J Street’s Big Unforced Error

The New York Times today reports on casino mogul and probable-foreign-government-briber Sheldon Adelson’s latest attempt to get his buddy Mitt Romney elected president: $6.5 million dollars to the Republican Jewish Coalition to get more Jews to vote for Romney.  Whatever.  We’ll see.

But it might just work if J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami, whom I have a lot of respect for, keeps making verbal gaffes like this:

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, a Jewish lobbying group in Washington that favors Democratic candidates, said the effort by Mr. Adelson and the Republican Jewish Coalition would fall short.

“Every single number indicates there is simply no such thing as a Jewish problem for the president,” Mr. Ben-Ami said. “The people who vote only on Israel didn’t vote for Obama last time and know who they are voting for already.”

That is exactly wrong.  If you care about Israel and only about Israel, then your candidate is Barack Obama, and it isn’t a close question.

Romney, like most conservatives nowadays, is an anti-Zionist.  He supports continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and rejects a two-state solution.  That course effectively means that Israel will have a non-Jewish majority, thereby causing the destruction of Zionism, or the death of Israeli democracy, or both.  (Note, of course, that if Israel ceases to be a democracy, then it will have violated the Israeli Declaration of Independence, which defines the country as a “Jewish and democratic state.”).

Barack Obama wants Israel to be a Jewish state and to be a democracy.  Mitt Romney does not.  Thus, Barack Obama supports Israel, and Mitt Romney does not.  This isn’t complicated.


Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

24 thoughts on “J Street’s Big Unforced Error”

  1. Jonathan conflates “is” with “ought.” I agree that Americans who care only about Israel should vote for Obama. But I predict that they will vote for Romney. People who care only about Israel are motivated by tribalism, just like any other person who cares only about any “x”. Tribalists seek tribalist solutions, which are only sometimes rational. Specifically, tribalist solutions are not particularly good for Israel, although they are excellent for Netanyahu’s political career.

    1. In short, tribalism makes you stupid. If you care only about your particular group — unless you’re a genius of enlightened self-interest, or have been smacked in the face a lot of times in just the right way — you will end up making choices that are really bad for your group in the long run.

      1. Perhaps “tunnel vision” and “stupidity” are not synonymous. “Tunnel vision” sometimes makes smart people choose unwisely.

  2. Exactly as ES says.

    It’s like the annoying habit of referring to hawkish, “my country, right or wrong” types as “patriots”. They are not, and it’s a shame that progressives don’t push back in the media against the endless repetition of this meme, as though those who want their country to live by its ideals are, by contrast, unpatriotic.

    But JZ also gets it right: the true Zionists are those who favor a two state solution and oppose the West Bank system of apartheid.

  3. How can Israel be both a Jewish state and a democracy? A democracy doesn’t privilege any ethnic or religious group above any other.

    1. England, Denmark, and Iceland have official state religions, yet are also democracies.

      1. Israel’s history is so much different than these other three countries that I’m not sure this thought provides much hope. Do any of them have a group that is analogous to the Israeli Arabs?

        I really came back to this post, which I first read several hours ago, to make a different comment though. Jonathan and Ben-Ami make the same mistake, which is underestimating how much peril Sheldon Adelson’s effort hold for those of us who believe it essential that Obama be re-elected.

        Maybe you have to be from southwest Ohio, like I am, and be surrounded by too many co-religionists who really do care *only* for Israel and as result identify as either Republican or Tea Party. Yeah, you read that right. The son of a promininent local Jewish family has a high-level leadership position in the local Tea Party. I knew them way back when, when they were Democrats. But they are also ardent Zionists and were easily convinced that the Democrats weren’t “good for Israel.”

        Maybe you have to remember crowding into a Cincinnati hotel meeting room with 150-200 other Jews on the eve of the 2004 election, where local Jewish Democrats and John Kerry’s brother PLEAD with us to please convince six other Jews to vote for Kerry, that’s how close Ohio was going to be and guess what, Ohio was close and our candidate lost.

        Maybe you have to remember the local Jewish Federation holding a rally to thank President Bush for his support of Israel’s summer of 2006 war, a rally where our local Republican Congressman (Steve Chabot and Jean Schmidt), both up for re-election, were invited to give speeches. Maybe you also have to remember hearing life-long Democrats tell you how much that rally meant to them because they were feeling so alone and scared for Israel.

        Because if those memories were yours, news of Adelson’s little project would make you as nauseous as it’s making me.

        1. Israel’s history is so much different than these other three countries that I’m not sure this thought provides much hope.

          It’s different in the sense that 1500 years have passed since England was possessed by non-Christians. (If you want to make the conflict about ethnicity rather than religion, it’s been 950 years since England was run by Saxons rather than Normans.) What happened in the interim was a lot of ethnic cleansing. It only looks neat because we are far past the days when that ethnic cleansing was being carried out. Or maybe not, given the history of Northern Ireland.

