Under the heading “Evolving Politics of the Jewish Community,” J Street presented a panel discussion about Jewish politics and, in addition, about how the perception of J Street has changed. The panelists were David Axelrod, Peter Beinart, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D – Brooklyn) and Jim Gerstein. The speakers set out some of the important shifts in the beliefs and values of the American Jewish community.
David Axelrod pointed out several factors that have led to these shifts: American Jews value education, tolerance and human rights; policies of the Israeli government and conditions in the Middle East present challenges to these ideas, to which the two-state solution is responsive.
Gerstein provided a survey result indicating that for 90% of American Jews, Israel is no longer one of the two most important issues. We are satisfied, by and large, with American policy favoring the two-state solution and American involvement in achieving it.
Beinart discussed the structure and trends of the American Jewish community in stark terms. Older people perceive perils for Jews and for Israel. Younger Jews perceive Israel as a regional superpower. If the younger Jews are to be engaged favorably, the Israeli government must show ethical responsibility in its use of Jewish power.
Adding to this division on the basis of age is a religious divide. Orthodox Jews, for whom religious values are highly significant, are more Republican than their non-religious counterparts and more supportive of Israel. In this respect, they track other religiously involved Americans. The Orthodox community is tribal and nationalistic. Although representing just 10% of the Jewish community, they are more politically active than others and they are growing in number.
The rest of the Jewish community responds to more universalist ideas. But this segment is dwindling, accelerated by intermarriage, with the Conservative Movement showing the most shrinkage. So support for Israel is suffering, at least at the moment.
Despite the clear trend within the Jewish community, Beinart notes that the traditional leadership has not shifted its message. The mainstream Jewish community is silent on the progressive agenda regarding the Middle East, particularly the rights of Palestinians and refugees and the issue of discrimination in Israel. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he notes, is silent even on Donald Trump’s proposed restriction on Muslims.
Jeremy Ben Ami, president of J Street and moderator of the event, proposed that the battle over the Iran agreement in 2015 put the traditional power structure to the test. AIPAC, which has claimed to be the voice of the American Jewish community, was unable to mobilize the Congress to defeat the agreement.
Large sums have been spent in part to convince the public that President Obama is against Israel, but this effort also failed. According to Rep. Clarke, the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress on the Iran agreement was an effort to get American Jews to choose between the United States government and the government of Israel. The attempt clearly did not succeed, as suggested by the continued ascendancy of J Street.
Founded to advance the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, J Street, at its inception, was viewed as an enemy and was even challenged as a tool of the Palestinian movement. Today the situation is quite the reverse, with the traditional wing of the Jewish community losing its influence as J Street grows.
The J Street event was held in Philadelphia on the second day of the Democratic National Convention. Although a small group of protesters appeared outside during the event, six members of Congress were in attendance and were pleased to be recognized. Early in J Street’s history, an endorsement from this organization was feared, but today it is sought after by most members of Congress, according to Rep. Clarke.