J Street in Hartford

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If all politics is local, Jewish politics is hyper-local. Well, hyper anyway.

So it happens that last week the Hartford Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) sponsored a talk by Colette Avital, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and Israeli consul in New York. These days, Avital is serving as a senior adviser to the dovish Israel lobby J Street, which co-sponsored her visit to Hartford.

This did not sit well with the Jewish Ledger,
the local weekly that has been owned since 1992 by N. Richard Greenfield. To say that
Greenfield cleaves to the right is to suggest that, oh, Anthony Weiner may
have employed his Twitter account in a manner ill-befitting a member of
Congress. (See my colleague Ron Kiener’s more detailed–and less temperate–account here.) Greenfield thus took to his editorial column to denounce the JCRC, forsooth an arm of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford.

I’d link to the editorial had the entire Ledger site not for some reason disappeared yesterday. Suffice to report that it denounced J Street for a litany of sins, real and imagined, up to and including the following from the Jerusalem Post‘s Caroline Glick:

These people don’t want peace. They want to wage war against Israel. They support waging economic war against Israel. They view the IDF as indistinguishable from Hamas….[their] positions are not positions that are conducive to peace.

The conclusion: “For 16 years we’ve been one with the Hartford Federation on its positions on Israel. This time we’re not. The pity is that now is when Israel needs us the most.”

In response, several Jewish faculty members at Trinity, myself included, wrote a letter to the paper (reprinted after the jump) expressing our disagreement. None of us is a particular supporter of J Street, and at least a couple would describe themselves as closer to AIPAC in their views on Israel. But all of us were appalled at the idea of pronouncing J Street beyond the bounds of legitimate American Jewish expression–such that it’s an unacceptable “position on Israel” for the organized Jewish community to partner with the organization in sponsoring a talk by a respected Israeli public figure.

The Ledger‘s editor posted the letter briefly on its website, then at Greenfield’s command took it down. In a rather heated phone conversation with me, he objected to our contention that Glick and company were as far outside the American Jewish consensus as radical Jewish leftists who denounce Israel at every turn (moral equivalence!). He allowed as how he felt personally offended. (O those delicate publisher sensibilities!) There could be no doubt that his editorial’s asserted commitment to “dialogue and debate”–in the community at large as well as in his pages–was mere lip service.

In his farewell blog last week, the New York Jewish Week‘s longtime Washington correspondent James Besser reflected on the current state of Jewish-American politics:

The rightward shift of the pro-Israel leadership has been abetted by
the drift away from involvement by centrist American Jews and a
ferocious campaign of delegitimization by the pro-Israel right against
those that see ending the occupation of the West Bank as an imperative.

I remember the vitriolic and ultimately unsuccessful 1993 campaign to
keep Americans for Peace Now out of the Presidents Conference, but the
shunning of J Street and the hyperbole about an organization with great
promise but–so far–limited accomplishments has been on an entirely
different plane.

To me that suggests a much narrower base for pro-Israel activism in the future.

What Hartford’s Avital Affair shows is how the delegitimizing goes down. A Jewish agency gets out of line. The community’s wrath is called down. Respected opposing voices are suppressed. And this is good for Israel?

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

We are writing to take exception to your
editorial condemning the Hartford JCRC for joining with J Street to
sponsor a talk by Colette Avital, former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset
and Israeli Consul General to New York. None of us are members or
promoters of J Street. All of us, like the overwhelming majority of
American Jews, support a 2-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
We are strong advocates of a safe Israel living amongst its neighbors in
security and peace. At Trinity College, we have fought the proponents
of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. 
The editorial attack, which claims that J
Street is beyond the pale of Jewish acceptability, is supported by
arguments from Frank Luntz, CAMERA, and Caroline Glick that are no more representative of  the
Jewish consensus in the United States than are the views of extreme
left-wing Jewish activists in our midst who try to slander Israel at
every turn. For every critical interpretation of J Street’s history, one
can find thoughtful Americans and Israelis who see the organization in a
different light. Even a critic of J Street such as Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic
has repeatedly stated that J Street exists within the mainstream of
American Jewish political life. Colette Avital, whom we all know well
from her years of superb work in New York–and who is highly regarded as a
mainstream politician in Israel–obviously agrees, because she has
joined J Street as Senior Advisor to the political arm of the
Contrary to what you claim, J Street exists
comfortably under the umbrella of worldwide Jewish support of Israel.
To be sure, there are profound disagreements beneath that large
umbrella, in Israel as well as in America. While
we may have our own disagreements with J Street, we believe that its
policies and actions on behalf of a Jewish and democratic Israel are
fully consonant with American Jewish political discourse. And we believe
that it would be both wrong and counterproductive to exclude J Street
from American Jewish or Diaspora-Israel discussions, as you urge.
Rather, it is important to foster
a respectful and constructive
discussion amongst all who advocate on behalf of a Jewish and democratic
state of Israel, and not rush to label those with whom we disagree as
inauthentic or illegitimate. Far from being condemned, the JCRC is to be
applauded for using its auspices to bring Colette Avital to our
Samuel Kassow
Charles H. Northam Professor of History
Trinity College
Ronald Kiener
Professor of Religion
Director, Jewish Studies Program
Trinity College
Barry Kosmin
Research Professor of Public Policy and Law
Director, Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture
Trinity College
Mark Silk
Professor of Religion in Public Life
Director, Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life
Trinity College
Michael Sacks
Professor of Sociology
Trinity College
  • Carolyn Toll Oppenheim

