The Good, the Bad and the Jews

Are the Jews bad for the Jews?

It’s an old joke—except that it’s not a joke—that upon any high-profile event that even slightly involves either Jewish players or Jewish concerns, the question is unfailingly asked, “Is this good or bad for the Jews?”

On a global scale, assessments about the well-being of Judaism are frequently a function of the well-being of Israel, and the two are often conflated:  What is good for Israel is assumed to be axiomatically good for the Jews, and vice versa.

Where this assumption gets complicated—that is to say, the point at which reality enters the picture—is the enormous disagreement as to what actually is good for Israel in the first place, and whether “the Jews” can any longer be seen as a singular unit with common interests, not least regarding the future of the Jewish state.

To complicate matters further:  What happens when the association with the single greatest influence over America’s policy toward Israel refuses even to acknowledge these basic truths, insisting that Jewish and Israeli interests are one and the same, and that there is only one way in which the interests of both may be viewed?

This series of complications bubbled to the surface last week, when the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejected the application by the lobbying group J Street to join its team.

The Conference—an alliance of some 51 separate groups—bills itself as “advanc[ing] the interests of the American Jewish community, sustain[ing] broad-based support for Israel and address[ing] the critical concerns facing world Jewry.”  In effect, it presumes to be the collective voice of the Jewish people in the United States.

Why was J Street denied membership in this distinctive club?  Because it just isn’t pro-Israel enough.

Founded in 2008 and based in Washington, D.C., J Street is, in its own words, “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”  Its stated objective as a non-profit is for Israel to be divided into two states, with Israelis and Palestinians coexisting alongside each other peacefully.

Notably, among the six “core principles” listed on J Street’s website is the assertion that “Israel’s supporters have not only the right but the obligation to speak out when we think the policies or actions of the Israeli government are hurting Israel’s and the Jewish people’s long-term interests.”  Indeed, J Street has at times done exactly that, having condemned certain Israeli actions in Gaza and having supported U.S. engagement with Iran.

To the Conference—or rather, to a plurality of its voting members—for J Street to publicly cast a critical eye toward the Israeli government in this way was simply a bridge too far.

“J Street’s positions were not within the mainstream of the Jewish community,” said Farley I. Weiss, an Orthodox leader, presumably echoing the view of all those who voted to deny membership.  “On virtually every single issue,” Weiss added, “[J Street’s] position is contrary to that of anything that would be considered pro-Israel, and they don’t represent the rank and file of the Jewish community in America.”

Well, that analysis would come as something of a surprise to the actual Jewish community in America.

From a comprehensive 2013 Pew survey, we find 61 percent of Jewish Americans answering “yes” to the question, “Is there a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully?”  As well, only 38 percent said the Israeli government was “making a sincere effort” to effect peace.  When asked to assess the “impact of continued building of Jewish settlements on Israel’s security,” 17 percent said it “helps,” while 44 percent said it “hurts.”

What we have, in other words, is an American public with very little hesitation to voice concerns that the Israeli government might be shooting itself in the foot, while the organization that purports to represent the public considers these concerns totally off the table.

As such, not only is the question of what is good for the Jews and/or Israel up for grabs, but so is the question of whether we’re allowed to ask the question.

We are left, then, with a political atmosphere in which the facts on the ground don’t matter, and in which only one point of view is allowed, while all others are suppressed, denied or voted out of the conversation.

I ask:  Has such a state of affairs ever been good for the Jews?

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