          When looking at it historically, the *only* solution to the current Israeli/Palestinian situation that holds out any promise is radical ethnic cleansing that either rids Palestine of the Jews or that rids all of Israel and the West Bank of Palestinians. It is very rare in history that a situation such as the one that exists is permanently solved in any other way. The modern state of India is an ongoing experiment in finding another approach, but the jury is still out on just how effective it’s going to be.

          Perhaps it would have been different if, in the wake of the 1967 war, Israel hadn’t decided to do its best to blur any possible boundaries with settlements, but they did. And so we have a situation where I don’t see any resolution possible other than radical ethnic cleansing and everything between now and then is just posturing to see who is going to have both the power and the will to do so. For a long time the balance was that Israel had only the power and the Palestinians had only the will, but now the Israelis seem to be winning the race as the electorate demonstrates an increasing will by advancing Avigdor Lieberman to positions of power.

          1. “Israel’s history is so much different than these other three countries that I’m not sure this thought provides much hope. Do any of them have a group that is analogous to the Israeli Arabs?”
            “It’s different in the sense that 1500 years have passed since England was possessed by non-Christians.”

            Wow — Americans really do know nothing about the history of Europe!

            The relevant distinctions here are Catholic vs various varieties of non-Catholic. How did these play out? Well of course (in the days before democracy) they ranged from the mild (Bloody Mary coming to power in England and promptly taking revenge for Henry VIII by burning a few hundred non-Catholics) to the rather less mild (1/3 or so of the population of Germany dying as fallout from the Thirty Years war; or the fun of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and the essential civil war that left embedded in the heart of France which one can, without stretching too much, see as leading to the 1789 revolution and all that entailed, then the 1848 revolution, then the weakness that implied in France which emboldened Prussia leading to the Franco-Prussian war(and was a correct reading of the situation, see the Paris Commune right after the war) then that same weakness leading to an emboldened Germany in 1914, then that SAME DAMN WEAKNESS leading to an emboldened Germany in 1939).

            But more relevant to our story is England after the Civil War, then the Glorious Revolution of 1688, where the nation comes to a sort of modus vivendi whereby it is (in some vague sense) democratic AND Catholics are banned from a wide variety of roles in public life. (And still are to some extent — I suspect that the law remains on the books that the monarch, for example, may not be Catholic.)
            Clearly this did not result in catastrophe for England, and could over a (long long) time be wound down.

            But I suspect that, while interesting, this is irrelevant. There are a variety of significant differences in play. One (more important than I think is recognized) is that the Catholics in England were old, wealthy families. Which means they had dignity, and their fellow travelers amongst the poor had dignity by extension. This mattered, I suspect, more than the fact that there were laws on the books preventing them from taking part in various aspects of public life (eg attending Oxford or Cambridge, or serving in various roles in the government); there were other things they could do to validate their lives.

            I suspect that the REAL issue in Israel (and where the parallel is with South Africa not Denmark or suchlike) is this issue of dignity, not of the laws on the books, not even so much of economic opportunities. Israel spares no expense and no opportunity in shoving it in the Palestinian’s faces, day after day, that they have no dignity. This creates a very different social dynamic from something like, to take a different example, a country like Malaysia, where there are also a variety of apartheid-style laws on the books, now limiting what the Chinese can do, but these laws, like for the Catholics in England, are not accompanied by a policy of the destruction of dignity.


          2. The reason I didn’t include the English Reformation isn’t because I don’t know about it, but rather because it was a schism within a single existing religion rather than a clash between two religions the existences of which predated the conflict. There was also very little ethnic component to the conflicts English Reformation. With those two very stark differences, I think the comparatively happy resolution of the strife tells us next to nothing about the possibilities for the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

          3. Michael, hence my emphasis on dignity.

            IMHO far too much is made of some aspects of the differences between these two situations (ethnicity, religion, the exact laws on the books) while far too little attention is paid to soft matters that cannot as easily be quantified but which, IMHO, make all the difference.

            If we look at situations where these sorts of problems have resolved themselves (or alternatively, where things have been made worse) I suspect the patterns we will find have to do with precisely this matter of dignity. It is THAT which Israel has to come to terms with, more than anything else. Dealing with that does not require religious conversion, or ethnic interbreeding; it simply (hah) requires a change in mindset; but also, let’s note, it’s an asymmetric issue, it’s not something that is usefully solved by having Israeli’s whine “well what about my dignity”. When you wish to reconcile master and slave, the master has a different set of tasks, and a different path, from the slave.

