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