Opinion—Eric Alterman

By | Oct 04, 2011

Has J Street Been Defamed?

Sarah Palin says that Israel’s West Bank settlements “should be allowed to be expanded upon, because that population of Israel is going to grow. More and more Jewish people will be flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead. And I don’t think that the Obama administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.”

Interesting, you say, and wrongheaded perhaps—though perhaps not so much by Palin standards. (At least she didn’t say she could see Hebron from her backyard…) Palin’s statement was made to ABC’s Barbara Walters in an interview broadcast on November 17, which is already months ago by the time this column finds its way into your hands, dear reader. Any sign of said “flocking?”

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby, J Street, had a problem with Sarah Palin’s statement on grounds other than its apparent lack of clairvoyance. He complained that the former Alaska governor was “pandering to her right-wing base… at the expense of the security of the State of Israel,” noting that “the majority of Israelis and pro-Israel Americans… view the growing settlement enterprise as a threat to Israel’s very future as a Jewish democracy.” Ben-Ami then reiterated his group’s support for the policies of President Obama, who has called on Israel to observe its past commitments and discontinue its illegal expansion of these settlements, which are, according to all accepted international law, also illegal.

All this did not sit well with Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League. He blasted Ben-Ami’s statement as “the height of chutzpah,” demanding, “Who authorizes them to determine what the security of Israel is? Israel determines its security.” Foxman defended Palin’s curious prediction as a “simplistic effort to be supportive of the Israeli government” but one that was nonetheless “clear and well-intentioned” and “didn’t put any lives at stake.” He apparently could not, however, say the same of Ben-Ami’s statement. Foxman wondered whether, in light of its criticism of Palin, J Street was truly “pro-Israel.”

The contretemps raises a few interesting questions. Note, first of all, that Ben-Ami was speaking in support of the policies of the president of the United States, which happens to be the country of which he and Foxman are citizens. Indeed, he was speaking on behalf of the policies of every single president of the United States since Israel began building the settlements on the land it conquered (and expropriated) in the 1967 war. He is also speaking on behalf of a global consensus of what is best for Israel; a consensus that includes pretty much everyone on the planet save supporters of Israel’s right-wing revanchist government. Now leave aside the question of what the head of an organization alleged to concern itself with “defamation”—though to be honest, even to call Foxman’s one-man operation an “organization” is a bit of a stretch—is doing inserting himself in a policy dispute between a Jewish organization and a former vice-presidential candidate. Does Foxman believe that criticism of ex-Wasilla beauty queens/small-time mayors with multi-million dollar book contracts constitutes “defamation of the Jewish people” that the ADL is pledged to fight? Or does he simply seek to shut down all disagreement with Israel’s right-wing government by means of political slander?

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