Critique of the Solomons' 'Blind Alley of J Street'


Editor’s Note:
Abba Solomon and Norman Solomon’s article “Blind Alley of J Street and Liberal American Zionism”, responded to below by Milton Masur, has generated lots of controversy among Tikkun readers. Some of it has taken the form of denunciations of Tikkun for publishing the article at all. Milton Masur takes a more balanced approach in his criticisms. However, relying on Gershon Gorenberg’s history of the conflict has its problems. For example, Dr. Masur gives only passing mention of the systematic attempts by right wing Zionist groups to terrorize and massacre Palestinian civilians. In particular, the assault and mass murder at Deir Yassin was aimed at Palestinians who had conveyed their desire to live in peace with the Jewish population of Palestine–thereby conveying to Palestinian civilians that they would not be safe in the emerging Jewish state. The official leadership of the Zionist movement denounced these acts, but did little to prevent them or punish the leadership of these terrorist groups, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, both of whom became prime ministers of the State of Israel rather than brought to trial for conspiracy to commit murder. While there was no official plan to expel the Palestinian people as a whole, Israeli historian Benny Morris demonstrated that the forced march of tens of thousands of Palestinians from their homes by what was to become the Israeli Defense Forces was an outcome of a strong feeling by Ben Gurion and others that eventually the Land of Israel would have to be rid of most if not all Palestinians, though it was important to them to not say so publicly at the time (hence the evidence for this claim lies in their journals and private conversations). Still, much of what Masur writes below deserves serious consideration in tempering one’s assessment of the way Israel came into existence in 1947-49. Moreover, this particular historical fact does not necessarily yield a reason to delegitimate Israel in 2014. The massacre and displacement of Palestinians in 1947-49 looks rather tiny in comparison with the much greater displacements and massacres committed during and after the second world war, and in the creation of the current states of India, Pakistan and China, yet it is only Israel that faces a sustained assault on its legitimacy as a nation state 7 decades later. This imbalance gives credence to the Zionists who claim that the movements in opposition to Israel are motivated by anti-Semitism. And that is one reason among many why Tikkun does not support any movement that seeks to delegitimate the right of the Jewish people of Palestine to have security for the State of Israel, even as we remain strong critics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and are doing all we can to oppose the Occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza.
–Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun

