There is a line circulating in some quarters that, because of its conduct during the recent Gaza war, J Street should die and be supplanted by Jewish Voice for Peace.
Regardless of what one thinks about J Street’s conduct during the war, the promulgation of this line is a threat to any future pragmatic effort to move US policy on Israel-Palestine in any future that we can see. No one who was seriously engaged in a realistic contest for power in DC on this issue, or had any plans in any future that we can see to engage in a serious contest for power on this issue, would promote this line.
Saying that J Street should die because it supported the Gaza war would be like saying that the Obama Administration should die because it just started a new war or that the Democratic Party should die because the majority of Democrats just voted to arm Syrian rebels. No one who has serious, realistic, long-term plans to contest for power thinks like that.
It’s certainly true that Jewish Voice for Peace is more progressive than J Street. But then, it’s certainly true that the Green Party is more progressive than the Democratic Party. No one who has serious, realistic, long-term plans to contest for power would choose to work with the Green Party rather than the Democratic Party because there is no prospect that the Green Party will be able to influence power in any future that we can see. So, saying “I’m going to work with X and not Y because X is more progressive” can only be a complete argument if 1) X and Y are equally likely to help move power, or 2) you don’t actually care about moving power.
Personally, I have had many wonderful experiences working with Jewish Voice for Peace. But so far, they have not shown the capacity or even much interest in seriously contesting for power in Washington. Jewish Voice for Peace can’t be an alternative for people who care about Congress if they are not going to contest for power in Congress.
In my experience of talking to Congressional offices about this issue, no one has EVER asked me: Where does Jewish Voice for Peace stand on this issue? No Member of Congress or staffer has ever mentioned Jewish Voice for Peace in a conversation with me. Instead what they ask is: Where does J Street stand on this issue? And, often, if you ask them to do something, even something that seems very reasonable, if J Street is not supporting it, that ends any serious conversation.
In addition, even to the extent that Jewish Voice for Peace or some chapters might be interested in trying to engage Congress, if they were to insist that they will not work with J Street under any circumstances, it’s not serious. It’s not how people would try to move on any other issue, particularly when one is up against AIPAC. It’s not how people moved on trying to promote diplomacy with Iran. When there was a big push, everyone was pushing on the same letter.
So, if someone says that J Street should die and be supplanted by Jewish Voice for Peace, what they’re saying implicitly is that they don’t care about trying to do anything about Congress in any future that we can see. Well, some people are like that, and that is certainly their right to be like that. But that’s not how people who have realistic plans to contest for power generally behave. Instead, they try to start somewhere with engaging Washington, find allies and build from there.
And, of course, not having Congress as a focus kind of gives you an unfair advantage as far as progressivity is concerned. A key brake – not the only one – on J Street’s progressivity is that they have an eye on what people in Congress see as reasonable, just like any other organization that is trying to engage Washington. If you don’t engage Washington, then you don’t have that constraint. I can jump higher on the moon because there’s less gravity there. Does that mean that if I am on the moon, I am a better jumper?
I think there are three key reasons that JVP hasn’t been serious about engaging Washington.
One reason that they haven’t been serious is that they are based in the Bay Area, which is kind of its own planet politically.
The second reason is that they have a relationship with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, which claims to lobby Washington but has a completely unrealistic, Congressional-reality-denialist strategy for doing so, insisting on demanding that members of Congress vote to cut US military aid to Israel. Of course this is a total nonstarter with most members of Congress, and is a nonstarter as an organizing tool in most of the country because it is generally seen as an extremist position. Most members of Congress perceive people demanding that they vote no on US aid to Israel as “crazies,” as Congressional reality denialists. In the minds of most members of Congress, having a few “crazies” and Congressional reality denialists demand that they do something extreme doesn’t move them; what moves them is many people demanding that they do something reasonable.
And the third reason is that some people in Jewish Voice for Peace seem to have an existential hatred of J Street and have adopted a policy of no cooperation. And this is unserious. It’s not how people would try to move on any other issue.
It’s one thing to have criticisms of J Street – I do, too. It’s quite another thing to attack them as basically rotten. No one who had serious plans to contest for power would do this, because any plausible vision for a future progressive victory includes J Street in the winner’s circle, even if we don’t have agreement with them on a particular issue right now. When progressive Democrats have a difference of opinion with a Democratic administration or Democrats in Congress, they don’t say that the administration or Congressional Democrats are fundamentally rotten; they express their disagreement on the particular issue. The reason for this is that they have a long-term view: Those who are bad now on one issue will be good in the future on another. If you know that someone is going to be with you in the winner’s circle in the future, you wouldn’t try to tear down their power now.
If you are interested in participating in an ongoing conversation about developing a pragmatic strategy to engage Congress for progressive goals on Israel-Palestine, send an email with subject line “subscribe to pragmatic DC Israel-Palestine strategy” to firstname.lastname@example.org.