Tag Archives: J street

Birthright puts the kibosh on J Street-led trip

The “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group J Street recently announced with much fanfare that it would be leading its first Taglit-Birthright trip to Israel. Birthright provides young Jews with a free 10-day trip meant to permanently cement their connection to Israel and even more importantly, their commitment to having babies with other Jews (hence the now popular nickname, Birthrate.)

J Street promised that their trip would go to the standard Birthright favorites like Masada or [Holocaust museum] Yad Vashem, but would also interface with human rights advocates and explore progressive Zionism. In other words, it might provide a broader view than most trips, but it wouldn’t rock the boat by taking participants to, say, Bil’in to protest against the wall.

And yet, Ha’aretz reports, right-wing bloggers didn’t like that idea and they organized a successful effort to get Birthright to cancel the tour with J Street. The excuse? How is this for sheer comedy? Birthright told Haaretz’s Natasha Mozgovaya that it was about politics:

…trips of political orientation are not accepted. When it happened in the past, we discontinued working with them. The idea of a “Political trip” is out of question…

Oh yes, that’s right.

J Street rightly pointed to AIPAC’s  “Capital to Capital” Birthright trip for Jewish political activists. (One featured stop on that trip is the Reut Institute which we have written about extensively.) But of course, it goes deeper than that.The essence of Birthright is political. It was never funded to be strictly religious or cultural, even if that was its original intent. It is a program to preserve Jewish unconditional support for Israel – including its occupation and ongoing violations of human rights- in part by nourishing a kind of Jewish entitlement to all of the land, even if Palestinians or Bedouin happen to have been living on parts of it for generations. The program is thought of as the last best hope to save the young Jewish generation from assimilation and decreased support for Israel.

In fact, as I write this on February 1, hundreds of Birthright alum are gathering for an event in NYC called “Take Back Zionism.” An event, which K. Feldman notes in Mondoweiss, doesn’t include David Grossman, for example, as a headliner. Many of them have written here what Zionism means to them.

Here is an example of a Birthright-approved reading list:
The Case for Israel & The Case for Peace, Alan Dershowitz
Still Life with Bombers: Israel in the Age of Terrorism,David Horovitz
Coming Together, Coming Apart, Daniel Gordis
Exodus, Leon Uris
O Jerusalem!, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
The Source, James Michener
My Life, Golda Meir In The Name Of Sorrow And Hope, Noa Ben Artzi Pelosoff Warrior, Ariel Sharon
Walking The Bible, Bruce Feiler
Nimrod Flip-Out, Etgar Keret
What Israel Means To Me, edited by Alan Dershowitz

J Street U Student Board President Morial Rothman:

“Those of us engaged on this issue on campus know that there is a deep hunger among our peers to connect with Israel in a way that reflects our Jewish and democratic values of justice and equality”, Rothman wrote in response to the criticism. “In light of this tremendous enthusiasm, we are deeply troubled by Birthright’s abrupt decision to cancel our trip. Revoking this previously-approved opportunity, planned in concert with accredited Birthright trip organizer Israel Experience, sends exactly the wrong message to our community and to our students – and it is a painful message to receive”.

Moving sentiments. But it can be argued that there is an intrinsic contradiction between the values of justice and equality, and the purpose and certainly methodology of Birthright.

The further irony is that thousands of members of this younger generation of Jews are ready to be fully and passionately engaged with Israel and Judaism. Not the Israel of Avigdor Lieberman or Operation Cast Lead, but the Israel of Anarchists Against the Wall or The Coalition of Women for Peace or Breaking the Silence. They are ready to truly engage with building a just and equal future for all people in the region, and to do so as Jews working side by side with Palestinians— but clearly those young Jews are not invited to go with Birthright. Unless, of course, they sneak in.

Artistic freedom? J Street boycotts and sanctions poet Josh Healey

Yesterday, we reported that J Street canceled the poetry session at their upcoming conference because a right-wing blogger discovered that poet Josh Healey had invoked the Holocaust to write about Palestinians and the war on terror. (Healey was invited to present by J Street staff, and not Theater J as we incorrectly reported).

