Saturday, October 24, 2009

Jeremy Ben-Ami, not in a world of his making

My nephew is 100 days old today. For Koreans, this is an important milestone. Baptism, Christening, and other traditions are similarly timed and perhaps arose in similar fashion, but Koreans are clear that the celebration is for having survived this time. He and his family have gone now, but woo hoo for Ted!

Or Sidney, or Hoep-bang (a nickname that means round bread), or Eun Jae. We still haven't settled into how we'll call him. At least he won't be Il Sung, which was recommended as an auspicious name. And my wife made japchae that's the best I've ever had.

Anyway, Jeffrey Goldberg interviewed Jeremy Ben-Ami. Ben-Ami's views are worth reading because they are almost exactly, I think, that of the mainstream of American Jews. Inlcuding his assessment of Meirsheimer and Walt's thesis (though I think we ought to interrogate that "effective" there at the end):
However, when the analysis of that lobby veers over a line and essentially says that all of American foreign policy is controlled by this one lobby and this one interest group, to me, personally, this does smack of the kind of conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This notion that somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes, this is when you cross that line. I believe that the analysis in the Walt and Mearsheimer book and article crossed that line, but this doesn't take away from my view that this is an incredibly effective lobby.
Well, we [JStreet] are unabashedly for a Jewish home in the land of Israel, that there should be a Jewish home that is a democracy, that has a Jewish character and a Jewish flavor and where the law of return is a fact... I think that the notion is that there should be a homeland that is a Jewish homeland. That is the founding principle of J Street. The question is, how do we preserve it? That's where we seem to be getting attacked. Our view is that in order to preserve this, there just simply has to be an independent state for the Palestinians next door, and that's where they will live. And we live in Israel and we live there and there's always going to be a minority in Israel that is not Jewish and we need to treat them like equal citizens and value their participation in our democracy, but it is a Jewish home. This is the Jewish homeland.
If anyone isn't sure, I think it would be well worth reading that article just for the articulation of such basic positions.

However, the problem with J Street -- this isn't their fault, necessarily -- is the argument that has surrounded it without regard to it's positions. That is why Stephen Walt endorsed J Street. That argument is about the power of AIPAC and asserts that the power of a Jewish lobbying group is acceptable if and only if that group substantially agrees with Walt. The problem there is that this immediately subordinates all Jews to Stephen Walt. Jews are declared to be Unamerican or to have dual loyalties while Walt is free to speak without his loyalty to America being questioned. Jews may or may not have views that happen to coincide with American interests, but Stephen Walt, an American, naturally only has American interests on his mind. Never mind that most Americans are in greater agreement with Jews than with Walt -- what defines American interests has nothing to do with what interests Americans and everything to do with the Americanness of Stephen Walt as he declares his ostensibly objective interests.

It isn't really even the point that Walt treats Jews he disagrees with as a cabal of sorts. The more important lever is that membership in the cabal is largely based on opposition to Walt's brand of antisemitic conspiracism. (Which means J Street might no longer be acceptable to Walt, now that Ben-Ami has compared his work to The Protocols.) In other words, Jews are suspect when we actively participate in politics without Walt's approval.

So, to repeat myself:
The root of the problem is that American Jews need to be represented to the American elite because there is otherwise no concern for Jewish interests. Even though my views are more in line with J Street than AIPAC, it's that subordinate position that I think progressives ought to challenge.


bob said...

A good pair of posts on J Street Matt. Did you read Ron Skolnik here: Meretz USA Weblog: J Street: Much more than a "safe space"

Matt said...

Thanks, Bob.

Yes, I did read Skolnik's piece. I may eventually post something about it: I think Skolnik misses something of the meaning of "safe space" that strikes me as really weird. I think I've always seen and heard it used as a "safe space for ethnic/racial/gender/etc minorities," never for political minorities. Of course, a safe space for a political minority is a withdrawal from politics -- how odd for the J Street conference!