Commentary Magazine: How do you solve a problem like J Street
By Tom Wilson
“There is no such thing as an Arab-Israel conflict,” insists Harvard professor Ruth Wisse, “there is an Arab war against Israel, there is an Arab war against the Jewish people’s right to a state.” This is just one of the many foundational truths and insights that are offered in the course of a newly released documentary, The J Street Challenge. The documentary premiered Monday night in Miami to a sell-out audience who also received an introductory presentation with Alan Dershowitz, who himself features in the movie.
J Street, founded in 2008 marketing itself as a kind of left-wing AIPAC, went out of its way from the beginning to emphasize itself as being staunchly “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The national leadership of the group has publicly opposed the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement and put itself forward as being a necessary liberal counterpoint to the anti-Zionism of the left as well as a Jewish cheering section for the Obama administration’s efforts to pressure Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. Yet, as this documentary highlights, that mask soon began to slip as its idea of what it meant to be pro-Israel began to appear vastly out of sync with what just about everyone else understood by that term. It was no surprise, then, when some of its J Street U campus branches began to drop the “pro-Israel” clause of the organization’s slogan. More telling still has been the push by J Street U to have anti-Israel boycotters included in the “big tent” pro-Israel community.
The documentary certainly provides a thorough introduction for anyone who has not so far had the misfortune of encountering J Street or its message. Yet this is no standard-form exposé, as much as it certainly does expose a great deal about J Street’s more dubious operations and questionable sources of funding. Rather, The J Street Challenge seeks to go much further than this by making a serious effort to understand what is at the core of “J Street think” and to identify the driving force that makes certain Jews, particularly young liberal Jews, susceptible to the J Street message. In this way the documentary is about so very much more than an increasingly discredited lobby with little influence even with the Obama administration. At its heart the film is concerned with deconstructing the left-liberal attitude to Israel and the Arab-Islamic world.
This in-depth exploration of the mindset that has given rise to J Street is undertaken through somewhat of an all-star cast of interviews, which sit alongside archival footage providing a narration outlining the key points of the conflict. In addition to Wisse and Dershowitz, there are also clips and interviews featuring, among others, Shalem Center scholar Daniel Gordis, Wall Street Journal editor Bret Stephens, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, CAMERA’s Andrea Levin, Israel Project CEO Josh Block, and Dr. Charles Jacobs, whose organization, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, released the movie.
These interviews are layered with footage of J Street leaders and activists presenting their own views, creating an unfolding conversation between the various parties. Indeed, the documentary recreates for the viewer an accurate representation of the ongoing debate currently taking place between America’s Jewish community and its self-titled liberal Zionist fringe. Although in some instances, J Street claims are simply swatted with clips of Palestinians putting in their own words precisely what they think of peace and reconciliation with Israel.
J Street has long demanded that its views be debated publicly, and early on in the documentary Andrea Levin advocates that J Street should indeed be debated. In this way The J Street Challenge consciously sets out to directly confront J Street’s arguments and to ultimately defeat them on their own terms.
The group’s critics slam the legitimacy of the notion that liberal Jews in America can claim to know what is right for Israel better than Israelis do, taking J Street to task for its efforts to impact policy in Israel by bypassing the Israeli ballot box and instead lobbying for pressure from Washington. Gordis cuts to the heart of the J Street conceit when he points out, “None of us know what’s going to bring peace, none of us know what’s going to get the Palestinian side to make accommodations, the minute you’re absolutely certain that you have a monopoly on wisdom I think you stop listening.” The obsession with ending the conflict by ending the “occupation” is nicely taken down by Wisse, who retorts, “Since that so-called occupation was the consequence of the war against Israel, it cannot retroactively have become its cause.”
As the documentary wears on, exposed to this rather unforgiving dissection, the J Streeters almost begin to appear amusingly tragic. One J Street activist pleads that she supports J Street because she likes “creating good things in the world.” No match for Professor Wisse: “because they are so sensitive, and because they are so good-hearted … and wicked Israel is not as good hearted as I am. The stupidity of this kind of innocence in a world that is so complicated, when you belong to a people with such a tortured history of trying to arrive at the good in the midst of being persecuted and prosecuted falsely over so many centuries, I mean, its almost intolerable.”
What The J Street Challenge certainly exposes is the concerning way in which the J Street message risks having real traction with students. What this documentary does in response is to equip a broad public with the arguments by which to counter the supposedly sophisticated and morally superior arguments of liberals claiming to support Israel, while in reality only ever going out of their way to condemn it.
Originally published in Commentary Magazine.