The Electronic Intifada / April 19, 2021
J Street has been holding its annual conference online this Sunday and Monday.
The liberal Israel lobby can boast of an impressive list of speakers, including so-called progressives in Congress, Biden administration figures and even a few Palestinians.
They are appearing alongside hardened Israeli war criminals with much Palestinian and Lebanese blood on their hands.
Speaking at J Street – the kinder, gentler AIPAC – has therefore become a way for Democrats to pay tribute to Israel and its lobby, while attempting to soften criticism from a party base which is becoming ever more supportive of Palestinian rights.
Taking the virtual stage at J Street this week are progressive House members Ro Khanna, Ayanna Pressley, Pramila Jayapal, Barbara Lee and Jamaal Bowman, as well as the boss they all voted to re-elect, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are speaking, as is the Rev. Raphael Warnock, a former supporter of Palestinian rights, who quickly and completely sold out to the Israel lobby as part of his successful campaign to win one of Georgia’s US Senate seats.
Prominent among J Street’s speakers is Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has denounced the nonviolent Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as “anti-Semitic,” and believes that God sent him to the Senate to protect Israel.
Schumer often claims his name comes from the Hebrew word shomer – guardian.
“I believe Hashem [God], actually, gave me the name as one of my roles that is very important in the United States Senate, to be a shomer for Israel, and I will continue to be that with every bone in my body,” Schumer has said.
The Biden administration is represented by US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who also recently smeared the BDS movement as anti-Jewish while reiterating her government’s opposition to it.
There are several representatives of Israel’s vestigial Zionist left at J Street, including Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli and Nitzan Horowitz, the head of Meretz.
And representing the alliance between Israel’s apartheid regime and US-backed regional dictatorships is Yousef Al Otaiba, the longtime ambassador of the United Arab Emirates in the US.
J Street opposes basic Palestinian rights
Much like the Democratic and Republican parties, J Street and AIPAC represent two wings of essentially the same interests – despite differences in style and rhetoric.
When it comes to the substance of Palestinian rights, J Street and AIPAC agree much more than they differ.
Like other pro-Israel hardliners, J Street fully supports Israel’s racist refusal to allow millions of Palestinian refugees to return to the homes from which they were ethnically cleansed solely and exclusively because they are not Jews.
J Street has even published vile racist propaganda about “the demographic threat from a stateless Palestinian population” – as if the mere existence of Palestinians is an act of violence against Israel.
J Street does try to sugarcoat this opposition by claiming that it does not oppose boycotts “that explicitly support a two-state solution, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and focus only on occupied territory.”
But J Street regurgitates habitual Israeli government smears – without providing any evidence – that leaders of the BDS movement have “trafficked in unacceptable anti-Semitic rhetoric.”
There was no clearer demonstration of J Street’s commitment to these anti-Palestinian positions than when the group withdrew its endorsement of Representative Rashida Tlaib when she first ran for Congress in 2018.
J Street pulled its backing for Tlaib after the Michigan Democrat expressed support for BDS and for a single democratic state where Palestinians and Israeli Jews would be equal before the law.
It is true that J Street has shifted some of its views.
While remaining a strong advocate for billions in annual US military aid to Israel, the group is endorsing a new bill that would block Israel from using US funds for violations including detaining Palestinian children and demolishing Palestinian homes.
But J Street had nothing to do with the hard, grassroots work of bringing this bill to Congress.
That the group is jumping on the bandwagon is a sign it knows the ground is shifting and it needs to act to maintain its “progressive” credibility even as it continues to hold fast to deeply anti-Palestinian positions.
Notably, while J Street says US aid to Israel should not be used to foot the bill for annexation or “trample on Palestinian rights,” it does not believe the annual $3.8 billion in US taxpayer money should actually be cut, conditioned or ended, only that its use be “restricted” to specific purposes.
War criminals and racists
Undoubtedly, if challenged, many of the Democrats speaking at J Street would claim they are doing so in the name of “peace.”
But appearing with unrepentant war criminals is a strange way to show that.
They are sharing J Street’s virtual stage with Ehud Olmert, who as Israel’s prime minister ordered the Operation Cast Lead attack on Gaza in December 2008, killing more than 1,400 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, among them 300 children.
Olmert was also in charge when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006, carpet bombing the country with cluster munitions and killing more than 1,100 people, mostly civilians.
Livni, it must be recalled, bragged in January 2009 that “Israel demonstrated real hooliganism during the course of the recent operation, which I demanded.”
J Street’s esteemed speakers also include retired Major General Yair Golan, who participated in Operation Cast Lead and commanded the occupation forces that impose Israel’s oppressive military rule on Palestinians in the West Bank.
As commander of Israeli forces on the borders with Lebanon and Syria’s occupied Golan Heights a decade ago, Yair Golan played a significant role in Israel’s support – which ultimately included weapons and funding – for al-Qaida-linked jihadist armed groups in Syria.
One of the J Street conference’s sponsors is Commanders for Israel’s Security.
This group represents more than 300 retired Israeli generals, as well as veterans of Shin Bet and Israel’s international spying and assassination agency Mossad, who are committed to “Israeli separation from the Palestinians” in the name of preserving “Jewish democracy.”
Commanders for Israel’s Security refers to the prospect of giving Palestinians – which it refers to as “Muslims” – full and equal rights as a “plague.”
Among the racist arguments the group advances for not giving Palestinians under Israeli rule full rights is that “Israel will be responsible for medical services for millions of annexed Palestinians” and that “our health will be affected” as a result.
Under international law, Israel is already legally responsible for the health of Palestinians it occupies, but it chooses to flout that obligation, including by denying Palestinians COVID-19 vaccines.
Such segregationism is what often passes for “progressive” politics when it comes to Israel.
Israeli organizations including Ir Amim, which documents settlement activity in Jerusalem, and Breaking the Silence, a group of veterans critical of the occupation, are also backing the conference that is giving the stage to unrepentant Israeli military officials.
In a masterful display of hand wringing, J Street said in March that it could “take no position” on the recent International Criminal Court decision to open a formal investigation into war crimes committed in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
At the same time, J Street asserted that it cannot support “total impunity” for Israel’s actions.
But if J Street does not have the courage to support the ICC investigation, opposes the nonviolent BDS movement, opposes cutting US aid to Israel, and, needless to say, condemns any form of Palestinian armed struggle, then, in effect, it does support total impunity for Israel.
It cannot have its cake and eat it too.
At least by refusing to back the ICC investigation, J Street spares itself the awkwardness of hosting guest speakers who it believes may one day be required to account for their actions in a court of law.
Palestinian and Muslim cover
Sadly, some Palestinians and Muslim activists have chosen to give cover to J Street and its deeply anti-Palestinian policies.
It is obviously no surprise that Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas was among the major speakers.
Other Palestinians taking part – despite J Street’s opposition to BDS and refugee rights – are Palestinian member of the Israeli parliament Ayman Odeh and Palestinian-American entrepreneur and activist Sam Bahour.
Another J Street participant is Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.
It is part of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, which works closely with the Israeli army and hosts the Muslim Leadership Initiative.
Putting a pretty face on apartheid
J Street, with the help of progressives and some Palestinians, continues to market itself as the acceptable face of the Israel lobby, the one that Democrats can embrace without feeling guilty.
Perhaps the clearest sign of where J Street really stands is its silence about the January report by noted Israeli human rights group B’Tselem declaring – at long last – that Israel operates an apartheid regime against Palestinians in all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
As Phil Weiss and Joshua Gold observed at Mondoweiss, B’Tselem put Israel lobby groups “in a bind because in the wake of the report it’s all but impossible to call yourself both progressive and pro-Israel, as J Street and many other groups do.”
“If you acknowledge that Israel is practicing apartheid, you are in essence endorsing BDS,” Weiss and Gold added. “Because apartheid is a crime against humanity, and as was the case with apartheid South Africa, one’s duty is to support boycott, divestment and sanctions.”
J Street can’t acknowledge Israeli apartheid, because by opposing the rights of Palestinian refugees it supports racial segregation, supremacy and discrimination.
J Street won’t endorse BDS because it doesn’t want Palestinians to have power, leverage and equal rights, or be in control of their fate.
J Street remains an enemy of Palestinian rights whose mission is to put a softer, “progressive” face on apartheid.
No one should fall for it or assist in the charade.
Ali Abuniman is Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books