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Trouble on J Street

This week I've been attending the first national conference of J Street, the "pro-Israel, pro-Peace" group which I first wrote about last year. I'm working on a longer piece about the organization's identity crisis that should appear sometime soon, but there have been two events thus far worthy of special note.

First was the speech delivered by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and one of the most prominent liberal Jews in the country. Yoffie, who had initially welcomed J Street's emergence, dramatically broke with the organization over its morally equivocating position on the Gaza War last December. J Street claimed that “While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already-suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.” These words, the self-proclaimed "dove"  replied, were "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve."

So it is perhaps unsurprising that Yoffie was booed at this week's conference for condemning the United Nations investigation into alleged war crimes, known as the "Goldstone Report," as "fatally flawed." Furthermore, he said that "you cannot be a moral agent if you serve an immoral master, and Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself for working under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Council." This sort of passionate language in defense of Israel and critical of its defamers, unremarkable at mainstream pro-Israel and Jewish conclaves, has been almost entirely absent at this week's J Street conference. Indeed, the greatest applause lines at all of the panels I've attended are those that criticize Israel and lament the fate of the Palestinians. (Allison Hoffman of Tablet has more about the conference attendees's negative reaction to Yoffie).

Next up on my schedule was an eyebrow-raising event on Iran featuring former Bush administration NSC staffer Hillary Mann Leverett and National Iranian-American Council head Trita Parsi. Leverett is one of the Iranian regime's most prominent apologists in Washington. (Three days after the stolen Iranian elections this summer, she and her husband, also formerly of the Bush administration, wrote a triumphalist op-ed for Politico entitled, "Ahmadinejad Won. Get Over it.") Leverett opposes sanctions on Iran (as does J Street, at least for the foreseeable future--one of the many examples of how it is out of step with the views of the mainstream Jewish and pro-Israel communities it claims to represent; a Washington Post poll released last week found that 78% of Americans support sanctions and a clear majority of American Jews support either the United States or Israel attacking Iran's nuclear sites if sanctions don't work). But most incredible was Leverett's broadside against those who are untrusting of the Iranian regime, claiming that they are "reinforcing stereotypes of Iranian duplicitousness" (as if Iranian duplicity were a creation of American neoconservatives and not a matter of fact) and, furthermore, that these stereotypes are "fundamentally racist" for portraying the Mullahs as "hiding behind their beards."

Mann Leverett went one step further by saying that she would just as swiftly condemn those who made similar characterizations about Israeli rabbis as "anti-Semitic." She does not seem to recognize the distinction between secular, democratic Israel, where rabbis do not make foreign policy, and the Islamic Republic of Iran, where messianic theocrats who murder their own citizens in broad daylight preach "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!" every week at Friday prayers. Leverett also claimed that the "Iranians are not supporting these groups [Hamas and Hezbollah] because they hate Jews." 

This sort of moral equivalence between Israel and its declared enemies (an equivalence I've heard numerous times at the conference) was exemplified further by Parsi, who initially professed ignorance when asked by an audience member about bipartisan legislation introduced two years ago calling on the United Nations to charge Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with incitement to genocide. Upon being informed about the bill's particulars, Parsi responded that "To signal American seriousness about diplomacy, America has reduced its rhetoric" and, "I certainly wish Tehran would do the same thing ... and I'd say the same about Tel Aviv as well."

So according to J Street's panelists, Iran's support for terrorism is purely strategic and not a whit ideological, to claim otherwise is "fundamentally racist," and expressions of concern about the Iranian nuclear program from the United States and Israel are equivalent to the genocidal ravings of Mahmoud Ahmadminejad.