November 03, 2009

Yada Yada Street (Episode II, Ben-Ami)

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of J-Street, opened the J-Street policy conference, as Mondoweiss reports, with this gem.
We value the partnership and engagement and support of our non-Jewish friends – both here tonight and in our work overall. We need and appreciate allies and alliances, individual and institutional.

But at heart they know – as we know – that the root of this movement and heart of this conversation has to be in the American Jewish community. For many of us as Jews, this conversation taps into our deepest personal feelings – of family, history and community. (Mondoweiss)
Gee, isn't it nice and progressively post-racial that Ben-Ami is willing to accept Palestinian solidarity with his struggle? Because, you know, it's not like they might have bigger fish to fry.

What is, after all, Palestinian life and liberty compared to the complexity and grandeur of the "deepest personal feelings" of Ben-Ami and his ilk as they sit around and kvetch about their identity? And do take note of the presumptuous tone. Not only is Ben-Ami telling Palestinians to stand aside and let Jews figure out what is good for them, but he also knows that "at heart," however much they may insist on self-determination, "in their heart" they understand that only Jews can lead them to the promised land. Not only does he declare his right to determine their fate, but he also takes command of their voice to represent them as willingly giving him the command of their fate. Ben-Ami's performance of the White Man's Burden is so unoriginal that it calls to mind countless other performances. For example, this oil painting of Colombus landing in the New World to be received in awe by the natives who recognize at once his superior right to dominate them, embodied in the drawn-out cross. Plus ça change...

Horowitz and Weiss and others have repeatedly noted that the attendees at the conference are to the left of the leadership. As good as that sounds, and I do realize that a lot of people went to the conference to make their concerns heard rather than to listen to some of the glutei maximi invited to pontificate (and good that they did,) I don't find these assurances that reassuring. Quite frankly, those who were not troubled by the display of colonial and imperial arrogance are not part of the solution. They are part of the problem. As for those who were bothered, some thoughts about the strategy behind lending support and voice to an organization that speaks this kind of language, lobbies Congress against the Goldstone report, excises Gaza from its agenda, and considers equal rights to be beyond the pale of conversation would be welcome. It's all great that J Street is opening a side door for Jewish dissent, but that does not automatically mean that Jewish dissent should welcome J street regardless of concrete politics. The central issue is Palestinian rights and self-determination, not how they treat other Jews.

I am also not clear about the excitement over the rise of J-Street as a new "lobby". Jews who are to the left of J-Street already have a wide variety of options for expressing their disenchantment with Israel in an active manner, from the radical left groups such as the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and Jews Against The Occupation, through Jewish Voice for Peace and the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation, and a variety of other fora, Palestinian, Jewish and ecumenical, that are active about the Middle East. It is true that these groups are outside of the "mainstream" and not able to directly impact Washington. But then, they are outside the mainstream because relatively few people support their work. Those who would rather be "supporting J-Street from the left" than, for example, supporting JVP from the right, are making an eloquent political choice, and that political choice is to line up behind a blatantly pro-imperialist, racist organization committed primarily to maintaining Israeli domination. They prefer to deceive themselves that J Street will instigate change that it clearly has no intention to instigate, rather than risk being branded as "outside the mainstream". The centrist dynamics involved here is familiar. Many "want change" but don't necessarily want power to really shift; they want to feel included and they want to feel moral and they want to feel their cognitive dissonance resolved. That is all that J Street promises. And while we shouldn't be dismissive of moves at the political center, neither is there reason for giddiness given how far right the center of US politics really is. It doesn't follow that J Street is necessarily a bad development. Splitting the racist Jewish voice between AIPAC and J Street would be a good thing if it happen. It will open more space for dissent and increase the legitimacy of more radical positions. But that is only a good thing if Jews to the left of J Street stay to the left of J Street. If instead J Street saps energy from further left, that is good news for whom?

There is reason to think that second scenario is precisely what J Street's purpose is. As Daniel Luban writes,

