Thursday, 6 May 2010

The J Street and JCall Phenomena

On Monday the European Parliament in Brussels witnessed the official launch of a new organisation. Calling itself "JCall", it is self-consciously modelled on an American body born just two years ago – "J Street." The "J" in both titles may be assumed to stand for "Jewish", though the title of the parent body has a more complex provenance.

"J Street" was founded in Washington, DC. The city of Washington is constructed on a neat and orderly grid of numbered and lettered streets. None of the numbered streets appears out of sequence, and none of the streets named for the alphabet is missing – except for "J". There is an "I Street" and a "K Street"; there is no "J Street". It's a conundrum that has puzzled American minds for centuries. There is no convincing explanation, except that in the mediaeval alphabet the letters "I" and "J" were interchangeable, and the planners of Washington may have decided to omit one of them to avoid confusion.

Still, it gave the founders of this new Jewish-orientated lobbying body a golden opportunity, which they seized. A second happy coincidence is that other major lobbying bodies happen to have congregated in nearby "K Street".

Decked out with an intriguing and appropriate title, what was "J Street's" agenda?

Its founders were, in essence, rebelling against what they perceived as the traditional approach of mainstream Jewish American opinion-makers – namely, uncritical endorsement of the policies and actions of Israeli governments, regardless. If they had any one particular body in their sights, at least at the start, it was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), America's leading pro-Israel lobbying group, whose main objective has been to ensure that American support for Israel remained strong.

Nevertheless, according to its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, "J Street" is now proud of AIPAC's many accomplishments. In his view the two groups have different priorities rather than different views. "J Street", he has said, is neither pro- nor anti- any individual organization or other pro-Israel umbrella groups. What it has sought is to provide a political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans who believe, in their words, that a "two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essential to Israel’s survival as the national home of the Jewish people and as a vibrant democracy."

In brief, "J Street" was born in 2008, at a time when the "two-state solution" to the Israel-Palestine conflict had not gained general acceptance in the main right-wing Israeli political party, Likud, or in other more extreme right-wing parties. While some Jewish opinion formers worldwide continued to reflect those views, others favoured the approach of centrist and left-wing Israeli political parties. The Kadima party, for example, was founded on the belief that it was not in Israel's interest to continue to govern many millions of Arab citizens in the occupied territories. Demographically and democratically, such a situation offered Israel no secure future. Israel needed to work actively towards the establishment of a sovereign Palestine based in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. It was to allow the free airing of views like these that "J Street" was founded. However, along the way it has given its support to controversial policies like opposing sanctions on Iran and trying to initiate a congressional resolution in favour of the Goldstone report's condemnation of Israel's Gaza campaign.

Views such as these, to say the least, did not always accord with those of the Israeli government. There was a perception among Israeli officials that "J Street" placed much of the fault for the stalled peace process on Israel. But as the situation on the ground has changed, so has the adverse Israeli view of "J Street". The rapprochement was strengthened towards the end of April, when "J Street’s" executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, finally met with Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren – a meeting built on months of discussions, aimed at clarifying the Israeli government’s understanding of "J Street’s" views.

Then last week "J Street" leaders visited Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. They were welcomed by the Israeli establishment, meeting President Shimon Peres, senior Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer, and others. The trip included meetings in Ramallah with top Palestinian leaders and a meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman.

And now the debate that American Jewry has been engaged in for the past two years has reached Jewish Europe. The question: " How critical in public should you be of Israeli government policies that you believe are not in Israel’s best interests?"

In the past, the founders of JCall believe, many European Jewish communal leaders have adopted an "Israel right or wrong" approach, defending unconditionally anything said or done by a current Israeli government. That, as "J Street" has demonstrated, seems to them increasingly inappropriate. But lobbying for a two-state solution and a peaceful outcome in the Middle East, as "J Street" has been doing, is a long way from calling for occasional condemnation of Israeli policies, or for European pressure on the Israeli government. And JCall's main activity so far has been to amass signatures for an online petition repudiating blind support for Israeli policies, and calling for the European Union to pressure Israel and the Palestinians to agree to a two-state solution.

The European Jewish Congress, an umbrella group representing elected European Jewish community leaders, has condemned JCall’s petition calling for European pressure on Israel’s government as “divisive, counter-productive and unhelpful.” There is something in what they say. To commit the future of Israel to the goodwill of European governments is to ignore the lessons of history. Europe's previous attempts at providing "solutions" to the Jewish problem do not inspire confidence. European governments can scarcely have the best interests of Israel and the Jewish people at heart. Jews the world over would have every reason to be alert and sceptical about any advice to Israel, however friendly the source.

There is everything to be said for open discussion and a free exchange of opinion, but JCall's current approach seems particularly ill-conceived. They are pushing at an open door. The fact is that the Israeli government has already accepted the two-state solution; it has, in a sense, contained its extremists, at least for the present. For progress to be made towards a peaceful outcome, the Palestinian side somehow has to contain their extremists. Some movement there has undoubtedly been, as evidenced by the endorsement provided by the Arab League for the start of the proximity talks.

Given present circumstances, both "J Street" and JCall seem more than a trifle irrelevant.

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