J Street’s Wrong Turn in the War of Narratives

J Street

J Street, the most prominent American pro-Israel, pro-peace group, has packed its 2011 national conference with sessions on nearly every aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict, US Mideast policy and American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Conspicuously missing, though, is the most important topic of all: he narrative of Israel as a brave but insecure little nation, constantly forced to fight for survival. As long as that narrative frames American public conversation about Israel, nothing J Street or anyone else does to change US policy will make much difference.

In Israel and Palestine, it’s taken for granted that competing narratives play a central role in keeping the political conflict going. But in the US, we are somehow blind to the role of narrative. So we get a J Street conference without a single session devoted to that absolutely crucial topic.

When I raised the point with a conference organizer, I was told that no separate session was needed because the issue “should be present throughout many of our conversations.” It’s like giving a course on how the human body works without devoting a class session to the bloodstream, because something about blood will probably come up in other classes.

The story of Israel as an innocent victim, constantly on guard against “existential threats,” is the lifeblood of the right-wing pro-Israel lobby, which still has the upper hand in making US policy, despite the best efforts of J Street and others. As long as that story holds sway, even Israel’s most egregious acts will continue to be widely forgiven as unfortunate necessities. Though few Americans know the Hebrew mantras – “ein breira” (there is no choice); “hacol bishvil bitachon” (all for the sake of security) – most Americans take that underlying message for granted.

So Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, its economic stranglehold on Gaza, its foot-dragging on peace-making, and the suffering that inflicts on Palestinians all get a pass from the US public and policymakers, because they sympathize with Israel’s supposedly overriding need to protect its security.

Pro-peace groups spend little time promoting the obvious counternarrative: Israel is by far the Middle East’s strongest military power; no nation in the region has even the slightest chance of defeating Israel, as it has shown in every war since 1948; while we’re bombarded with fears about a fantasy of a single Iranian nuclear weapon, Israel’s 100 to 200 nukes are ignored; Palestinian violence against Israel has virtually ceased, since both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are enforcing a nonviolent approach to the conflict.

Instead of hammering away at these obvious facts, the peace groups offer alternatives that will have little impact as long as the story of Israel’s insecurity dominates the land.

J Street’s preferred narrative is simple: as long as Israel occupies Palestinian land, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democratic state, but not both. But that view doesn’t gain much traction with a public that makes national security a higher priority than democracy. If “the evildoers hate our freedoms,” they’ll wipe out those freedoms as soon as they get a chance; our first job is to make sure they never get that chance. That logic is a pillar of American political life.

It’s only natural that it should be applied to our “endangered ally” Israel – especially in the Jewish community. As long as most US Jews credit Israeli claims of “existential threat” as realistic and reasonable, they’ll continue to accept the argument that Israel can take no chances for peace. And as long as the American Jewish community tells that story, it will be hard to break its hold on the American gentile community.

So, Obama, whatever his personal wishes, will find it politically too dangerous to do what J Street wants him to do: press both sides to define the border between the two states, and, if they can’t do it soon (which is likely), to present a US map and demand a simple yes or no decision.

J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami has said publicly that Israelis’ fear of unprovoked attack is the biggest obstacle to peace. What he doesn’t say is that a similar fear for Israel’s safety among US Jews – his main target audience – is an equal obstacle to peace. Why won’t J Street challenge the hegemonic Jewish narrative head on?

Staffers have told me privately that they don’t want to risk closing down the lines of communication – and, in some cases, influence – they’ve opened up with the Jewish community and some members of Congress. Publicly, Ben-Ami now says that J Street will soften its critical tone: “We’ve come on slightly too edgy, too ready to hit away at people we don’t agree with. That rough edge hasn’t been helpful.” It’s not likely, then, that his organization will risk whatever success it’s enjoying by challenging the foundation of the American Jewish narrative about Israel.

Groups to the left of J Street, such as Jewish Voice for Peace and the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, don’t have the same political worries, so they’re free to take a more aggressive approach. And they probably assume the narrative of Israeli insecurity is so absurd that it’s not worth mentioning. So, they don’t mention it. Instead, they work day and night educating the public about Israel’s immoral violence and human rights abuses.

But the public already has a fair idea of the facts. They see them on television. The problem is that so many don’t define what they see as outrageous or abusive. What counts as a human rights abuse or moral outrage depends on the context. Suppose you strike out at someone who is menacing you or your child? Isn’t that just self-defense? That’s how most Americans see Israel’s use of force and its human rights offenses.