The basic premise of J Street is that it is possible to be both liberal and pro-Israel. If the hardliners succeed in destroying J Street, and with it any viable outlet for liberal pro-Israel sentiment, they will force the younger generation of American Jews — who are overwhelmingly Obama Democrats — to choose between support for Israel and liberalism. No doubt some will choose Israel, but far more will choose liberalism. And in that case Israel will face a predicament far bleaker than whatever it fears from J Street. (IPS)
I don't think J Street emerges primarily from the tensions within the Jewish community. Rather, these tensions themselves reflect larger fissures in US society surrounding US global power. To get J Street, we need a more long-term view of the Jewish lobby. For decades, since 1967 at least, the Jewish Lobby built its power by advancing leading US corporate interests, most notably those of the Military-Industrial Complex, while tying these interests to constituencies supposedly the least friendly to these corporate interests, the Democratic grassroots, liberals, Jews, Labour, etc. In that sense, the Lobby performed an extremely valuable hegemonizing service. That worked well as long as the business of empire was humming along, and AIPAC was able to be bi-partisan and beyond criticism. The slow and surreptitious decline of the American empire become front page news between the collapse of the NASDAQ and September 11. The result was the exacerbation of a split about how the empire should react to its decline, a split between those who called for retrenchment and rebuilding of capability, and the neo-conservatives who advocated a "fuite en avant," aggressively trying to monetize US domination. The second camp won the policy debate under Bush, but at the cost of undermining effective hegemony, and the first camp has been strengthened by the obvious economic and military debacles of the Bush administration. AIPAC, in lockstep with the Israeli leadership, fully lined up behind the neo-conservative wing, thus undermining its own role as a builder of hegemonic consensus and creating a political vaccum in Washington, a vacuum that came under the spotlight with Bush's departure from power. Ben-Ami, apparently, wants to fill that vacuum. To the extent that the need for retrenchment is understood by a section of the US ruling class and capital (and Obama's election shows that it does), whoever can fill than vaccuum will have a very successful career. J Street is still far from achieving that. Ben-Ami needs to do a careful dance in order to show that his organization can generate enough heat to be worthy of donors' money without being too far-out and dangerous. The old guard is going to fight him with everything they have, while Obama and most other politicians are going to adopt a wait-and-see attitude until the donors start coming. This is high politics, the struggle for wealth and power inside Washington, a fascinating byzantine story of courtly intrigue, skulduggery and betrayal, but unfortunately one in which right and wrong, communal identities and human rights are merely theater props. For Ben-Ami to succeed, he needs to show that he can do among Jews what Obama did more generally, sap the grassroots' discontent, especially on the liberal side, and accommodate it within the limits imposed by the primacy of the same interests that dominate Washington. J Street needs to be a better Jewish lobby than AIPAC, but perform the same role that AIPAC is no longer able to perform because of its rightward drift and the growing contradictions of the declining empire, which are also reflected in growing disaffection with Israel among Jews. I am not at all convinced that J Street can do that. But one can easily see why that agenda would appeal, consciously or not, to quite a lot of liberals. Those who truly hope for more will be disappointed.

Clearly, the hope of patching up Jewish support for colonial Israel is one of J Street's main attractions in Washington.

"Getting Israel another thirty F-16s won't help us combat the legitimacy issue [with] people who are trying to undermine the right of Israel to have a state." Luria [Isaac Luria, J Street's campaigns director] says. "Jews need a state. And that legitimacy window--the cracks in that window are getting wider. They're dangerous. Dangerous." (Weiss and Horowitz, The Nation)
Now, after I wrote the above, Max Ajl wrote in a comment to my previous entry that
...the "left wing" of the speakers was different from the "left wing" of the attendees. I can't make a claim to social-scientific sampling, but a good chunk of the people I talked to were far, far to the left of the (on the whole atrocious and dumb) speakers. Kids my age (I'm 25) or a bit older or younger, one-staters, Jewish kids who had been to the West Bank, even the editor of, a bit older than me, and far more critical than I expected. I don't know how large a component of young American Jewry this was, but I do think there's a generational shift going on, and it's an important one. This is to say nothing of older people I knew who were there, also
one-staters. Yoffie attacked Goldstone. He was also booed publicly. I agree with the notion that we're not seeing the transcendence of Zionism that we'd both, I'm sure, like to see. But withdrawal begins in steps. I don't know who Yglesias or twerps like Ezra Klein speak for. Not for me, and I don't know any young people that read them either...

I don't deny that, and obviously I wasn't there and I trust Max's impression, and others had similar impressions. So let me clarify. I do not deny that there is meaningful change in Jewish attitudes towards Israel lately. I think the change is undeniable and a good development. And to the extent that J Street simply provided a mixer for young Jews to realize that their disenchantment with Israel is more widespread than they thought, that is awesome. The problem is that J Street was not formed to express that change in attitudes nor to bring that change to political maturity. It was formed to capitalize on that change by blocking it, taming it, and bringing it back into line, the line of marrying support for colonialism in Palestine with U.S. ruling class interests. The most optimistic analysis I can take seriously is Adam Horowitz's quote from Rabbi Brant Rosen:
Rabbi Brant Rosen, who I had the honor of finally meeting in person, observed that J Street has opened a Pandora's box in promoting dissent while trying to manage it. He doubted it could be controlled once the box was opened. (Mondoweiss)
May that be true! But Pandora boxes have been closed before. I would like to hear from the people who found J Street so exciting that they are thinking harder about how to draw from this particular Pandora box and how to keep its lid open despite, not thanks to, J Street, and not assuming that the mere existence of that much positive energy guarantees a good continuation.

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