A Herculean Task

At one of those dinners that can happen only in Los Angeles, I found myself seated at a table with an American community organizer, an Australian banker, an Israeli model/actress, an Iraqi human rights activist, a French businessman, and an Indian TV producer. Against all better judgment, the topic of Israel/Palestine was brought up. The banker turned to me and said, “I know you and [the Iraqi human rights activist] would disagree with me, but I support AIPAC. So does [the Israeli actress]. I think they’re doing a great job.”

The Iraqi activist and I exchanged a glance, wondering which one of us would open that particular can of worms. I cleared my throat. “Have you heard of J Street?” I began. “It’s a …”

The banker interrupted me. “Yeah, I’ve heard of those guys. They’re a bunch of well-meaning American Jews who don’t know what it’s like on the ground.”

As I said, this gentleman was neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian, so I imagine that whatever he knew about “what it was like on the ground” must have been at second hand. Still, the whole conversation made me realize how entrenched AIPAC was, and how much work an upstart like J Street has to do.

This weekend, the New York Times Magazine ran a rather long article by James Traub about J-Street. The lobbying group’s positions are summarized about halfway through the piece:

According to its “statement of principles,” [J Street] favors “creation of a viable Palestinian state as part of a negotiated two-state solution, based on the 1967 borders with agreed reciprocal land swaps” — the formula envisioned by the Clinton administration in its 2000 negotiations with Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak. Ben-Ami says he also favors Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states. On the question of talks with Hamas, classed as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, J Street takes the cautious view that while we should not speak directly with officials, we should engage through intermediaries with the goal of finding interlocutors willing to live in peace with Israel.

This isn’t exactly earth-shattering. In fact, from where I stand, this doesn’t go nearly far enough. So to think that this group (which, let’s remember, is probably closer to representing the views of American citizens than those of a foreign nation) is having such a hard time being heard is really kind of depressing. In the end, as with so much else, it all has to do with passion:

J Street specializes in mounting campaigns that may appeal to the 92 percent [of American Jews] who care about other causes more than they do about Israel. Last September, the organization asked supporters to sign a petition demanding that sponsors revoke an invitation to Sarah Palin to speak at an otherwise nonpartisan rally on Iran. J Street says that more than 25,000 people signed it in 24 hours. […]

This in turn raises a question about J Street’s prospects. As a lobbying group, would you rather represent the passionate few or the dispassionate many? The National Rifle Association knows the answer to that question. One administration official involved with the Middle East points out that Aipac cultivates single-issue partisans. Wielding the other 92 percent into a potent political force, he notes, will be “a major, long-term and uphill task.” He adds, “I’m not sure it can be done.”

You can read the entire article here.

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