Attacking J Street: the old playbook

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In 1973, in the wake of the Yom Kippur war, more than 100 Reform and Conservative rabbis plus a number of leading Jewish intellectuals formed Breira: A Project of Concern in Diaspora-Israel Relations. The organization, which at its height numbered over 1,500 members, was dedicated to finding a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in the face of what it regarded as intransigence on the part of both the PLO and the Israeli government. It became best known for advocating an independent Palestinian state–the two-state solution to the conflict.

In 1976, Breira was subjected to a concerted campaign of vilification. It was accused of being anti-Semitic and hostile to Israel. After agreeing to meet with representatives of the PLO, the Jerusalem Post charged it with supporting terrorists and being anti-Semitic. Its first national membership meeting was attacked by the Jewish Defense League. Two of its members were excluded from serving on the executive council of the Rabbinic Assembly of Conservative Judaism. Branding the organization as “anti-Israel,” “pro-PLO,” and composed of “self-hating Jews,” AIPAC founder Isaiah L. Kenen charged that Breira “undermined U.S. support for Israel.” In 1977, the Breira closed up shop, squashed like a bug.

It is evident that some in the Jewish world would like to do the same to J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” organization founded in April 2008. While there’s been a fair amount of background sniping, the big gun was fired earlier this month by Michael Oren, Israel’s current ambassador to the U.S. Speaking at a breakfast session at the United Synagogue of Conservative
Judaism’s biennial convention December 7, Oren denounced J Street as “a unique problem in that it not only opposes one
policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all
Israeli governments. It’s significantly out of the mainstream.”

Oren, an American-born historian (author of a well-received account of the Six-Day War) with good neocon credentials, can be assumed to be fully aware of the Breira story. Whether history will repeat itself is another question. At its first Washington conference in October, J Street received warm greetings from Israeli president Shimon Peres and opposition leader Tzipi Livni. Its founder and executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has been included in White House meetings. The organization, after an early misstep or two, has in fact been careful to keep itself well within the bounds of “mainstream opinion.”

Today, “all Israeli governments” support a two-state solution and are willing to talk with Palestinian leaders. Breira’s name, which comes from the Hebrew for “there is no alternative,” proved to be prescient. Three decades later, J Street has revived the Breira wing of American Jewish opinion. The unique problem it represents for Oren and company is that there’s still no alternative.