J Street, the year-old progressive “pro-peace, pro-Israel” lobbying group, has its official coming-out party in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Writer James Traub paints a sharp contrast between J Street ‘s upstart team of “netroots”-savvy whiz kids, led by Jeremy Ben-Ami, and the staid leadership of the old-guard Jewish organizations—the Conference of Presidents, the Zionist Organization of America, and, yes, AIPAC—who, in Traub’s characterization, spend their time hanging out at evangelical Christian rallies and ruing the end of the Bush Administration. Ben-Ami, Traub writes, has arrived “at a propitious moment”—a time when many liberal Jews, energized by the Obama campaign and unimpressed by the failure of the neoconservatives to ink a peace deal, are ready to try Obama’s get-tough approach on settlements and the two-state solution. “One these issues, which pose a difficult quandary for the mainstream groups, J Street knows exactly where it stands,” Traub writes.
There was, of course, a time, in the early 1980s, when AIPAC, at least, was run by left-leaning progressives—people like Tom Dine, a veteran of Ted Kennedy’s presidential campaign—but Traub seems to be suggesting that what’s going on is generational, more than anything else. M.J. Rosenberg, another veteran of AIPAC, told Traub that “all the old Jewish people in senior-citizen homes speaking Yiddish are dying, and they’re being replaced by 60-year-old Woodstock types.” But Rosenberg—who cheerfully blogged this morning that the Times story “heralds a new day”—missed the mark by about thirty years. The real shift, Traub writes, is from the moment of people like the Conference of Presidents’ Malcolm Hoenlein and the Zionist Organization’s Morton Klein, both born in Europe amid the wreckage of the Holocaust, to that of people like Ben-Ami, whose great-grandparents helped found Tel Aviv, who handed out leaflets for Carter as a teenager, and whose office is filled with thirty-something Jews who are intermarried and “all doing Buddhist seders.” As with the Cubans in Florida, who have outgrown their exile mentality, Traub argues, J Street believes American Jews no longer need to be “in thrall to the older generation” when it comes to the Middle East.
But it seems to us that there’s really something even deeper going on—not so much a shift in opinion, but a shift away from the idea that American Jews should, or even could, arrive at something like a unified opinion on Israel. Traub draws a distinction between the fortresslike offices of AIPAC and most other major Jewish groups and those of J Street, which he describes as glassy and airy and open. Last week, J Street announced that it had hired Hadar Susskind, an Israeli-born, American-raised veteran of both the IDF and the Hill, to be its new director of policy. In this week’s Forward, Susskind writes: “It’s time for all of us who grew up loving Israel and praying for peace to stop letting the mythical notion that American Jews speak with a single voice keep us from supporting Israel’s security and future by calling for peace.”
The New Israel Lobby [NYTM]