J Street, the Obama Moment, and the Jewish (Far) Left.

There was a brouhaha last week in Toronto. The city's International Film Festival was subject to a protest from dozens of high-profile filmmakers, actors, artists, and writers -- including Danny Glover, Naomi Klein, Viggo Mortensen, Jane Fonda , Eve Ensler, and Howard Zinn-- who objected to the event's selection of Tel Aviv as a sister city. The petition, promoted by Jewish Voices for Peace, stated:

The emphasis on 'diversity' in City to City is empty given the absence of Palestinian filmmakers in the program. Furthermore, what this description does not say is that Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages, and that the city of Jaffa, Palestine’s main cultural hub until 1948, was annexed to Tel Aviv after the mass exiling of the Palestinian population. This program ignores the suffering of thousands of former residents and descendants of the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area who currently live in refugee camps in the Occupied Territories or who have been dispersed to other countries, including Canada.

Some petitioners still participated in the festival, even attending screenings of Israeli films. Mortensen's has written this statement on his involvement in both the festival and the protest.

Meanwhile, J Street, the new progressive Israel PAC in Washington, decided to condemn the petition. Its executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, wrote, "The cause of peace will not be served by demonizing Israeli film and filmmakers as being part of the 'Israeli propaganda campaign.' In fact, anyone who actually watches popular Israeli films would know that the films are often vigorously critical of Israeli government policy."

This was a significant decision, because it signaled that J Street seeks more moderate ground than that of the Jewish left, as represented by organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace. Phil Weiss , a critic of J Street from the left, explains that this is a mark of J Street's political maturity, and its understanding of the Obama moment. Very astute:

And as for the universalist Jewish left, who get a sick feeling when we hear J Street trumpeting "Jewish democracy" in Israel (for some reason we weren’t crazy about "white democracy" in the south, either), well– honey, we’re a fringe. I think we’re about 5 percent of the Jewish community, optimistically. Yes, we’re growing, but we’re a fringe. And politically, where else can we go now? We’re just like Obama’s progressive base watching Obama sell us out on the public option and Afghan war. We may have been essential to J Street’s rise, as the anti-Iraq left was to Obama’s nomination. But J Street doesn’t need us now.

J Street’s play is the Obama play. J Street thinks this is the last chance for the two-state solution. They want to build political capital for Obama in the American Jewish establishment so that he can put pressure on Israel over settlements, as he promised the Arab world in Cairo. This is the "great game" of foreign policy today–as the great game of the 19th century was imperialist chess.

My only quibble is that the correct health reform analogy here is to the complete abandonment of single payer, not to the use of the public option as a bargaining chip. As Mark Schmitt has explained, the public option is already a significant centrist compromise. What the 5 percent of "universalist" Jews would like to see, vis a vis Israel, is far more radical -- whether it's a "single state solution" or just a more robust condemnation of Israeli policies in the occupied territories and toward its Arab minority.

--Dana Goldstein

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