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This view prevails partly because it’s repeated endlessly by top political leaders. In Cairo, when Barack Obama made his most famous statement on the Israel-Palestine issue, he started off with a full paragraph about the horrors of the Holocaust, proclaiming that “threatening Israel with destruction … is deeply wrong,” and insisting that “Palestinians must abandon violence.” He never said a word about the Israeli violence that has so decimated the Palestinian nation. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) last year, she used the words “secure” and “security” in reference to Israel 24 times in her relatively short speech.

As Egyptian crowds demanded the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, a White House spokesman was quick to reassure the Israelis that, “We fully understand Israel’s security concerns, and we’re making clear that our commitment to Israel’s security is unshakeable.”

But the most powerful reinforcement of the Israeli insecurity narrative comes from the mass news media, who take it for granted as the frame for all their reporting on the Middle East. Consider the reporting on the Egyptian upheaval in The New York Times, a useful test case for two reasons: the Times is still such a huge influence shaping the rest of the mass media, and it has made some strides in recent years toward more even-handed coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue. Still, Israel’s supposed security plight remains the basic premise of its reporting.

The Times offered a steady stream of stories from Israel in the days before Mubarak’s fall, as if the impact on Israel were somehow of paramount importance. The gist of it all was a picture of Israelis “fearing that the more time passes, the more the region is against them.” “Anti-Israeli sentiment runs high in the neighboring countries,” wrote the Times, and Israelis “believed that whoever followed Mr. Mubarak would be less friendly to Israel” and they “could be left without an ally in the region.” So Mubarak’s departure left Israel with “abiding worries about the future.”

More specifically, the Times focused on fears of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. “That would probably mean not only a stronger Islamist force in Gaza” and in Jordan, but “it may only be a matter of time before Hamas takes over the West Bank … meaning Israel would feel surrounded in a way it has not in decades.” And, “A government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood would mean you can’t exclude the possibility of a war with Egypt.” And finally, “If you’re sitting in the Israeli Defense Ministry [you are] thinking, ‘Oh my God, I have to worry about my southern border now.'”

The same fear was haunting the White House, the Times reported: “If Egyptians are allowed free and fair elections … administration officials say, they will have to deal with the real possibility that an Egyptian government might include members of the Muslim Brotherhood…. Administration officials say they are keenly aware that how they manage all of the conflicting fears, hopes and aspirations of Israelis and Egyptians could mean the difference between war and peace.”

The Times did offer some quotes from less frightened Israelis, like Efraim Halevy, a former chief of Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, who said that Israel “has no reason to fear.” But those voices were a distinct minority.

On the op-ed page, the Times’ most influential writer, Thomas Friedman, reported from Cairo that the uprising “is not owned by, and was not inspired by, the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of all, it is not about some populist upsurge that craves restarting the war with Israel.” He reaffirmed his call for the Israelis to make more concessions for peace. And, in a surprising about-face, he went even further than J Street in calling for President Obama to put forth his own peace plan now.

Yet Friedman prefaced all this by reaffirming the common wisdom: “This is a perilous time for Israel, and its anxiety is understandable,” he wrote. “Everyone can or should understand Israel’s strategic concerns. They are totally valid…. Of course, Israelis are worried about convulsion here. How could they not?”

Perhaps they could worry less when they read the assurances of Egyptian leaders Mohamed ElBaradei and Essam al-Errian (spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood) that they have no intention of abrogating the peace treaty with Israel, words reported in the Israeli press. Though the Times had recognized both men as major leaders, giving both space on its op-ed page, it did not see fit to report either clear statement of peaceful intent, which just doesn’t fit the dominant narrative of Israeli insecurity.

The Times’ coverage offered a fine example of what Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, once decried (on the Times’ own op-ed page) as widespread “pathological” fear about Israel’s security. But the Times presented it all as straightforward factual reporting.

As long as pathological fear passes for fact, none of the arguments presented by J Street and other peace groups will make much of a dent in the American political scene, no matter how logical and well-packaged they are.

It will remain too politically risky for the Obama administration to change the decades-old pattern: though US leaders do criticize specific Israeli policies and actions, when the chips are down, the US will side with Israel.

In case J Street needed a reminder of that sad fact, just a week before its conference began, the Obama administration cast its first Security Council veto, and the only dissenting vote, to shoot down a resolution condemning Israeli settlement expansion.

Before its next conference, J Street will have to make a choice. It can go on broadening its appeal in the Jewish community by avoiding a direct challenge to the insecurity narrative – and see little, if any, progress toward its goal of serious US pursuit of a two-state solution.

Or it can change direction and attack the insecurity narrative head-on. That won’t guarantee a shift in administration policy, but it will open up the possibility for J Street to do what Ben-Ami says he wants to do: replace the debilitating narrative of fear with a narrative of hope that is the only road to a lasting peace. And at least it will guarantee that we can have, for the first time, an honest and meaningful public debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict.