On defining our terms and drawing our lines

On defining our terms and drawing our lines

Jay Michaelson

In the current issue of The Forward, columnist Jay Michaelson makes a valuable contribution to our pro-Israel/pro-peace discourse with “When the Right Is Right About the Left.” Michaelson is a left-liberal gay activist/writer who declared some disenchantment with Israel three years ago; but here he writes in detail on how anti-Israel gay activists and others on the anti-Israel left have gone over the top in their one-sided and constant attacks on Israel, as if it is the primary source of evil in the world and the Palestinians and other nations do no wrong.

He also challenges the anti-Israel left to be honest that they don’t just deplore Israeli policies–as he and we often do–but also oppose Israel’s existence as an expression of self-determination for the Jewish people.  (Interestingly, this brings to mind a complaint registered by Norman Finkelstein—an Israel-basher if there ever was one, but who actually supports Israel’s existence in a two-state solution and criticized the BDS movement for being dishonest in this regard.)

Still, there’s one point at which Michaelson opens up a problem from our common progressive perspective.  It’s in how we define our terms.  The very fact that Michaelson and pro-Israel/pro-peace activists like myself–along with the left-wing Israel-bashers we deplore–all call ourselves “progressive” or “left” is a problem in itself.

We need to resuscitate the notion of the liberal-left, center-left or moderate left—or even the much-maligned and shunned label of “liberal.”  This is a way out of the confusion expressed by Michaelson in the following:

… the radical-left shell game also causes conservatives to be rightly suspicious of anything the left says. J Street, for example, consistently and regularly repeats that it supports the existence and security of the State of Israel. Yet because its further-left allies do not make the same assurances, the whole progressive enterprise is viewed with suspicion by the right…. 

I wonder what “further-left allies” of J Street he’s referring to.  Apart from our own Partners for Progressive Israel [I should have added, initially, the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now], there are no groups arguably to J Street’s left that could be fully considered an ally; we all support Israel’s existence and security. There should be no confusion on this point: J Street doesn’t proclaim its support and concern for Israel as a ploy; being “pro-Israel” (in the sense of supporting its security and well-being, not the  policies of right-wing coalition governments) is its raison d’etre.

By | 2012-08-01T13:12:00-04:00 August 1st, 2012|Blog|10 Comments


  1. Jeff August 1, 2012 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    I’m not sure he is talking about formal allies, but perceived allies. I noticed there have been Jewish Voice for Peace folks at JStreet conferences even though there are clear differences.

    It is also true that some of these “far left” folks make the same criticisms of Israeli policies that JStreet makes, so people see them as one movement.

  2. Ralph Seliger August 1, 2012 at 2:52 pm - Reply

    Yes, J St. was open to JVP participation in the interest of discourse. But I think that Jeff is making my point, that we need to make more of an effort to distinguish ourselves from the far left.

  3. Ken Brociner August 3, 2012 at 7:40 pm - Reply

    Ralph Seliger’s point – about the need to make more of an effort to distinguish what I would call the moderate left from the far left is certainly a good one. However it is more than a little ironic for this to be posted on a website that regularly features commentary by Mitchel Plitnick!

    Plitnick, for those who may not know, was a long-time spokesman for JVP. While he claims to have left the org over political differences, his commentaries frequently blur the line between the far left and the moderate left.Furthermore,when he writes about JVP, he typically does so in such a sympathetic manner, you would never know he left them to begin with.

    In granting Plitnick this platform, Partners for a Progressive Israel does the very thing that Seliger urges the Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace to avoid.

  4. Ron Skolnik August 3, 2012 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Partners for Progressive Israel is pro-Israel (in the sense of our support for Israel’s secure existence, not necessarily for the specifics of its policies) and anti-Occupation and -Settlement. I believe you are, too, and I categorize both Ralph Seliger and Mitchell Plitnick here as well.

    Of course, each of us has different interpretations of what this means in practice, with some taking either a harsher or more lenient tone towards Israel and the Palestinians, respectively. This is entirely legitimate and both tones fall under the banner of two-state supporters.

    There is also a range of opinion among two-state supporters (in the US, Israel and elsewhere) as to whether a two-state solution is still feasible, given the effects of 45 years of settlement and Occupation. Again, I don’t see why you are asking us to feature only one tone of the two-state camp.

    You have a right to think that Mitchell Plitnick’s tone on Israel is too harsh or that he’s too pessimistic about the chances for peace, but you should also take the trouble to first look into how he defines himself (at http://mitchellplitnick.com/about/):

    “My approach begins with the idea that Zionism was an entirely justified national movement, and that Palestinians also are deserving of the same human, civil and national rights as anyone else. Reconciling these two things is not simple, as they clash in essential and inherent ways. But finding that reconciliation is the only way, in my view, to get us out of the murderous quagmire that has existed in the region for more than a century.

    “And, as a Jew who, though secular, has extensive religious training, it is my deeply held belief that finding peace for Israel is crucial for the Jewish future. Whether one agrees with Zionism and Israel or not, it cannot be denied that Israel is now a central component of the Jewish existence. If we don’t find a peace that can endure and be accepted by all concerned, it will be conflict that dictates the Jewish future.”

  5. Jeff August 3, 2012 at 11:45 pm - Reply

    On the question of “further-left allies” of J Street, defining a J Street ally as a group or individual committed to a Palestinian state alongside Israel (the two-state solution), or who think a two-state solution is inevitable. I submit:
    1. JVP does not really count as a J Street ally because JVP is not committed to a two-state solution.
    2. American for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum, Tikkun, and dozens of local groups support a two-state solution abd are marginally or significantly to J Street’s left.
    3. So are prominent individuals like Peter Beinart, MJ Rosenberg, Dainel Levy, and many others.

  6. Ken Brociner August 4, 2012 at 5:35 am - Reply


    To argue, as you do, that as long as someone supports Israel’s right to exist they are then, by definition, part of the ,”pro-Israel” camp regardless of how “harshly” they might criticize Israel,indicates to me that you really don’t understand the mistrust that many more conservative-leaning Jews have for those of us on the moderate left who fail to clearly distinguish ourselves from the far left.

    Instead of “harsh”, let’s use a more meaningful term – “one-sided.” You appear to think that no matter how one-sided someone may be in analyzing the conflict,there is no real problem as long as they support the two-state solution.

    As you have put it:

    “Of course, each of us has different interpretations of what this means in practice, with some taking either a harsher or more lenient tone towards Israel and the Palestinians, respectively. This is entirely legitimate and both tones fall under the banner of two-state supporters”.

    Speaking for myself, I definitely do not think it is “entirely legitimate” to employ the one-sided tone and analysis that Plitnick typically uses on this website.

    But more important than my feelings on this is how more centrist or conservative Jews might react (which seems to be one of the main concerns expressed in Michelson’s piece).

    If you think that most Jews just shrug off one-sided criticism of Israel as long as they are issued by people who support the two-state solution, then I am afraid you are sadly mistaken.

    And if you think that giving people like Plitnick a platform to air his views on your website doesn’t further limit your organization’s already very limited political relevance then I really don’t know what else to say.

  7. Anonymous August 4, 2012 at 2:58 pm - Reply

    I cannot disagree more vehemently with Mr. Seligman’s labeling of people.

