A few weeks ago in the Australian Jewish News one-time journalist Michael Visontay – who has form in hand-wringing matters, sometimes feeling terribly pained about something or other in Israel but remaining utterly unwilling to do anything about it, a typical “liberal” Jew with no concept of what Israel really is today – wrote the following article:
The right to disagree with Israeli government policy has become, in many ways, even more controversial than the policies themselves. Over the past decade, a number of Jewish activists have railed against what they claim is a taboo, imposed by established pro-Israeli advocate groups, against any criticism of Israel.
First there was the Independent Jewish Voices in England, followed by similar groups in Europe and here, the Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV). All these groups have attempted to widen the debate about the Middle East. But the English and Australian groups have touched a nerve and created a dilemma for many thoughtful, open-minded Jews.
In Australia, many people would like to see Israel’s policies more flexible, less aggressive and defensive, but they cannot bring themselves to support IAJV due to an underlying hostility in the group’s activism that unnerves them.
Now, a new group has emerged in America, called J Street -– the name referring to a missing street in the grid system of Washington DC, a nod to the missing voice in debate about Israeli policy. J Street is founded and supported by a broad range of American Jewish public figures.
Its call for more vigorous debate has attracted criticism from the heavy hitter of American Jewish advocacy, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
From a global perspective, however, the significant thing about J Street is that it is clearly, unequivocally pro-Israel. J Street’s charter on its website reads: “J Street is the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement. J Street was founded to promote meaningful American leadership to end the Arab-Israeli and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts peacefully and diplomatically. We support a new direction for American policy in the Middle East.
“J Street represents Americans, primarily but not exclusively Jewish, who support Israel and its desire for security as the Jewish homeland, as well as the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state of their own.”
The IAJV’s statement of principles on its website reads: “We are Jews with diverse opinions on the Middle East who share a deep concern about the current crisis in the region, we are committed to ensuring a just peace that recognises the legitimate national aspirations of both Israelis and Palestinians with a solution that protects the human rights of all.
“We believe that Israel’s right to exist must be recognised and that Palestinians’ right to a homeland must also be acknowledged … We feel there is an urgent need to hear alternative voices that not be silenced by being labelled disloyal or ‘self-hating’ … in particular we are concerned that the Jewish establishment does not represent the full range of Jewish opinion.”
I have abridged the statement, but anyone who reads it in full on the website will notice that something is missing: a declaration that the IAJV is pro-Israel.
The IAJV recognises Israel’s right to exist, but does not say it is pro-Israel. This absence carries a significance far beyond words. It underscores the whole vibe, reportage, commentary and activism that has emanated from this group over the past few years. The group is characterised by a noticeable lack of empathy with Israel, beyond its criticism of successive governments and policy towards Palestinians.
There is no reason why any group of Jews has to declare itself pro-Israel, and the IAJV is entitled to be critical of the Israeli government. It refers to J Street on its site and sees the two as kindred spirits. But that absence of an underlying support for the country, the nation and the people permeates everything it does and says. Deep down, this is what rankles a substantial number of Australian Jews, and stops them from supporting the group.
J Street has illuminated why the temperature of discussion is so heated in Australia, why many have tried to ignore or dismiss the IAJV and why others have started their own response (such as The Sensible Jew, a blog started this year by two Melbourne women who wanted to present an alternative voice to both the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council and the IAJV).
Hopefully, J Street’s model can be used to help forge a new cast of public discussion in Australia. At the very least, it may loosen up a conversation that has been stifled by attention-seeking behaviour and name calling.
This week’s paper features the following letter in response:
Michael Visontay’s comparison of J Street and the Independent Australian Jewish Voices (IAJV) is both thoughtful and thought-provoking (AJN 13/11). But his analysis of why the IAJV “rankles a substantial number of Australian Jews, and stops them up from supporting the group”, in my view, fails to address two significant factors.
Visontay attributes the hostile attitude of many Australian Jews towards the IAJV to the group’s lack of an underlying support for Israel as both a country and a nation.
However, many Jewish Australians, from both the Centre and the Left, perceive the IAJV to be stridently anti-Israel in many of its public statements and activities, rather than merely lacking in empathy. Members of the IAJV may protest that this is not the group’s raison d’etre, but it is certainly the preoccupation of its most prominent spokespeople.
The second reason is because many of its members, especially those with a high public profile, have no apparent connection with Judaism or any facet of the Jewish community other than an accident of birth or family ties that they choose to parade when convenient.
A comparison of the membership of the J Street Advisory Council and the IAJV list of signatories is illuminating. J Street may be seen by some to be left-wing, dovish, avant-garde or naive, but it represents a large segment of the American Jewish community in all its glory and folly, whereas the IAJV represents a fringe, many of whom just happened to be born Jewish.
Caulfield North, Vic
Only a few words in response are required. It seems that many Zionists want to set acceptable boundaries of debate. So what if IAJV doesn’t say we’re “pro-Israel”? There are multiple ways to want to bring peace to the Midde East and many of our initiatives have included individuals who would proudly call themselves “Zionist.”
If you care about labels, then good for you. But what matters is ending the occupation and giving Palestinians full rights. Visontay and others need to come to terms with the fact that their silence and apathy over decades has allowed Israel to behave as it does. The occupation didn’t happen by accident. It required global, Jewish support. And now Israel has no intention of changing course.
Until there is a reckoning about all this and a mature debate that allows all views to be heard, internal angst and name-calling seems futile, at best.