By Rabbi Anson Laytner, Special to the Jewish Sound
After the Washington Coalition of Rabbis, the umbrella body for non-Orthodox rabbis in our state, wrote a letter criticizing the showing of “The J Street Challenge” here in Seattle because it potentially would sow seeds of mistrust among Jews here, we each received a complimentary copy of the video courtesy of its executive producer, director and writer Avi Goldwasser.
I watched the 64-minute video and found myself wishing that “Americans for Peace and Tolerance,” the organization that sponsored the movie, had been more politically transparent, because the video is simply yet another occasion for a right-of-center pro-Israel group to attack its left-of-center counterpart.
As someone with 35 or so years of working in Jewish communal affairs, I could agree with the film’s rehearsal of the facts of the Israeli-Arab conflict; I also agree that it is important to criticize the Arab states and the Palestinian leaders for their many, many failings and shortcomings. No argument there.
But the point of the film is to discredit J Street, first by making it appear as if J Street disputes the facts of this history, second by trying to set J Street apart from similar organizations and political parties in Israel, and third by suggesting that J Street does not actually support Israel. (Actually, J Street is an avowedly pro-Israel organization.)
What really bothers Americans for Peace and Tolerance is that J Street supports a different part of the Israeli political spectrum than it does, and since Americans for Peace and Tolerance can’t legitimately criticize Israeli parties of the center-left for being anti-Israel, it marshals its spokespeople to attack J Street instead.
Let me be clear: “Americans for Peace and Tolerance,” like the Zionist Organization of America, favor the Likud or Jewish Home; J Street would be more supportive of Kadima, Meretz or Labor — if it took sides with regards to Israeli political parties. It is Democrats versus Republicans; Adelson versus Soros. When “Americans for Peace and Tolerance” talk about “strong Israel advocacy”, it means advocating for more settlements and a harder line on territorial compromise with the Palestinians. But Israel officially is still committed to a two-state solution with the Palestinians — so who really is in opposition to Israeli policy? However, by cutting and pasting the facts, “Americans for Peace and Tolerance” can make it appear as though it is J Street and not itself that is dissenting and potentially undermining Israel’s stated positions. I honestly would have preferred for “Americans for Peace and Tolerance” to simply say what it believes and why it believes what it does, rather than assassinating the character of another well-meaning pro-Israel organization.
Members of the Washington Coalition of Rabbis did not want to censor the video per se when it screened late last year. We remain opposed to efforts — by either side — to denigrate other legitimate pro-Israel voices in our community. Our letter stated that we “cherish being part of a Jewish community that recognizes a multiplicity of ways to support the State of Israel.” When “Americans for Peace and Tolerance” is interested in an honest conversation that acknowledges the legitimate perspective of other Jewish organizations with which it disagrees, then there is a path forward. Unfortunately, “The J Street Challenge” fails to recognize our people’s shared though differing love of Israel insisting instead that its point of view is the only correct one. And that attitude only sows dissent and mistrust in our community.
Rabbi Anson Laytner is a proud member of J Street and a lifelong Zionist. He manages the Interrerligious Initiative at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.