This cancellation is interesting in part because it follows J Street’s vigorous defense of Israeli artistic expression as part of the Toronto International Film Festival’s celebratory spotlight on Tel Aviv. (J Street, like numerous other groups, mistakenly used the term boycott to describe the Toronto Declaration protest. The Declaration opposed the focus on Tel Aviv as part of the Brand Israel campaign but explicitly did not call for a boycott. On the other hand, it might be technically accurate to call the booting of Healey an actual form of boycott.)

Healey doesn’t hold back in this interview today, Poet booted from J Street meet for comparing Guantanamo to Auschwitz, in Haaretz :

“I had a conversation with ‘J Street’ staff, and they explained that they are playing the game – Washington politics, and seeking legitimacy. And they are not willing to fight this battle. I was born in Washington, so I’m not surprised to become Van Jones of J Street,” (U.S. President Barack Obama’s “green jobs czar” who resigned over the controversy about his past political associations).

“So Van Jones resigned, but did the right wing stop attacking Obama? On one level, I understand them – it’s easier to get rid of the poet, who cares? But as an artist and a Jewish activist, it’s a matter of principle. If you’re trying to be an alternative to AIPAC – don’t behave like AIPAC.”

“I told them I don’t think it’s the legitimacy they want, because it’s not the legitimacy that makes change. When you’re trying to make change, you must expect that some people will push back. But they kick out their allies – and I still consider myself an ally. I’m not personally offended – I’m politically disappointed. It’s ironic that we were invited to perform and be a part of the dialogue at the track ‘The culture as a tool for change.’ But we can’t even have this dialogue. The Jewish community acts like children, with smear campaigns and name-calling. I am not surprised by the right wing attacks – but that J-Street went along with it and accommodated it.”

Referring to the specific line which stirred the negative emotions, Healey said: “It was taken of context. Judged by themselves, these lines don’t even make sense. Just before this line, I wrote: ‘I remember when the German soldiers put yellow stars on my family coats and they put pink ones on my friends.’ I was talking about de-humanization. And yes, I have family that was killed in the Holocaust. There were Jewish people killed and gay people and Gypsies, and many others, and as a Jew, my solidarity is with my people – and with all people. And my solidarity is with the people of Israel – but also with the people of Palestine. And I believe in two state solution and peace and justice for all people. And if J-Street are not willing to have debate with people who believe in solidarity and humanity, I don’t know what legitimacy they want, because it’s not a moral legitimacy.”

“I love my people, the Jewish people, and that’s why I’m critical – because it’s my people, my family that are silencing people the same way we were silenced and suppressed for centuries,” Healey concluded.

And here as a longer statement from Healey and fellow banned poet Kevin Coval, who wrote, “The reason J Street put us out to dry is because they feel more accountable to the Right-wing than to us. Let’s change that, and open up the debate.”

Searching for a Minyan:
Israel, McCarthyism, & the Struggle for Real Dialogue

by Kevin Coval and Josh Healey

This weekend, J Street, a new Jewish “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” PAC and Washington-based organization is holding its first national conference. The two of us, along with another artist, were to perform and read poems at several sessions during the conference. Specifically, we were invited to lead a workshop on how culture and spoken word create democratic spaces that sift through difficult issues and ensure a multiplicity of voices are heard: and how that can be used to open up the Israel/Palestine debate. Instead, we have been censored and pushed out of that very debate.

This week, some right-wing blogs and pseudo-news organizations latched on to various lines of poems Josh wrote and churned the alarmist rumor mill saying that hateful anti-Israeli poets are keynote speakers at the J Street conference. This is not surprising. The radical right-wing, including the growing Jewish right-wing of this country and abroad, hates complex discourse, especially when it brings to light truths they seek to systematically deny. The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and their AIPAC-influenced brethren have been attacking J Street for weeks, scared that the conference will bring together the majority of American Jews who do favor a more rigorous peace process. When they found Josh’s poems and took lines out of context, they had the perfect straw man: the Van Jones to J Street’s Obama. Again, this is not surprising.