The article in the May 22 issue of Tikkun, criticizing some aspects of J street policy and its founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has some flaws, according to the book The Unmaking of Israel by Gershom Gorenberg. The Solomons state “…Population transfer of Arabs was part of the planning of Zionist leadership, and it was implemented…” Gorenberg disputes that; he says that the status of the Arab population of Israel is riddled with contradictions. The UN partition plan split the land but the different ethnic population groups lived among each other on both sides of the land split. Gorenberg indicates that Arab historians say that the Israelis adopted an expulsion policy to get rid of Palestinians, but he says that was not the Israeli intent. It is true that the Israelis expected to absorb 500,000 Jewish persons displaced by WWII, and in that sense the Palestinians paid for Europe’s crimes by being displaced. However, considering the rejection of post WWII displaced homeless Jews by much of the world, the creation of a Jewish homeland was legitimate despite opposition by the Arab world which considers it a calamity. In another book (Pillar of Fire by Yigal Lossin), Chaim Weitzman, a key founder of Israel, considered this displacement as “the lesser of two evils.”
The Israeli founding fathers were afraid that the Jews would be in the minority; they therefore wanted those Arabs who were within Israeli lines to choose Palestinian citizenship. The Zionist leaders did eventually consider “transfer”– the forced uprooting of families to create ethnically homogeneous states, as was proposed by the Peel commission dividing Palestine in 1937. This had occurred to large numbers of Greeks, Turks, and Armenians before WWII, and Turks, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Germans et al, after WWII. The process is referred to as “ethnic cleansing” nowadays but was previously accepted by Britain, Russia and the United States, et al, as a pragmatic necessity.
However, there is no evidence that the Jewish leadership planned to expel the Arabs from the start and there is contrary evidence that the expectation was for the Arab population to stay put. The Situation Committee was created by Jews in administrative positions in 1947, in anticipation of the impending end of the British mandate, in order to draw up a “blueprint” to run the country. Ben Gurion chaired the committee and other senior politicians were on the committee and its subcommittees. The final report of the Situation Committee included many details on the inclusion of existing Arab schools, Arab health clinics, and Arab administrators within the state of Israel.
Gorenberg documents that consideration of population transfer versus integration of Palestinians occurred eventually in relation to “events on the ground.” The Situation Committee completed its report in April of 1948, but fighting between Arabs and Jews in Palestine had already broken out and escalated after the 1947 partition plan was approved. “…It was a war of communities, not of states.”
Arab residents fled their homes and Arab militias blockaded the road to Jerusalem. The Haganah went on the offensive to control the partition-assigned land and to open the Jerusalem road. Some Arabs fled in panic (especially after right wing Jewish fighters perpetrated massacres) and some were expelled, and a subsequent Israeli cabinet decision was to keep the refugees from returning and to solve the refugee problem as part of a formal peace agreement. This was partly to avoid a “fifth column” and partly compensation for Jewish land losses as well as claiming the spoils of war.
Arab forces also expelled or massacred Jews, for example, the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem was emptied by the Transjordan Arab League, and Arab fighters massacred 150 members of kibbutz Kfar Etzion after they surrendered. Isolated Jewish communities were also abandoned, but since the Arabs were losing, the expulsions and abandonments of Jews were fewer than those of the Arabs. At the signing of the armistice in 1949, 150,000 Palestinian Arabs, one fifth of the pre-war number, remained in Israel. They were considered Palestinian citizens of Israel, but not Israelis, until 1952, when the Knesset gave them citizenship and also defined Palestinian Arabs who had left as non-citizens. The same legislation granted citizenship to any Jew who emigrated to Israel.
The Arab citizens of Israel were treated as a suspect population, living under military rule on the basis of previous “draconian” British military laws dealing with the pre-state Jewish revolt. The Israeli military government was the de facto government for the Israeli Arabs, supervising travel and work permits and political activity. Arab citizens could vote, but were treated unequally. That dynamic improved some when the military government over Arab Israeli citizens was abolished in 1966, but it did not end expropriation of Arab land or official discrimination.
The Solomons further state that “…without the uprooting of the Palestinians, a Jewish state would not have arisen here.” That is true since the partition of Palestine by the UN in 1947 produced mixed Jewish and Palestinian populations on either side of the proposed partition lines, and it was natural that a displacement of ethnic groups to their own borders would ensue, whether voluntary or forced. But the accusation of “ethnic cleansing”allegedly perpetrated by the 1948 Israeli government doesn’t really apply here, as described by Gorenberg, especially in view of the substantial number of Palestinians who remained within Israel’s borders. Although Gorenberg acknowledges that the Israeli Arab population has not had full citizenship rights, this is far less than “ethnic cleansing.”
The Solomons accuse Ben-Ami of evading answers to questions: “…Asked whether relations with non-Jewish Palestinians would be better now if Jewish leaders who favored creation of a non-ethnically-based state had prevailed, Ben-Ami did not respond directly. Instead, he affirmed support for a two-state solution and commented: ‘History has sadly and repeatedly proven the necessity of a nation-state for the Jewish people. J Street today is focused on building support in the American Jewish community for the creation of a nation-state for the Palestinian people alongside Israel — precisely because it is so necessary if Israel is to continue to be the national home of the Jewish people.”
Who knows whether in 1947 a non-ethnically based combined state was even feasible, (rather unlikely) let alone whether it would have produced better relations between Palestinians and Jews? There was plenty of armed conflict between these groups prior to 1947, and even though some Arabs might have welcomed the Jews, Europeans and Jews were not trusted after WWI, when British and French promises of Arab independence in return for supporting the allies were not kept. Ben-Ami’s comments about the historical need for a Jewish state are not evasive, and can certainly be defended.
