Nightmare on J Street
Why can't Arab Americans work for peace, too?
At last, somebody found me out.
This week, former AIPAC and Israeli embassy official Lenny Ben-David published an article revealing that I had given a donation to the "pro-Israel and pro-peace" organization J Street. Because I am of Lebanese descent, this clearly indicates that my dollars must be intended to advance some pernicious anti-Israel agenda — and that J Street must be the vehicle for those aims.
I would be only too happy to ignore Ben-David’s article as a collection of cheap innuendo and loose associations, but the stakes are too high. With J Street’s inaugural conference less than one week away, opponents are desperate that it fail. The attacks on the organization, its founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, its staff, and their supporters have taken on an all too-familiar form — eschewing substance to malign the motives and associations of those they disagree with. Ben-David and his supporters are now attacking J Street for accepting contributions from Americans of Arab descent. The donations in question are largely symbolic, many of them in amounts between $30-$100, but his point is loud and clear — an organization that receives Arab-American support must, by definition, be suspect.
But why on earth should J Street be ashamed to have the support of Arab-Americans like me? And why should Arab-Americans worry that participating in the political life of their country and exercising their freedom of speech might — simply because of their ethnicity — harm the candidates and causes they hold dear?
Ben-David’s allegations offer two competing conclusions. Either J Street is not sufficiently pro-Israel (how else would it attract Arab-American support?) or there is a significant group of Arab Americans for whom being pro-Palestine and pro-Israel are not mutually exclusive. He assumes, and hopes everyone else will also assume, that the former is self-evident and the latter is impossible. He is wrong.
It is possible to be both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine, not out of some blanket support for either government, but out of a sincere belief that peace is in both people’s best interests. I hold that belief as a result of years of work within the Arab and Jewish American communities, working in partnerships not just with J Street but also with such groups as Americans for Peace Now, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, and Israel Policy Forum. I have traveled to the region and remain humbled and inspired by the courage and tenacity of those Israelis and Palestinians who refuse to submit to the cynicism or pessimism this conflict so often demands.
The reason J Street causes such fury among certain detractors often has nothing to do with its policy positions. These people are angry because the political climate has shifted in a way that they no longer understand or control. The generation that elected President Obama is not interested in being divided based on religion or ethnic heritage. We are not interested in a zero-sum game. We believe our elected officials must play a leadership role in brokering a two-state solution to this conflict, and that Arab and Jewish Americans must work together to support them. How can anyone profess to believe in a two-state solution, in which Israelis and Palestinians will live side by side, if they view with suspicion Arab and Jewish Americans working together to get there?
As a staff member at the Arab American Institute (AAI), it was my job to engage Arab Americans in civic life, including giving time and money to the candidates and causes we believe in. AAI’s founder, James Zogby, has dedicated his career to combating those who would seek to exclude us because of our ethnic heritage. We have the right to engage in American political life because we are Americans. That we do so is to our credit, and not a negative reflection on those we choose to support in our common quest for peace. At the United Nations in September, President Obama said that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is "absolutely critical" to American national interests. Many of us –Arab and Jewish Americans alike — wholeheartedly agree.
Those Arab Americans who support J Street, like myself, do so because we are eager to work with an organization that views us as partners and does not seek to perpetuate the divisions and pathologies of the Middle East here in the United States. Contrary to Ben-David’s assertions, those of us who work in coalition to support President Obama’s efforts are not the ones with explaining to do.