By Symi Rom-Rymer
In advertising the November debate between Alan Dershowitz and Jeremy Ben-Ami, the 92nd St. Y framed it as a discussion over Israeli policy, Iran, and military vs. diplomatic strategies in the Middle East. Yet it turned out to be a debate not so much about foreign policy, as a fight for the right to represent the Jewish community. A clash between the old and the new. Who has the right to speak for American Jews? Can that right extend to more than one group? And most importantly, (at least to Dershowitz) who has earned that right?
There was, of course, the requisite tussling over J Street’s branding and each of their positions on Iran but the real flashpoint erupted around J Street’s very existence. Despite its successes in its first 18 months, including being named as “in” on the Washington Post’s “What’s In and What’s Out for 2010” list, Dershowitz dismissed it is a small and unimportant organization. Instead, he magnanimously offered to fold J Street into AIPAC, thus preserving its position within and without the Jewish community. Furthermore, he made it clear that AIPAC deserves this distinction because it “has been the standard, traditional organization”—in other words, it has been around longer.
Unlike Ben-Ami , who rejected the idea that there should be just one voice representing American Jewry, Dershowitz insisted that to speak with more than one voice is to lose all political influence. Ben-Ami’s rejoinder that AIPAC’s voice, currently the one most often heard in the public sphere, is not representative of all Jews was simply brushed aside.
While some argue that J Street is in danger of being held hostage by too many voices across the progressive spectrum, AIPAC is in denial that those voices even exist in the mainstream. When Dershowitz spoke of incorporating J Street into AIPAC, he acknowledged that some compromises would need to be made. Yet at the same time, he dismissed J Street’s core supporters as being on the extreme left wing and wanting to exclude them from the discussion. So clearly some of the compromises wouldn’t be including differing points of view.
I don’t disagree that when a community speaks with one voice, it can be more influential than when it appears fractured and unfocused (Exhibit A: The Democratic Party). However, fissures within the Jewish community exist and to stifle debate and ignore opposing views is to deny an important reality. Furthermore, to insist on the privilege of representing the Jewish community simply based on number of years in existence is absurd. Longevity does not translate into prominence, it simply translates into longevity. Whether an organization has been around 18 months or 18 years, it deserves the right to speak for unheard voices and should be free to represent that voice for as long as they feel it is necessary. If AIPAC wants to maintain its position within the policy world, it should win it honestly through healthy and open discussions across the Jewish political spectrum. Because if they aren’t up to the challenge, J Street certainly is.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.