Democracy is a relative term and there are flaws in Israel’s democracy. State and synagogue are entangled. Gorenberg indicates that orthodox Jewish religion is not the purported guardian of pure Judaism of the mythological past. Like all other Jewish sub-groups, orthodoxy is a product of the modern enlightenment that changed access to Christian society via education, economic shifts, migration, population explosion and modern day anti-Semitism. Religion was turned from an assumption into a question, and new ideologies, such as secular Zionism, saw the Jews as a nationality with religious Judaism per se, obsolete.
Orthodoxy held onto traditional belief and practice, and one form advocated integration into secular society even while maintaining those traditions. Ultra orthodoxy, however, foreswore integration into surrounding society, relying on observing Jewish law as a bulwark against the Enlightenment and depending on its Jewish religious hierarchy to make decisions in religion, politics and personal life. Gorenberg indicates that such reliance on religious hierarchy and exclusion of change was “…a radical innovation masquerading as conservatism.”
The acceptance in 1948 of the orthodox political parties into government was a compromise by Ben Gurion’s government, necessary to form political coalitions, and also to avoid deepening the secular-religious split that would have occurred if state and religion were separated. According to Gorenberg, no one imagined that such support for the ultra- orthodox could undermine the power of the state itself although that has occurred subsequently. The orthodox penetration of government control has been strengthened by the accession to power of the secular right wing parties; both see the occupation and incorporation of territories conquered in the 1967 war as a national goal.
The Solomons recognize that J Street has been a “counterweight” to AIPAC’s support of militant Jewish nationalism, but accuse it of not going far enough in its criticism of Israel. In particular, they accuse J Street of implicitly supporting the policy of the “State as complete master” of its immediate subjects as well as world-wide Jewry, pressuring Jews to “accept Zionism and a Jewish state as integral to Judaism” using “narratives of historic Jewish vulnerability and horrific realities of the Holocaust (as) all-purpose justifications.”They accuse “… J Street leadership of withhold(ing) from the range of prospective solutions the alternative of truly ending the legally and militarily enforced Jewish leverage over Palestinians, replete with the advantages of dominance.” This situation certainly would not apply to the Palestinians in the occupied lands if they have their own state as J Street urges. However, some “subjugation” of Palestinian rights still does occur within Israel proper.
The Solomons indicate that “…J Street is striving to support Israel differently than AIPAC: by fostering the more peaceful, humane streams of Zionism…It was a clarifying moment on April 30 when the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejected an application for membership from J Street. For several years, the J Street leadership has worked hard to create a palatable alternative to hard-line versions of what it means to be pro-Israel. But this spring, J Street’s leaders could not get the seal of approval they craved from the organized American Jewish establishment, which apparently sees little need for Zionism to acquire a more humane face.”
The Solomons criticize J Street’s attitude towards the berating of Israel via boycott, divestment and sanctions. They equate the BDS delegitimization as a means of countering the Israeli subjugation of the Palestinians and feel that J street is remiss by not accepting delegitimization. They accuse J Street of avoiding any real pressure to isolate Israel so that J Street can maintain its access to the Israeli establishment.Ben-Ami has warned of “the ‘one state nightmare’ — a minority of Jewish Israelis in a state with a majority of non-Jewish residents…” a stance similar to Ben Gurion’s resistance to militarily taking the West Bank in 1949 when the opportunity arose. The Solomons say that for J Street, “an embrace of perpetual Jewish dominance is imperative …”.
The Solomons indicate “While evocations of the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel may sound uplifting, J Street ultimately lets the Israeli government off the hook by declaring that relationship sacrosanct, no matter what. The organization insists that political candidates funded by J Street PAC “must demonstrate that they support a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, active U.S. leadership to help end the conflict, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, continued aid to the Palestinian Authority and opposition to the Boycott/Divestment/Sanction movement.” Furthermore, although the Solomons recognize that J strait urged restraint in dealing with the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2012, they feel that J Street didn’t urge enough restraint; likewise when the United States considered missile strikes on Syria because of its use of chemical weapons, J Street “remained officially silent on the issue.” It isn’t clear what the Solomons thought of the United States threats to use missiles.
The Solomons state that “…the Jewish establishment has always represented those Jews choosing to affiliate with institutionalized Judaism. More and more, this leaves out large numbers who don’t believe that blood-and-soil Jewish nationalism should crowd out their Jewish and universalist values. As the Pew survey shows, American Jews are less sympathetic than American Jewish organizations to enforcing Jewish political nationalism with armed force.”
While I sympathize with some of the points made by the Solomons, I think that Gorenberg’s book, The Unmaking of Israel, successfully refutes many of them as described above. It is unrealistic to think that Jews and Palestinians, after so much blood spillage and hatred are likely to respect each-other’s rights in a state which gives major political power to both sides; it would produce another Lebanon. It would be better, as Amos Oz puts it, to go through a painful but necessary divorce. While those Palestinians who are Israeli citizens within its borders do not yet have full democratic rights, there has been progress in attaining them, and that should go further forward in the future. The very large issue of undue political control by the ultra-orthodox who mix religion and state, coupled with the ultra nationalists who insist on “the whole” of Israel including the West Bank and Gaza, is a difficult one to resolve. That control by “militant Jewish nationalism,” as the Solomons aptly term it may require the threat of draconian measures to initiate movement in the Israeli political arena. The first Intifada forced Itzhak Rabin to support the Oslo accords and unfortunately, a powerful display of antagonism against militant Jewish nationalism may be necessary to further change the political situation.
In hopes of clarifying some issues,
Milton Masur MD
(To read the Solomons’ response to this critique, click here.)

