Parsing the J Street Generation

J STREET LOGOEnjoyed James Traub’s feature about J Street in yesterday’s NY Times Magazine. Great to see them getting such high profile press.

For me, the most fascinating insight in the article came from J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami’s comments on the young ‘uns who work there:

The average age of the dozen or so staff members is about 30. Ben-Ami speaks for, and to, this post-Holocaust generation. “They’re all intermarried,” he says. “They’re all doing Buddhist seders.” They are, he adds, baffled by the notion of “Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you.” Living in a world of blogs, they’re similarly skeptical of the premise that “we’re still on too-shaky ground” to permit public disagreement.

I would say that this is my sense of 20-30 something Jews generally. I’m 46 myself, but I’m still old enough to remember the Yom Kippur War, Entebbe and Soviet Jewry rallies. Today’s new generation of Jews, however, has grown up with a decidedly different experience of their Jewish place in the world.  For them, the Jewish State doesn’t represent an antidote to Jewish insecurity, nor is it their last bastion of Jewish safety and survival.  Most Jewish young people I meet these days are comfortable enough in their post-modern Jewish skin and frankly, they fail understand why questioning traditionally held assumptions about Israel is considered so taboo.

I’ve long felt that unless the organized Jewish community makes an effort to grasp this, we’re going to lose this next generation. (I don’t care how many kids we send on Birthright – I don’t think the Jewish establishment is going to turn this tide around.)

Are you going to the first national J Street Conference on October 25-28? It’s increasingly looking like it’s going to be the place to be…

8 Replies to “Parsing the J Street Generation”

  1. I looked through the list of Israelis invited to the conference and on the board of J-Street and every one of them is from the Far Left fringe of Israeli politics. Some, like Ami Ayalon and Shlomo Ben-Ami were basically discredited and driven out of politics. I don’t even see any representatives from the main-line “peace party” Kadima. Thus, J-Street is almost completely cut-off from the mainstream of Israeli politics. So what is it they are attempting to accomplish? Simply to try to convince the Obama Administration that they supposedly represent the majority of American Jewish public opinion on Israel and the Middle East (something that has NOT been proven) and that the Administration should ignore the Israeli public and elected government in determining policy? That J-Street is trying to encourage the US to confront Israel with threats of sanctions and the like if Israel doesn’t carry out the policies J-Street and the discredited Far Left of Israel demand? (The Far Left Israeli Party MERETZ got only 3 seats in the last election). Does J-Street really believe most American Jews want a confrontation between the US and Israel, even if a lot are “intermarried and perform Buddhist seders”?
    And doesn’t J-Street ignore the main fact that the large majority of staunch supporters of Israel are NON-JEWS who don’t have complexes about Jewish assimilation?
    I don’t see how this organization can survive with such an agenda.

  2. YBD,

    I follow your main points here, and will think about them. Can you say more about the last one, though, this question:

    “Doesn’t J-Street ignore the main fact that the large majority of staunch supporters of Israel are NON-JEWS who don’t have complexes about Jewish assimilation”?

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, either in terms of J-Street’s agenda & future or in terms of Brant’s point about outreach to the “next generation.” Can you revisit it and explain?

    (Not, by the way, a member or conference attendee myself. Just trying to follow the debate.)

    EMS

  3. The article about J-Street in the Times, in addition to polemics in its favor by various “progressive” bloggers like Richard Silverstein, MJ Rosenberg and Phil Weiss, are mixing together two different agendas. One is defining what J-Street’s policy should be in trying to influence US policy in the Middle East, and the second is trying to redefine Jewish political activity in the United States. The two are not necessarily connected. The first says the government and people of Israel are acting in ways that go against what the Jewish “progressives” of J-Street think is the American interest in the Middle East and that the US should use coercion to force Israel to carry out other policies, even if the government and people of Israel object to the policies that are being forced on them.