What is disappointing, and troubling, is J Street’s response in caving to this sort of McCarthyism. The executive director of J Street called us to say  “I know what I’m doing is wrong…but there are some battles we choose not to fight,” before canceling our program, and disinviting us from the conference. This accommodates their red-baiting and is the wrong response. Rather than give in, which only emboldens the right and legitimizes their attacks, we need to stand up for our principles and engage on that front. Van Jones is another perfect example: after the Fox News venom became too much and he resigned last month, the radical Right hasn’t stopped attacking Obama, or more accurately, the alternative, progressive voice they fear he represents. The Right stands by its politics, and practices solidarity with their allies. Too often the Left doesn’t. And that’s why we often lose – on health care, on global warming, and on Israel/Palestine.

For the second time in two months Kevin, who is Jewish, has been told not to come to a Jewish conference because of what he will say about Palestine and Israel. This past August, the evening before the International Hillel Conference, conference planners said if he were to read poems about Palestine, they’d rather not have him. Today, Josh, who is Jewish, has had his name thrown into a mudslide of blogs and hate emails. All this  because we are practicing the Jewish maxim of the refusal to be silent in the face of oppression, anyone’s oppression.

One of the key teachings of Judaism is the insistence on wrestling with and debating ideas. There are a thousand years of codified arguing, recorded in the Talmud and Midrash, over the meaning of the stories in the five books of Torah. Jews debate everything. There is the old adage, “when you have two Jews in the room, you have three opinions”. Our families cannot come to agreement about what constitutes a deli as opposed to a diner. (A deli must have pickles on the table with poppy seed rolls, etc….)

But when you try to talk about Palestine there is silence. When you talk about the role the United States plays in supporting Israel and its military coffers, there is no room for discourse. If you bring up Palestinians’ right to return to land they were forced out of, or mention that this past January over 1400 Palestinians, mostly civilian, were killed in Gaza, there is no room to speak in Jewish-centric spaces in this country.

There are many reasons why this trend of censorship is disturbing. We believe in democracy, in the right to speak and be heard and in the right be disagreed with. We are disheartened and outraged by the lack of democratic discourse in the American Jewish community and within the country as a whole.

Why are we scared of what will come from an honest conversation? What do we have to lose, or discover, or admit to if we question the policies of Israel or America’s support of its government and military? It can be unsettling for one’s worldview to unravel, the intricate web of white lies and half-truths pulled apart. This can be disconcerting for generations of Jews who have accepted the propaganda of a chosen people and the acting out of geostrategic nightmares via military might.

Kevin works at a Hillel for Hashem’s sake! He is charged with the task of addressing why so many young Jews are distancing themselves from the religious and cultural practice of Judaism.  This is one of those reasons! American Jews are told at shul to repent for our sins, but silenced if we bring up the sins of the country that acts in our name. We need authentic, honest discourse in the American Jewish community. It must start today and it must be about Palestine and Israel.

So, we are searching for a minyan—a crew of progressives and progressive Jews to build and connect with. We want to have a conversation. Not wait for the conversation to be dictated and have borders and walls built around acceptable topics,  but to have a conversation determined by us, Jews That Are Left, that are on the Left. A conversation that is honest and open and genuinely reclaims and considers our progressive past as well as forges the future world. A conversation engaged in the work of tikkun olam for real, the work of repair and healing and wholeness.

Progressive American Jews where you at? Holla at us! For real: jewsthatareleft@gmail.com. Let’s reshape the conversation. Let’s build a minyan, a coalition of progressive Jews and gentiles who want what is just and right for ALL people and all people in Israel and Palestine.

Editor’s note: the space that Kevin and Josh imagine for progressive Jews and allies “who want what is just and right for ALL people and all people in Israel and Palestine” already exists and it’s called Jewish Voice for Peace.

-Cecilie Surasky

J Street Two-Step: Fights smear campaign, censors poets

CORRECTION: Theater J tells us that the poetry session at J Street is not theirs as we incorrectly reported in the first version of this post. Theater J’s Ari Roth was asked to introduce the poets and moderate the session, but the poets were invited (and later uninvited) to participate by J Street. Roth also tells us that Theater J, a model for artistic expression based in the communal Jewish world, was long ago discovered by “right-wing gatekeepers”, as I described them, and that they continue to flourish and receive broad community support. Amen.


