So began a joke about the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from one of J Street’s breakout session panelists at their annual conference in Washington last month. The childish vitriol goes both ways, as pundits and individuals supporting AIPAC have launched equally disparaging criticisms toward J Street in the past. Needless to say, since J Street surged onto the political scene in 2008, tensions have flared on all sides of the pro-Israel table.
In pro-Israel circles, supporters of both groups alike view the choice of AIPAC or J Street with mutual exclusivity - the same way most people view the Red Sox or Yankees, Mac or PC, and Team Jennifer or Team Angelina (Team Jen all the way). As I wrestled with supporting one group or the other many months ago, one friend half-jokingly pleaded with me: It’s us or them. Red Sox or Yankees, Jacob. If you’re not with us, you’re against us.
The reality, however, is the opposite: the choice presented to the pro-Israel community between AIPAC and J Street is a false dichotomy.
Both groups work toward two very different yet equally important goals. AIPAC, a staunchly bipartisan organization that forms the bedrock of the pro-Israel establishment, works toward a strong US-Israel alliance to ensure that Israel remains safe and secure in the world’s most dangerous neighborhood. This mission and its policy initiatives – increasing sanctions on Iran and helping to develop the Iron Dome technology to defend from rocket attacks, to name a few – are critical to the safety of Israel.
Meanwhile, J Street filled a void from a completely different angle. A progressive organization, it works toward a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by supporting a two-state solution between a just, democratic Jewish state and Palestinian state coexisting in peace and security. J Street recognizes that if Israel does not change course from the status quo control of the Palestinian territories in the near future through the establishment of two states for two peoples, it will face an unthinkable choice that J Street works tirelessly to prevent: either granting residents of the Palestinian territories full citizenship of Israel, which would leave Jews a minority in the world’s only Jewish state, or leaving them with second-class citizenship, thereby defying the very democratic values upon which Israel was founded.
By and large, most AIPAC supporters would like a two-state solution and an Israel that remains both Jewish and democratic and most J Streeters support peaceful sanctions and diplomacy with Iran to avoid military action. So, when I attended J Street’s annual conference, I asked supporters and student activists alike why they didn’t particularly like AIPAC. The answers were virtually all the same: that the problem isn’t with what AIPAC says, but rather, what AIPAC doesn’t say. Simply put, although AIPAC supports a two-state solution, J Streeters feel that the peace process and settlements do not get the spotlight they deserve.
On the other side of the divide, the disdain for J Street from some in the AIPAC world is partly generational, but similar at its most fundamental level. With communities rallying to save the state from annihilation in wars with Arabs in 1967 and 1973, our parents and grandparents grew up viewing Israel through the lens of the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a byproduct of that generation, so did AIPAC, which makes understanding the J Street perspective difficult for so many. Many of my peers, however, have seen Israel through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as our Facebook news feeds filled with support and commentary in 2008 and 2012 through conflicts with Palestinians in Gaza. The students I met at J Street reflected this; the two-state solution and a just peace with the Palestinians resonated far more with them than AIPAC’s initiatives on, say, Iran or foreign aid.
Most activists at each group’s conference had never attended a conference for the other group. After attending events and conferences for both organizations myself, however, I saw that the differing missions of AIPAC and J Street do not conflict with each other and, in fact, complement each other quite nicely. Each group brings a unique yet valuable take to the table that not only allows, but also encourages, involvement with the other, absent any feeling of taking sides. Were pro-Israel community members not so polarized amongst themselves, perhaps Israel could bring its dream of peace to fruition all the more quickly.
Of course, no organization is perfect – AIPAC and J Street included.
While J Street knows that AIPAC has done some great things for the US-Israel relationship, they are also quick to recognize its flaws. AIPAC’s community can sometimes stifle healthy, open dialogue about Israel and the conflict and close the discussions that permeate the entire Jewish community. Moreover, if America is truly Israel’s closest ally, it must be willing to offer support that is sometimes honestly constructive. A truly unbreakable alliance, as my good friend Jake Sorrells, President of Georgetown University J Street U, writes, “is defined by something far deeper than nicknames, gushy utternaces, favors, and flirtations. It’s defined by a mutual and honest concern for each other’s long-term welfare and, at times, can require a constructive — but more critical — type of brotherly support.”
J Street, meanwhile, has attracted one faction of supporters far more radical than the organization’s leadership itself. For example, J Street Conference panelist Husam Zomlot received warm applause when declaring that the right of return was necessary to a peace deal, while Israeli peace negotiator Tzipi Livni received a lukewarm response that paled in comparison for calling for balance between Israeli security and a peace resolution. A full right of return is opposed by J Street as an organization and is even more than what Palestinian President Abbas expects, as Israel would no longer remain a Jewish state, yet that line – among several others radically contrary to what J Street itself and the pro-Israel community stands for – received rampant applause. Moreover, just as AIPAC sometimes lacks sufficient focus on peace with the Palestinians, J Street’s laser-like focus on settlements can sometimes minimize the fact that, while the settlements are an obstacle to peace, there are many obstacles from the leadership in Ramallah and Gaza that require just as much attention.
Reservations clearly run abound on each side about the other’s flaws, but do these imperfections really justify the mutual disdain between them?
In reality, when all is said and done, both groups are doing far more good than harm. They each work toward missions that do not conflict with the other and in fact complement each other, both missions of which are absolutely critical if Israel is to survive as a Jewish, democratic state also living in peace and security with its neighbors. Do not feel the need to bend to this imaginary choice between AIPAC and J Street – “The One-Group Illusion” that they are mutually exclusive.
The most persecuted people in the history of mankind, the Jewish people, finally have a state of their own. Yet, despite the threats to its existence both internally and externally, we in America remain as bitterly divided amongst ourselves over how to confront its challenges as ever before. If Israel is to exist for our grandchildren, we must remain open to supporting the work of those defending Israel from neighboring regimes, and those working to peacefully establish a Palestinian state. No longer can the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” attitude dominate and divide this community. Supporting both organizations is not for everyone, but moving beyond the mindset of mutual exclusivity and remaining open to doing so certainly is.
Seeking advice on my decision, I heard the tireless tune of a broken record from one friend after another from both groups – It’s us or them. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Finally, when I returned to the friend who presented me with the Red Sox or Yankees, AIPAC, or J Street analogy, I left that Yankees fan with an analogy of my own. The real question for you here, I said, is balancing your support for the New York Yankees with your support for the New York Mets. Each team brings their own unique personality and players to the table, but you can root for both teams in their respective leagues even if you favor one a little more. After all, both teams represent and support the place you know and love, New York – your “homeland”, if you will. Cheer on both teams that support your homeland, and in the end – one way or another – the home team will win this very, very, old ballgame.
Image in Content Courtesy of motherjones.com