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25 May, 2008

Are We Finally Seeing The Rise of Moderate Jews?

Originally Published: 25 May 2008

Just under 140 prominent American and Israeli Jews, including diplomats, ex-cabinet ministers and intelligence agents, military staffers, journalists, rabbis and many more, are backing a new political action group established last month to set a “new direction for American policy in the Middle East and a broad public and policy debate about the U.S. role in the region.”

The formation of J Street [www.jstreet.org], announced just a few weeks before the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel and the Palestinian naqba, reflects the growing ascendancy of the “moderate Jews” who, like their counterparts, the “moderate” Palestinians/Arabs/Muslims seek a non-violent, just and permanently peaceful resolution to the long-running conflict.

The group’s policy statement makes abundantly clear its view that the present Middle East impasse is largely the result of one-sided perspectives – echoing a view repeatedly expressed in this column over many years.

It says, “For too long, the only voices politicians and policy makers have heard on American policy toward Israel and the Middle East have been from the far right. It is high time that mainstream pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans fought back for real peace and security.”

Seeking membership support from like-minded people around the world, Jstreet.org has already updated its website with a commentary criticising President Bush’s comments during his recent visit to Israel in which he characterised those who believe in diplomacy negotiations as being victims of a “foolish delusion” and espousing the “false comfort of appeasement.”

The few sporadic reports in the international media about the formation of Jstreet indicate that it strives to provide a counterweight to the notorious American Israel Public Affairs committee, whose influence on the US political process is becoming increasingly apparent in the present election battle.

Referring to itself as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement,” the J Street website says it “brings together Americans who seek a new direction for American policy in the Middle East and broader public and policy debate in the U.S. about ways to achieve lasting peace in the Middle East.”

Asserting that it “was founded to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Palestinian-Israel conflicts peacefully and diplomatically,” the group says:

“We believe honest discussion of American and Israeli policies is healthy for the U.S., for Israel and for the American Jewish community. We will actively promote debate in the United States that is as open and spirited as it is in Israel. In that debate, we will oppose alliances with the religious right or any radical religious ideologues in the name of supporting Israel as well as efforts to demean and fan fears of Islam or of Muslims.”

The organisation says it “represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own – two states living side-by-side in peace and security. We believe ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is in the best interests of Israel, the United States, the Palestinians, and the region as a whole.

“J Street supports diplomatic solutions over military ones, including in Iran; multilateral over unilateral approaches to conflict resolution; and dialogue over confrontation with a wide range of countries and actors when conflicts do arise.

“J Street will advocate forcefully in the policy process, in Congress, in the media, and in the Jewish community to make sure public officials and community leaders clearly see the depth and breadth of support for our views on Middle East policy among voters and supporters in their states and districts. We seek to complement the work of existing organizations and individuals that share our agenda. In our lobbying and advocacy efforts, we will enlist individual supporters of other efforts as partners.”

The list of US founders and supporters on the advisory council was impressive.

The many Israeli signatories included Yossi Alpher, former Senior Member of Mossad; former Director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies; Col (Ret) Shaul Arieli, Council on Peace and Security, former Commander Gaza Brigade; Uzi Baram, Former Minister of Internal Affairs and Tourism; former Secretary General of the Labor Party, Shlomo Ben Ami, Former Foreign Minister and Public Security Minister, and numerous others.

Among the long list of Americans are: Eric Alterman, City University of New York Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism; David Avital, MTP Investments; David Birenbaum, Former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. for U.N. Management Reform; Lincoln Chafee, former US Senator; Rabbi Rachel Cowan, Executive Director, Institute for Jewish Spirituality; Debra DeLee, President/CEO, Americans for Peace Now; Samuel W. Lewis, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel; Eric Maskin, Nobel Laureate in Economics and Professor, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; Ricken Patel, Co-founder and Executive Director, Avaaz, and many, many more.

The website is careful to point out that individual involvement in this effort does not imply the support of their respective organisations.

The statement of support from the Israeli backers says they believe that “ending the Israeli-Palestinian and the broader Israeli-Arab conflict quickly and diplomatically is an essential national and security interest of the State of Israel – as well as of the United States, the Palestinians and the region as a whole. Only a negotiated, political resolution to these conflicts will ensure Israel’s lasting security and viability as a democratic, prosperous home for the Jewish people.”

The statement adds, “Being a friend and ally – being ‘pro-Israel’ – means caring enough to get involved, express views and concerns, and provide advice. It does not require rigid agreement with every decision ever made or every policy pursued by the government of Israel or of the United States. Debate and discussion are essential to democracy and should be part of the relationship between Israel and Jewish people elsewhere in the world.”

The movement is also set to expand beyond the US-Israeli sphere. On April 30, the British newspaper the Guardian printed a letter from a number of prominent UK Jews under the headline: “We’re not celebrating Israel’s anniversary.”

It said: “In May, Jewish organisations will be celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. This is understandable in the context of centuries of persecution culminating in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, we are Jews who will not be celebrating. Surely it is now time to acknowledge the narrative of the other, the price paid by another people for European anti-semitism and Hitler’s genocidal policies. As Edward Said emphasised, what the Holocaust is to the Jews, the Naqba is to the Palestinians.”

When such views become part of the public debate, there is no doubt that the tide has turned.