In its important efforts to challenge AIPAC and reclaim the center of Jewish liberal opinion, J Street walks an increasingly difficult line, demanding a more open discourse about Israeli policy for liberal Zionists, while simultaneously drawing a line in the sand between that which is kosher and that which is treyf (unclean): Jewish-staters and Congressional lobbying in, agnostics and one-staters and BDS out. Is this a viable, ethical or helpful strategy? It’s entirely possible to argue both sides. But only time will tell.

But for the moment, what is clear is that this approach leads to increasingly untenable situations like this: just a few days after J Street asked supporters to help them fight back on an undeniably terrible smear campaign about their upcoming conference, they announced they were canceling the entire poetry session at the same conference because of remarks invoking the Holocaust to describe the treatment of Palestinians, made some time in the past by one planned presenter, a young Jewish poet.

First, Jerry Haber of Magnes Zionist on the right-wing campaign:

A smear campaign against J-Street has been launched by – who else? The Weekly Standard, Commentary and the Standwithus crowd. They are telling their supporters to hound the members of Congress who are part of the J-Street Gala’s Honorary Host Committee and get them to withdraw. So why not? Hey, it’s a free country, isn’t it?

Sure, and if they played by the rules, that would be fine. But their rules include smearing and guilt-by-association. Remember how they went after Obama? Now they are saying that because one of the many speakers at the J-Street Conference, Salam al-Marayati, made a remark on radio suggesting that Israel should be on the lists of suspects for the 9/11 attack. He did this on September 11, and then immediately apologized for it the next day and on the same radio show.

So why is Salam al-Marayati speaking at J-Street? Because of something which he does not apologize for – his support of the two-state solution. In an op-ed he wrote for JTA

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a key issue of U.S.-Muslim world relations. My position on the conflict — and that of MPAC — centers on the two-state solution whereby Israel and Palestine exist side by side with security and opportunity. I believe also that the injustices that the Palestinian people have endured for more than 60 years, as well as the ongoing occupation that started in 1967, must be addressed and rectified through negotiation, not violence. Middle East wars have not resolved anything in the 20th century or in the first decade of this century”

In other words, the man is as extreme as…Barack Obama and Bibi Netanyahu!

Oh, did I tell you that al-Marayati’s support for the two-state solution is not mentioned in the smear campaign.

And now, this morning, J Street is putting the kibosh on the poets. JTA reports:

J Street nixes poetry session over speaker’s remarks

WASHINGTON (JTA) — J Street canceled a poetry session at its upcoming conference after the revelation of controversial remarks by one of the scheduled participants.

Monday’s decision comes a few days after some conservative Web sites critical of J Street posted examples of the work of Josh Healey, a scheduled speaker at the poetry session.

In one poem, Healey wonders whether “the chosen people” have been “chosen to recreate our own history, merely reversing the roles with the script now reading that we’re the ones writing numbers on the wrists of babies born in the ghetto called Gaza?”

Also, Healey talks in a video about showing solidarity with those protesting other causes, saying that for his friends, “Anne Frank is Matthew Shepard” and “Guantanamo is Auschwitz.”

“As J Street is critical of the use and abuse of Holocaust imagery and metaphors by politicians and pundits on the right, it would be inappropriate for us to feature poets at our conference whose poetry has used such imagery in the past and might also be offensive to some conference participants,” said J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami.

It’s not clear that J Street actually has a policy regarding speakers and their right to use – in creative pieces- the Holocaust to describe the treatment of Palestinians, or if J Street actually has made much of a point of criticizing the frequent use of Nazi imagery by the right-wing to describe liberals and Israel critics (so well documented by Glenn Greenwald. ) Nonetheless, the seemingly quick decision to yield to pressure regarding something-a-poet-once-said-in-a-poem-at-another-event-about-his-experience-of-the-Holocaust lands J Street squarely in the realm of retro thought-police like the Anti-Defamation League. We’re pretty confident that’s a place that many of J Street’s supporters would not like them to be.

J Street should be lauded for figuring out a way to broaden the field for Israeli-Palestinian bloggers at their conference next week by giving Richard Silverstein and Jerry Haber physical space to hold a completely independent session with some of the best-known bloggers on the topic: Monday, October 26, from 12:30-2:00pm at the McPhearson Square room in the Grand Hyatt. Muzzlewatch’s Sydney Levy will be among those presenting and touching on this and other important topics.

_ Cecilie Surasky