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The Jerusalem attack and J Street's very steep uphill battle

Posted by Jesse Singal  March 23, 2011 03:11 PM

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A few days ago, J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami sent out a note to members of his group's email list explaining that he was in Israel to try to win support for J Street among the Israeli Knesset following that body's decision to debate whether the group was sufficiently pro-Israel. Ben-Ami also criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for refusing to meet with J Street, despite the fact that he has been willing to sit down with conservative stalwarts like Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.

In Short, Ben-Ami and J Street want to be taken more seriously by the Israeli government — rather than be seen as a malicious influence, if not an outright political enemy.

No matter what, this was going to be an uphill battle. And today's bombing in Jerusalem will only make it more so.

It goes without saying that the first reaction to an event like this is sympathy for the victims and their families. It's probably hard for most Americans, myself included, to grasp the steady sense of siege that has descended on so many Israelis (and, it has to be said, Palestinians), of being haunted by images of your next bus ride ending in a fiery conflagration and a deadly exploding ring of nails or ball bearings. We just don't deal with what they deal with.

That said, I do think there's some value in highlighting what this tragedy says about J Street's difficult path toward widespread acceptance in Israel, given that I recently wrote about the organization's success in catching on among American Jews.

I've been clear that I'm mostly sympathetic to J Street's stances (which are less controversial than its detractors think), but there isn't really anything surprising about Bibi's embrace of figures like Palin and Huckabee. It might seem unfortunate from the perspective of a liberal American or Israeli Jew, but why wouldn't he glad-hand with those figures who are the least likely to criticize him and his government's policies while rebuffing a group that isn't afraid to do so?

And now that there has been the first non-rocket attack on Israel in four years, the goalposts for J Street in Israel just got pushed further back. Imagine you're an Israeli and your capital city was just bombed. A liberal American Jewish group happens to be in town at the same time — a group that exists in part to urge a softening of relations between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. Would you be inclined to hear them out? If not, it wouldn't even say anything about your politics — it would just mean that you're human.

That's the uphill battle facing J Street as it seeks to expand its influence in Israel. And even if a horrific crime hadn't been perpetrated on the Israeli people today, it still would have been a tough climb.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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