        2. My point was more that religious arrangements need not have much effect on how democratic a country is. The UK’s constitutional structure these days is still a bit on the odd side but it’s got a lively, functioning democracy, not affected in the least by its major constituent nation having a state religion. As a result, I don’t see any inherent problems with Israel both being a Jewish state and a democracy.

          However, if you’re looking for historical analogies, you could also argue that Irish Home Rule was the original two-state solution.

  4. As I’ve said many times, I’m not going to vote for the man. But honestly, Jonathan, is this supposed to be an argument? What I mean is, would you accept it from one of your students in your course on Torts, or Land Use?

    1. Well, I don’t teach Torts anymore, but more to the point: yes. Israel has a trilemma: 1) being a Jewish state; 2) being a democracy; and 3) annexing the territories, which is unquestionably what further settlement building will do. You can have two out of these three, but not all three. If you are a Jewish state and annex the territories, then you cannot be a democracy because of demographics. If you are a democracy and annex the territories, then you cannot be a Jewish state for the same demographic reasons. Since I, along with the framers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, want Israel to be a democracy and a Jewish state, the only logical option is to foreswear annexation, which means not building settlements. Having Palestinian Bantustans, which is the current government’s policy, doesn’t cure this problem.

      1. I get your argument/logic — it’s not far from my own. But what I was trying to say before, there are American Jews resistant to this view and they will not support candidates who express anything along these lines. I’ve seen them get livid when the idea of returning land to Palestinians comes up.

        Maybe we could call this the Jewish version of “What’s the matter with Kansas?”

      2. But not building more settlements would be to give up something for nothing and would signal weakness.

        1. This is just so wrong I don’t know where to start. And Larry Birnbaum isn’t much better. The settlements are wrong now and were wrong from the start. Admitting you made a grievous error and taking steps to correct it does not signal weakness, it signals moral strength. And even if it did signal weakness, it would still be the right thing to do, because the settlements were wrong.

      3. What I meant was, first, don’t bury your main point in this weirdly convoluted and tendentious fashion. Under any normal reading of the word “rejects”, Romney obviously doesn’t reject a two-state resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. You believe his positions will make such an outcome difficult or even impossible to achieve, but (see the next point) he’d argue otherwise. I suspect that with your professional hat on you wouldn’t look favorably on this .

        Second, don’t beg the question. Your point 3 above includes the claim that further settlement unquestionably is tantamount to annexing the territories. You know, this isn’t a tautology, it requires an argument. And a fairly nuanced argument at that. For example: Settlement where? In towns 2 miles from the 1949 Armistice line that already have a large Jewish population and that everyone knows won’t be part of a Palestinian Arab state if and when one actually comes into existence?

        To make it clear where I’m coming from: (1) I genuinely hope, for Israel’s sake, that a two-state resolution of this conflict is possible and can be made a reality. (2) I don’t believe that current or even future settlement makes such a resolution impossible. (3) Under the current circumstances, where the major impediment as far as I can tell is a lack of both desire and leadership among Palestinian Arabs to actually work towards such a resolution — where are the negotiations? — even were I to accept your premise as a long-term problem, I don’t believe that currently this is even remotely the biggest bottleneck to forward progress at this time.

        The situation is horrible. So is killing innocent civilians in drone attacks. Nevertheless in my view those attacks are necessary, in fact, morally and legally necessary, not just practically. Similarly here. Until and unless the Palestinian Arabs agree to a comprehensive peace, the occupation must continue. I don’t agree with the ideology of many of the settlers, but neither do I believe that the extent of settlement yet renders peace unachievable. And I happen to think that settlements apply some useful pressure. If the Palestinian Arabs want to end it, they have a pretty clear path to doing that: Negotiate a deal.

        1. Absolutely right Larry.

          This post is exactly why I rarely bother with this site anymore. Jonathan creates a straw man by grossly mischaracterizing the opponent’s position. These mischaracterizations (not just by him but also by most of the other bloggers here) are outright lies – and then they accuse the other side of lying. No wonder academia is losing respect.

          1. Redwave,
            I didn’t like Jonathan’s post (you can see the evidence above), but I don’t think he stepped over any discursive limits. He could have been more careful distinguishing the effects of Romney’s position (as Jonathan sees it) from the facial content of the position. (If I were speaking the conservative dialect of political English, I would be using the term “unintended consequences.”) But this is no worse than a lack of precision. It is not an attempt to mislead or mischaracterize.

            I’ve liked a lot of your posts. I’d miss you if you left the site.

      4. I don’t know; I think Poland and the Czech Republic are democracies. (Even though the expulsion of the Pomeranians and sudetendeutsche happened since WW2.)