12 thoughts on “Critique of the Solomons' 'Blind Alley of J Street'

  1. After reading the Solomon’s post, the only thing which gives me solace is that per the Solomons, very few Jews accept their horrible and life-denying ideas which privilege everybody but Jews.

    • Last o/s trip I scored The Blind Side. Bawled my eyes out! Fortunately it was in beeewtn two light hearted movies. I couldn’t have coped with a second tear-jerker on the one flight!I must admit though, that movie blubbing isn’t restricted to air travel though. I’m like Anj and will just as easily blub at any movie no matter where I am. Pathetic.

  2. A brief note: The phrase “delegitimate (or delegitimize) Israel” does not come from the Palestine solidarity or BDS movement. It has been invented and deployed by Zionist apologists to smear and discredit the BDS movement’s specific and entirely legitimate demands that Israel conform to international law. In any case, the phrase is literally meaningless. To “delegitimize Israel” is as ridiculous as to “delegitimize France” or any other internationally recognized state.
    As for J Street’s posturings, I would suggest that they adopt as their theme song “Everyone knows this is nowhere,” and for their anti-BDS campaign the slogan “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
    David Finkel (Detroit)

    • You know, David, I wow revisit the BDS website and think twice. The movement promotes the “right of return”. The Palestinians surrendered the right of return the moment the opened up hostilies with its new neighbor in 1948. Giving into a right of return is a demographic nightmare that no sovereign nation should have to accept. The BDS movement is not looking for peace and justice in an even handed way, they are looking for retribution on behalf of the Palestinians.

      • Hi Bronwyn, I don’t have a plane story, Mum had to ban Lassie at our house when I was young as I would get hysterical that Lassie would not save the “insert cute anaiml or kid” in time. I cried at Marley and Me big time, and if you ever want to have a good cry, try What Dreams May Come with Robin Williams.

  3. I don’t think Rabbi Lerner’s point regarding the scale of killings in India, Pakistan and China vs. Israel and the Palestinians is valid. I’ve never heard anyone justify the mass killings involved in the formation of India and Pakistan–quite the contrary. And except for some delusional leftwingers, the same goes for Communist China. Everyone recognizes that China has a ghastly human rights record, not nearly as bad as it used to be, but still bad enough. In an ideal world all violators of human rights would be put on trial and if found guilty, sentenced to jail. In real life this mainly happens to dictators the West doesn’t like, who happen to be deposed. So Israeli leaders, like American Presidents, are immune. So are the leaders of China, India, and Pakistan. The cries of “anti-semitism” are mostly a hypocritical distraction.
    In reality there is a double standard for Israel, or rather, two double standards, just like there is for every other country on earth which violates human rights. Country X with its allies will always claim that its critics are hypocrites who ignore the crimes of country Y. In some cases, it might even be true about some of the critics. It is never true of all of them. So Israel is criticized hypocritically by some Muslim nations with similar or worse records, but Israel is defended by the US government and the Lobby, which stands by it no matter what it does.

  4. I’m not so much of a crier during long haul traevl because I avoid the tear jerkers. I have majorly embarrassed myself by laughing uncontrollably to the point of crying though – Date Night, the scene where the 2 cars get stuck together. I also watched The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo once which unbeknownst to me was pretty graphic. I kept looking around to see if anyone “knew” what I was watching. Thankfully the kids were engrossed in Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and never looked up.

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