    Dear Mark Silk,
    I am on the steering committee of J Street/Western Mass. Our only Jewish newspaper is the Ledger, basically the CT one repackaged as Western MA with local announcements. The June 10 issue had 3 items attacking J Street: an Opinon piece by a national writer Karin Quinlan, an editorial by Greenfield,with the headline “Supporting J Street Harms Israel,” and a short anti-J Street editorial signed by some 40 Hartford Jewish big-wigs.
    I was pleased to see your response, sent to me by Isaac Luria.
    But I am wondering if this can be leveraged into finding well known Jewish leaders in the Jewish communities of CT as well as Western MA who will also join a campaign against the Ledger’s censorship policy…..
    Carolyn toll Oppenheim

  • dickerson3870

    RE: “…the shunning of J Street…has been on an entirely different plane. To me that suggests a much narrower base for pro-Israel activism in the future.” – Mark Silk

    …Ideological fanatics confronting their worse nightmare, in this case the “demographic holocaust,” are not going to be devotees of democracy and human rights. Israel’s government will become more and more dictatorial…
    …This is not a potential scenario unique to Israel’s situation. It has been played out before. The difference is that before the Jews were among the victims and not victimizers. This is what happens when any group gives itself over to a doctrine, be it racial, religious or political, which destroys all notions of common humanity. That is what the prevailing ideology of Israel has done. And, if history remains consistent, as Zionism “purifies” itself, gets rid of all those who would question it or compromise it, it must take its remaining adherents into the realm of unadorned horror. We should all be afraid of this. Very afraid.

    SOURCE – http://www.counterpunch.org/davidson06152011.html

  • Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg

    My letter to the editor in support of the event was also taken down. Here it is:
    To the Editor:
    I’m writing to express my support for the Hartford JCRC’s co-sponsorship of the June 13th event with JStreet entitled “Ensuring Israel’s Security By Achieving Peace: A Conversation with Colette Avital.”
    Rather than discussing the content of the event JStreet is cosponsoring with the JCRC, a Ledger editorial on June 9, attacks JStreet, an organization whose mission is to achieve a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I am sure that I am far from alone in the opinion that a two-state solution is in the interest of preserving the security and the Jewish and democratic character of the state of Israel.
    Recent events in the Middle East, including the Arab Spring and the announcement of a September vote at the UN on Palestinian statehood, raise important questions about the future of a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Recently in my own congregation, we held a dialogue and discussion about these very questions. We Jews come from many perspectives on these questions. What we share is the search for information and insight.
    The JStreet event gives our Jewish community an opportunity to hear an important voice, that of Colette Avital, a former Deputy Speaker of the Knesset and former Israeli Consul to New England, speak to questions that are on all of our minds.
    According to the event publicity, she is speaking on the “urgency of a two-state solution to secure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic homeland” and is planning on addressing questions such as: “How do the dynamics of the Arab Spring affect Israel’s prospects for peace and security?” and “What should leaders do in advance of a likely September vote at the UN on Palestinian statehood?”
    In this time of uncertainty and anxiety about the future of our beloved Jewish state, this is a welcome opportunity to hear from an experienced Israeli leader and to form our own opinions in response. Kudos to the Hartford JCRC for co-sponsoring this event.
    Rabbi Rachel Goldenberg
    Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek
    Chester, CT

  • My submitting the following does not imply agreement. This is strictly FYI:

    Mark Trencher wrote on Facebook: “This is what The Ledger says. They sound reasonable. Every serious publication establishes a set of principles, in concert with the norms of the community it serves, to determine what news and views it deems “fit to print.” We applied the Ledger’s principles recently in the debate over the Hartford Jewish Community Relations Council’s (JCRC) decision to co-sponsor a presentation in our community by the group called, “J Street.” Of the close to 40 letters and emails received in response to our two editorials about J Street, most agreed with our point of view. Three letters and two emails did not. We published two of the three negative letters on the Internet. They were both respectful and addressed issues pertinent to those we raised in the editorial. Not so the third letter, whose authors have now stridently accused us of censorship and of having violated their right to free speech. In so doing, they ignore the fact that the Ledger has both the right and obligation to not publish something that does not meet our standards. The letter in question slurred third parties who were not even involved in the local conversation. In response to our objection, one of the letter writers retorted, “That’s the way these things are done.” That may be true in some places, but not in the Ledger. As usual, we made our points in both editorials respectfully. We published a full 400-word column from the chair of the Hartford JCRC and its executive director (Letters, June 14). And, as already noted, we posted on-line two letters that disagreed with our point of view. There is no censorship here, just an effort to apply our standards as consistently as we can. Even if we had not had difficulty over the years with one of the authors, who uses four letter words in his “blog” to describe our publication and has called for Jewish communal leaders to “ostracize and repudiate” the paper, we would have made the same decision. The Ledger, must make choices like this one all the time. Indeed, with the advent of the Internet, the volume of comments we get has increased dramatically and we can’t verify, edit and publish all of them. Thus, time and space constraints are forcing us to make these choices more and more often. We feel that we have faithfully continued the Zionist traditions established by the Ledger’s founders more than 80 years ago, while encouraging thoughtful, healthy and respectful debate on issues that are important to our community. We have and will continue to make every effort to allow and encourage a diversity of opinions on the issues. However, we will not lower our standards and thus we will not indiscriminately publish everything submitted to us. Uncivil and disrespectful submissions don’t make the cut. If you disagree, please tell us about it.”