  5. This site is so entirely perverse as to render myself – almost – speechless. The prevailing theory of, well, everything on this site is that progressivism is good… everything else must therefore be bad. Progressivism has led to Margaret Sanger racist abortion on-demand paid by the government – in the name that it’s for the “common good.” So was Hitler’s “solution!” Too, this “common good” argument has been used to adnauseum with almost ALL social ills! If that name of the game is that we should have government-paid health care… then let the government pay for it. Oh, wait! That MIGHT be a bad idea if we remember that the government doesn’t MAKE money to spend as it wishes, but must STEAL it first via the IRS from the productive members of our society in order to redistribute those funds by the whims of those that think about the “common good.” So, if I – as a free-thinker – think it might be good that we get rid of ALL the Communist Manifesto planks in our presumed capitalist and free society (government education, health care, the “progressive” income tax, etc.) I would be labeled an extremist; yet, those that think eradicating humanity of ANY members of itself because they are not wanted (abortion) is just “good policy.” Too, we MUST take care of all those that can’t take care of themselves – hence, health care. No, we’ve gotten so used to the government paying for everything – after they’ve stolen the money and now the future of our citizens – that we’ve begun using the term “free” to describe the economic cost to those that argue for it. Well, it MUST be free… THEY didn’t pay for it. What happens when the productive of our society starts to realize that all they need to do is STOP!? All those “utopian” “progressive” (read: moronic) ideas will come to fall on their heads. I know for certain, I am going to take and take and take from this government until I help bankrupt it. THEN maybe we’ll be able to “reorganize” a more sane solution; one where people actually receive what they work for! I will NOT contribute to the further delinquincy of my nation’s “free handout” thinkers by me paying taxes! I just refuse to work! Put me on unemployment, then welfare, all the time receiving “free” health care. Don’t forget my food stamps!!! 🙂 I’d like to thank all of you progressives working for my livelihood. When I win the lottery I’ll be sure to think of you as I continue to receive from the idiotic system YOU created! LONG GONE IS THE FREE AND INDEPENDENT INDIVIDUAL SPIRIT OF TRUE CAPITALISM! Capitalism – with the likes of the corporation (which took over the mom and pop companies) – have cemented “progressivism” into everyone’s lives. The insidious nature of the “experts” have told us what we should and should not do, think, say, etc. So, for now, I shall proverbially shelve my brain at the door while the “experts” run my country’s economy into the ground. “Intellectual morons” is a better descriptive of these so-called “experts.” Woodrow Wilson gave us the 16th amendment (Income Tax) and the private corporation of international bankers known as the Federal Reserve. Tell me, how have THEY helped to legitimately advance mankind? (Short answer: they haven’t!) This WORLD may have everything in it including my body, but it may NEVER have my soul! Nor that of my family’s! “The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” is not the same as “The World is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” There IS a god (of sorts) of this world, but he cares for me and you about as much as Hitler cared for the 6 million that were incinerated under his progressive command. Oh, don’t think Hitler was a progressive? Hmmmm, not a very good student of history, are you?!?! Progressivism, communism, socialism, statism ALL come from “Democracy.” Think we’re a democracy? Read the Pledge of Allegiance again: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. And to the REPUBLIC for which it stands…” We’re a constitutionally-limited Republic… NOT a Democracy! Ah, public education (one of the 10 planks of the Communist Manifesto) at work again! I wonder what this country would look like if we could make the federal government look as it did back in the days of Thomas Jefferson?!? Hmmmm! Makes one wonder how much freer we’d be as individuals, to think and live as we pleased. Nah! That would REQUIRE RESPONSIBILITY and legitimate and truthful facts as our education… we can’t have any of that! It would get in the way of the “progressive” utoptian ideal, where the “collective” or “common good” must be sought after at all costs… to the peril of the individual and his freedom! Ah, long live the “expert,” forever may he/she reign over us like the pondscum they think we are and treat us! Our issues aren’t what government programs we “need!” Our issues are that we think we can solve EVERY damn little thing by the government! We have come to expect the government to be a charitable organization…. it’s not; it never was, it was never designed to be! It’s a place of central management over very, VERY basic functions of governing the country… and governing the country shouldn’t be confused with “health care,” “welfare,” “food stamps,” etc. Although, I will help my country from itself: I will aid my country in the further bankrupting it, so that we might be able to start over… and THEN hopefully get it right by NOT trying to “help” people, but manage the country’s governmental affairs ONLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! When that day comes I’ll start to contribute for MYSELF and MY FAMILY… and NOT “society!” The term “contibuting member of society” is just a euphamism for “someone to tax with an arbitrary system some intellectual moron created that thinks he’s/she’s smarter than I am how to spend MY money!” When this country starts to relish free and independent individualism again THEN I’ll “do my fair share!” Until then, you all can kiss my arse!

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