It’s probably an understatement that J Street, the 18-month-old pro-peace-process political action committee and lobby, has generated a firestorm of controversy in the Jewish world.
The group, which will hold its first national conference in Washington next week, has been depicted by opponents as a foe of Israel and an apologist for its enemies; it has been accused of undercutting Jewish unity during this year’s Gaza war and encouraging U.S. pressure on Israel over settlements, pressure a majority of American Jews reject.
Some of the criticism is clearly over the top; some may accurately reflect a group that is trying to find its footing in treacherous political terrain.
We don’t agree with many J Street positions. It leaves too many unanswered questions on Iran. Its approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations seems to start with the premise that the current impasse is mostly Israel’s fault, and that U.S. pressure on Israel is the way to end it. J Street, too, seems insufficiently tuned in to the fact that Hamas controls Gaza, leaving most routes to a viable peace process blocked.
It is also at odds with an Israeli public that is becoming more wary of concessions to a Palestinian leadership that seem to regard concessions as license for new attacks.
That said, we are disturbed by some of the harsh denunciations of the group. Suggesting that dissent from Israeli government positions is tantamount to hatred for the Jewish state ignores the reality of an American Jewish community with diverse views about the best path to peace and security.
Moreover, efforts to delegitimize J Street point to a narrowing of a pro-Israel movement that should be as broad as possible — encompassing those who feel Israel has already given up too much, but also those who argue Israel needs to take big risks and offer big compromises if it hopes to achieve lasting peace. Instead of demonizing J Street, Jewish leaders should engage with it, debate it and encourage it to reflect the centrism that defines our community.
We laud AIPAC and the Presidents Conference for decades of effective advocacy on behalf of Israel. But that doesn’t preclude the legitimacy of groups like J Street that generally take very different positions on critical issues.
Debate isn’t treason; it’s the way democracies and democratic people make decisions.