Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The J Street Enigma Explained!

Ah yes, the "infamous Gaza 54." Their infamy only surpassed by their obscurity.

But seriously, this video exploits a basic confusion about J Street, and lobbies in general. If you're like me, you grew up thinking of AIPAC as the pro-Israel lobby. So, AIPAC = pro-Israel. If there were another lobby that purported to be pro-Israel, and yet took different stances on a wide variety of Israel issues in the name of being pro-Israel, we would be faced with a problem. Either AIPAC is not really pro-Israel, or this new lobby is not pro-Israel. But they can't both be pro-Israel. So, J Street or AIPAC?

The thinking then goes like this: AIPAC is an old and venerable institution, and nearly always (at least publicly) supports the official government stance of the State of Israel. Since one can assume that the Government of Israel (GOI) is pro-Israel (if they weren't, who would be?), then those who support the government of Israel must be the pro-Israel lobby. J Street, a lobby that frequently criticizes the conduct of the Israeli government, cannot be pro-Israel, at least, not when it criticizes the conduct of the Israeli government.

One problem with this analysis is that it conflates support of a government with support of vague ideas like country, Zionism and ethnic pride. While I would agree that the Israeli government cannot really ever be intentionally anti-Israel*, that by no means precludes the possibility of those who hold differing opinions being pro-Israel as well. For instance, J Street is the bane of the settler population in Israel. Certainly, the settler population has their fair share of vociferous and often violent disagreements with various Israel governments (including this one), but they would just as vociferously and violently dispute the notion that they are not also pro-Israel. And, while a Likud coalition currently governs the country, it was not too long ago that it was a Kadima coalition, and the Likud opposed the previous government. So, conflating support for a government or a specific policy with being pro-Israel is a poor rhetorical choice.**

But more generally, I wanted to parse out what lobbies are. I see two different kinds of lobbies, broadly. One kind are the ones that are engaged by specific entities, either corporations or countries or people, that seek to advance the political interests of their clients who pay them. Thus, Big Tobacco engages the services of tobacco lobbies. These lobbies are pro-tobacco in the sense that they advocate in favor of policies that will enhance the position of Big Tobacco. They know which policies will help tobacco because very often it is Big Tobacco telling them which policies will help them. When they publish studies that purport to show that smoking in children under the age of 5 builds strong bones and teeth, it is widely assumed that it is being published either in concert with, or under the direction of, Big Tobacco. It is impossible for such a tobacco lobby to act in opposition to Big Tobacco. Their raison d'etre, the reason they were created by Big Tobacco in the first place, was to help Big Tobacco. Big Tobacco creates them, and Big Tobacco destroys them. I call this agency lobbying.

Then there is something that's more along the lines of an ideological lobby, one that advocates on behalf of certain actions, irrespective of what the relevant actors who would be carrying out the actions think. The people who fund these lobbies fund them because they happen to agree with their goals. In an ideal situation, if their donors disagreed with their policies, the donors would withdraw funding, but the policies advocated should remain the same. So, let's say I love smoking, and wish it to remain as legal and lightly taxed as ever. To that end, I believe that smoking should be absolutely prohibited to children. I believe, that if children are allowed to smoke, although this may in the short run help Big Tobacco's bottom line, it will eventually create a backlash that will lead to perhaps all smoking being prohibited. This sets me up in a conflict with Big Tobacco, who is perhaps not as farsighted as I. We are both "pro-tobacco,"*** but we're very different sort of enterprises. I don't care if Big Tobacco jumps up and down and tells me a gazillion times that children are the future of tobacco, I won't care. An agency of Big Tobacco, however, will certainly care, and "be persuaded" by its client corporation.

It seems to me that AIPAC is like the agency lobby for the Israeli government. It supports whatever the government supports. It is as if it is engaged by the Israeli government to help convince the American government of the rightness of the Israeli government's point of view. If the government changes its view, and argues that removing settlements is good, then so will AIPAC.

J Street, on the other hand, is unaffiliated with the Israeli government. It has an ideological vision for a future Israel that it likes and wants to see brought to fruition, and seriously believes that its perspective is good for Israel. To the extent that it and the Israeli government advocate the same policies, that's great, but besides the point. Governments come, and governments go, but ideology remains.

*I suppose one could imagine a situation where a government was somehow covertly taken over by people who hate both themselves and the country, but that would be weird.

**Obviously, this isn't simply a mistake on the part of people who call J Street anti-Israel. The point is always to demonize those who disagree with you, and to ascribe to them malicious motives. If you believe in higher taxes, you hate America.

***We could even imagine a situation where I am actually looking out for the best interests of Big Tobacco - perhaps I am an investor. The banning of all tobacco products will not help Big Tobacco's bottom line in the long run, after all.


Izgad said...

That was cheesy.

The problem as I see it with J Street is not only does it support a policy course that is different from that of the Israeli government and disagrees with the Israeli government, but it views Israel’s actions as immoral and in essence illegitimate. Therefore anyone who operates within the orbit of AIPAC and the Israeli government cannot in turn view J-Street as legitimate nor can it engage in any sort of dialogue. It is hypocritical for J-Street to expect any respect from an establishment they actively seek to delegitimize.

Vox Populi said...

Well, let's accept at face value your claim that they see many of Israel's actions (and by extension, those of AIPAC) as being immoral, and hence illegitimate. But that extends only to those actions, and not to the legitimacy of the entity itself. I can like Barack Obama and support his campaign, while also decrying many of the stupid, immoral, illegal or otherwise illegitimate decisions he makes. That doesn't make me out as someone trying to delegitimize either Obama the man or Obama the president.

The correct response of the entity being criticized should not be, as you suggest, to automatically conclude that all criticism of its actions is really an effort to delegitimize itself ipso facto. The correct response should be to engage in dialogue.

(Obviously, though, I doubt J Street particularly cares what AIPAC thinks, and no doubt sees its disputes with AIPAC as sources of funding. They see themselves as an alternative to AIPAC. If they just sat around agreeing with each other all day, who needs them?)