    The second is attempting to redefine the perception of what values the Jews of America are projecting in their public policy as a group. If you read the article in the Times, the heads of J-Street seem to be drawing a line between themselves and traditional values the Jews as a group are projecting. They say they are “intermarried and practice Buddhist Seders”, meaning that they do not view Jewish tradition and Zionist-Jewish Nationalism as values that speak to the new, more assimilated generation of Jews (whether this is true or not is another matter). They view Jewish religious tradition and nationalist values as being “old fashioned” and they want the people of the US to view the Jews as representing these new “globalist”-assimilationist values are representing the majority of the Jewish community.
    Reflecting back on the first item on their agenda, they view Israeli policy as being nationalist and rather “primitive” and out of synch with their new assimilationist values. They claim that most American Jews do not really identify strongly with Israel and so that damaging Israeli security in the name of “larger” goals may be acceptable. Of course, they do try to sugar-coat this distancing from Israel and its security concern by saying that they are “pro-Israel” and are simply advocating “tough-love” for its own good, which is supposedly not really understood by its people and government.

    The fallacy of this is that as a lobby, if they come to a Congressman and say “we, as a ‘pro-Israel’ lobby support sanctions on Israel ‘for its own good’, we support arming Israel’s declared enemies and we oppose sanctions on hostile, Judeophobic enemies like Iran and HAMAS, all of this in the name of the Jewish people of America which we claim to represent”- the Congressman won’t understand what they are talking about. Logic says to support Israel is to support what the Israeli government views as the country’s interest. And, finally, as pertaining to your question, Eric, there are far more staunch supporters of Israel who are non-Jews than there are Jewish supporters, and this Congressman would risk alienating those people who know NOTHING about the arguments going on between “progressive” Jews and traditionalists and what supposedly is the “authentic” Jewish voice regarding policy towards Israel. It simply is irrelevant to these non-Jewish supporters. They have their own reasons for supporting Israel.

  4. “there are far more staunch supporters of Israel who are non-Jews than there are Jewish supporters, and this Congressman would risk alienating those people who know NOTHING about the arguments going on between “progressive” Jews and traditionalists and what supposedly is the “authentic” Jewish voice regarding policy towards Israel. It simply is irrelevant to these non-Jewish supporters. They have their own reasons for supporting Israel.”

    Ah! I see. And looking at the votes in his or her constituency, the Congressman would go with the larger number, which would be those non-Jewish supporters plus the non-J-Street Jews, rather than J-Street Jews plus non-Jews who agree with them.

    Hmmm… Will think that over.

    EMS

  5. “Logic says to support Israel is to support what the Israeli government views as the country’s interest.”

    Would you say that to support ANY democracy is to support what that democratically-elected government views as the county’s interest?

    Hmm.

    To support US during Bush & Obama administrations would therefore be to support Iraq & Afghan wars. To support US during Clinton years is to support bombing Serbia. During Reagan years it’s to support invasion of Granada, tax cuts, etc. During Johnson years it’s to support Viet Nam; during Kennedy years, Bay of Pigs.

    Not sure I buy that.

    To your other point, what if Congressman X simply needs Jewish “cover” to support things that he or she thinks are in the US national interest, whether or not they’re in Israel’s national interest? J-Street could be influential then, even w/o representing a majority of American Jews. (Whether that’s a good thing or not is a different question–I’m just talking about effectiveness as a lobby.)

  6. Just because someone calls themselves “pro-Israel” doesn’t necessarily make it so.

    In the end, J Street is a great “hope and change” alternative to real Israel lobbying. Hope for terrorists and change that reduces the support for the only real democracy in the Middle East.

  7. I don’t think anyone is “drawing a line between themselves and traditional values the Jews as a group are projecting”. I think that like every single generation that ever was, the new generation doesn’t share the same fears, hopes, or dreams. That’s just a fact of living.

    It’s more telling that “they’re similarly skeptical of the premise that ‘we’re still on too-shaky ground’ to permit public disagreement.” There’s a change that actually hearkens back to tradition!

    When, in the history of the world, have Jews told other Jews that they were *not allowed* to disagree? To disagree is to be Jewish! I have a serious problem with being told that if I disagree with the current Israeli administration that I am not just wrong, but that I am an enemy!

    This is why I am willing to listen to what J Street has to say.

    L’Shanah Tovah!

  8. Reminds me of listening to Bush comment on those who didn’t support the war in Iraq and torture as a means of getting information as being unpatriotic. If you don’t agree with your govenment’s published policies, are you the enemy? Unpatriotic?
    I don’t think so. I don’t feel so.

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