Jacob Heilbrunn

Is J Street Anti-Israel?

Israeli lawmakers have been busy this week. Among other things, they engaged in lengthy lucubrations on Wednesday about whether or not J Street, the Jewish organization based in Washington, DC that seeks to promote peace talks with the Palestinians, should, as the Washington Post puts it, be declared "anti-Israel." The meeting is yet another in a series of self-destructive Israeli acts. Instead of addressing, or even acknowledging, the fact that J Street apparently has over 100,000 members in the American Jewish community, the lawmakers are trying to delegitimize it.

The brouhaha centers on the fact that J Street was critical of the Obama administration for vetoing a United Nations resolution denouncing Israeli settlements. But since when are the settlements beyond criticism? By trying to tar anyone who has a policy disagreement as treasonous, these lawmakers are doing themselves--and Israel--no favors. They seem to want a code of omerta to prevail rather than genuine public debate--debate that, more often than not, flourishes inside Israel itself.

What they do want is for organizations abroad to serve as uncritical emissaries for the Israeli government. But an organization that exists purely at the behest of the Israeli government would have no crediblity. Agree or disagree with J Street. But it seems hard to argue that it hasn't injected some vigor into the discussion in America over Israeli policy. Yet Kadima member Otniel Schneller announced that "J Street is not a Zionist organization. It cannot be pro-Israel."

Yes, it can. Otniel's remark gets back to the issue of what constitutes being "pro-Israel." Is it reflexively endorsing whatever the Israeli government decides is in the country's best interest? Or is it trying to offer friendly advice at a time of great peril for Israel?

The truth is that Israel should be grabbing the chance to cut a peace deal with the Palestinians at a moment when the Arab world is in upheaval. It needs to detach itself from the West Bank. And it needs to focus on security in the Gaza strip.

Instead, it sounds as though leading Israeli lawmakers are engaging in the emotionally satisfying act of trying to accuse liberal American Jews of trying to undermine them. Perhaps a resolution in the Knesset will, as Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of J Street, worries, succeed in ostracizing the organization. But it won't be able to quash the sentiments that the group represents.