which by the way, looks even more ludicrous now than at the time it was bestowed). Once the “peace process” charade ends, the focus would once again be on him and his failure to abate  — in fact his apparent effort to accelerate –the decline of American power in the region. And the president can’t have that, can he?

As I observed on Friday, onlookers and officials could barely muster the forced smiles and rote expressions of optimism that normally accompany the “beginning” of (OK, the never-ending, fruitless) direct negotiations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. The New York Times confesses:

There is little confidence — close to none — on either side that the Obama administration’s goal of reaching a comprehensive deal in one year can be met. … Yossi Beilin, for example, who left politics in 2008 after years as a leftist member of Parliament and government minister, said Friday that the Obama administration was wrong to set a one-year goal without consequences.

“I think this is a huge mistake by the U.S. administration,” he said by telephone. “There is not a chance in the world that in a year — or two or three — peace can be achieved. The gap between the sides is too big. Netanyahu did not come to power to divide Jerusalem or find a solution to the Palestinian refugees.

And now even the mainstream media don’t bother to conceal the PA’s game:

[Mahmoud Abbas] was hoping that the Obama administration would impose a solution, which he imagined would push Israel to yield more land and authority to him than the Netanyahu government favored.

That is why the Palestinians wanted only indirect talks brokered by the Americans. But Mr. Abbas failed to obtain what he sought, and the administration pushed him toward direct talks. He has agreed only from a position of weakness, he and others say.

Abbas did not disappoint, threatening “that the new round of Middle East peace talks announced Friday by the Obama administration could be over as soon as they begin if Israel continues new construction on the West Bank.” Bibi has already said he will not extend the moratorium. Abbas, you see, is already planning his escape route from the talks.

Umm, did the Obama team not realize all this? And really, what is the point? As one canny observer put it:

Nothing good has ever come of decades of American meddling in the Israeli-Arab “peace process”—at best, it’s been a monumental waste of everyone’s time; at worst, it produced the Second Intifada—and nothing good can come of this latest and most farcical effort.

On the merits, the time and effort invested in the counterproductive “peace process” cannot be justified. But Obama persists, one can surmise, for reasons that have nothing to do with a “two-state solution.” (For that, as George Will correctly observes, is “delusional” at this point.)

Imagining his mere appearance on the stage and a huge amount of suck-uppery to Muslims would deliver the peace that has eluded his predecessors, Obama invested a huge amount of his personal credibility in brokering a deal. He elevated this issue to the top of his foreign-policy agenda. He strained our relationship with Israel to the breaking point. To give up now, as his domestic standing is crumbling, would be a blow — both personal and political — too great to endure. He is merely postponing a humiliation, and at the price of further fraying ties with Israel and provoking yet another intifada when talks inevitably end and Israel is fingered as the culprit.

And, if Obama did not have the endless “peace process” to hide behind and to discuss with the increasingly irritated American Jewish community, what would there be to talk about? Oh, yes, the existential threat to Israel, the rise of a hegemonic-minded Iran, the drift of Turkey into the Islamist orbit, the rearming of Hezbollah, the abominable state of human rights in Muslim countries, and the failure of his administration to do much of anything about any of these issues. Just as Arab despots in the region point to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to distract “Arab street” from their own shortcomings, Obama has used the “peace process” like a gaudy bauble to dangle before American Jews, elite opinion makers, and the media. And to a large degree, he’s suceeeded in lulling them into a semi-catatonic state (and snagging himself a Nobel Peace Prize, which by the way, looks even more ludicrous now than at the time it was bestowed). Once the “peace process” charade ends, the focus would once again be on him and his failure to abate  — in fact his apparent effort to accelerate –the decline of American power in the region. And the president can’t have that, can he?

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J Street Comes Clean: It Wants to Divide the Old City

The J Street Education Fund has taken out an ad that takes issue with Elie Wiesel’s criticism of Obama on building in Jerusalem. But J Street doesn’t merely call for a housing freeze or for outlying Arab neighborhoods to be ceded to a Palestinian state. Using the mouthpiece of former Knesset member Yossi Sarid, the J Streeters want to divide the Old City. Oh, yes:

Barack Obama appears well aware of his obligations to try to resolve the world’s ills, particularly ours here. Why then undercut him and tie his hands? On the contrary, let’s allow him to use his clout to save us from ourselves, to help both bruised and battered nations and free them from their prison. Then he can push both sides to divide the city into two capitals — to give Jewish areas to the Jews and Arab areas to the Arabs – and assign the Holy Basin to an agreed on international authority.

As an alarmed reader e-mails: “They specifically want to remove Israeli sovereignty over the Old City. I mean, they want the Western Wall NOT to be in Israeli hands. Wow.”

Wow, indeed. There is no mainstream Jewish organization that takes this position, and I dare say J Street wouldn’t find 5 percent of American Jews who do. Moreover, there is zero support for such a position within Israel. So J Street’s recommendation would be what? — that this be part of an imposed settlement on the Jewish state? It seems that the mask has been dropped and that J Street now reveals its true colors — which happen to be pretty much the same as the Palestinians’. The question remains: does the Obama administration agree? Stay tuned.

The J Street Education Fund has taken out an ad that takes issue with Elie Wiesel’s criticism of Obama on building in Jerusalem. But J Street doesn’t merely call for a housing freeze or for outlying Arab neighborhoods to be ceded to a Palestinian state. Using the mouthpiece of former Knesset member Yossi Sarid, the J Streeters want to divide the Old City. Oh, yes:

Barack Obama appears well aware of his obligations to try to resolve the world’s ills, particularly ours here. Why then undercut him and tie his hands? On the contrary, let’s allow him to use his clout to save us from ourselves, to help both bruised and battered nations and free them from their prison. Then he can push both sides to divide the city into two capitals — to give Jewish areas to the Jews and Arab areas to the Arabs – and assign the Holy Basin to an agreed on international authority.

As an alarmed reader e-mails: “They specifically want to remove Israeli sovereignty over the Old City. I mean, they want the Western Wall NOT to be in Israeli hands. Wow.”

Wow, indeed. There is no mainstream Jewish organization that takes this position, and I dare say J Street wouldn’t find 5 percent of American Jews who do. Moreover, there is zero support for such a position within Israel. So J Street’s recommendation would be what? — that this be part of an imposed settlement on the Jewish state? It seems that the mask has been dropped and that J Street now reveals its true colors — which happen to be pretty much the same as the Palestinians’. The question remains: does the Obama administration agree? Stay tuned.

Read Less




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