    Labeling people left, too left, radical, liberal, or any of the other groupings, is a false and dangerous delusion because it sets us up for divide and conquer and ultimately defeats the purpose. Labels, whether used consciously or not, are used to deflect the real issues.
    Mr. Seligman seems to hold a major platform here and I assume he represents Meretz’ views? If he does, am I correct in assuming that Meretz supports segregating Jewish progressives into smaller groups that attack each other? This seems ironic, especially when Meretz itself, was born out of, what some may call a radical past!
    Our current understanding of how the mind and the brain operate- that our bodies are fully integrated systems- provides the knowledge and tools through which to understand and work towards peace. It is both a cultured meaningful education, (people need to engage in meaningful work, need time to create and imagine), which includes an understanding of the psychological, that will create a more peaceful world and the psychological and sociological pieces seem to be urgently missing from the current political discourse on this blog.
    Labeling people as: “on the far left” or “Israel bashers, ” is no different than the “right” calling Meretz supporters “self-hating Jews,” which they often do. The outcome of both divides us further, which makes us less powerful, alienates many folks who would get involved and lastly and most importantly does not lead to action or higher political awareness.
    Labeling is often used, (again consciously or unconsciously), with a negative connotation to denigrate someone using the label to simplify someone’s arguments with whom you disagree.
    Labeling is elusive because we have moved so far to the right. The word liberal changes depending on who uses it, and most people couldn’t even tell you what any of those labels means in any objective way.

    It behooves all of us to stop attacking our brethren in the different peace camps and bring out what we can agree on and work towards peace together.

    Instead of a discourse about who hates Israel vs. who does not- why don’t we stick to the issues:

    I think we need to start from this point, as I’m reminded by the spy, and great political/psychological writer John Le Carre, when he writes that the men in the grey suits are perpetuating the arms race (Russia House), as well as what President Eisenhower wrote in his final address to the nation:

    There is too much money in war. Let’s not forget that Israel is also now a major arms dealer and has a lot of money invested in armaments that are tied up in the American economy. I mention this because, as we see with our own broken domestic system, that encourages dumbing down of Americans, and moves further and further away from democratic ideals, we do not utilize the entire spectrum of knowledge when engaging in political reform.

    Here’s what should unite us, keeping in mind how we work as integrated beings:

    a. We need to all work on campaign finance reform,
    b. Stop engaging in useless wars and use the money to retool the military towards peaceful engagements
    c. End the occupation.
    d. Justice and equality for Palestinians, Israeli Arabs, Bedouins, migrants, the poor and older adults within Israel
    e. The occupation is taking a negative toll on the moral fabric of Israeli society.
    f. Israel as the primary victor, in this situation, has to be the initiator of peace.
    We can thank every progressive Jew for allowing a dialogue to exist that did not exist before. Meretz could not do it on it’s own.
    Although I do not agree with all of J St.’s decisions- I respect their decision to include varied Progressive Jews into their camp. Thus far, it seems that J St. concentrates on positive action and not trying to alienate.

  8. Ralph Seliger August 5, 2012 at 3:54 am - Reply

    Even as I stand by my analysis in this blog post, I appreciate all of these comments. It should be noted that neither I, nor Mitchell Plitnick, nor others who blog in their individual names speak for our organization. As indicated at the top of this blog: “The Partners for Progressive Israel Blog (formerly Meretz USA Blog) is a platform for open discussion of issues related to Israel and the American Jewish community. The views expressed in its posts, and the comments on them, do not necessarily reflect the organization’s official position.”

    In this connection, it may also be noted that for whatever reason, Mitchell has not done a blog post here for many months.

  9. David Atik August 6, 2012 at 4:26 am - Reply

    Labels are not as important as what one stands for. Progressive Zionists should demand, at every opportunity, that the world end all attempts to isolate Israel and do what it can to remove existential threats to Israel. Those criteria should distinguish between groups who can be allies and those who cannot.

    More fundamental is a positive vision of why progressive policies would serve Israel and the Jewish people. We need to revive the old Zionist vision of a Jewish state as a vanguard of a better world.

    Does anyone know of what Meimad is doing lately, or of any Israeli religious leaders promoting such a vision? The most useful thing we could do from the US is to make American Jews aware that these alternative visions exist.

  10. Ralph Seliger August 6, 2012 at 3:20 pm - Reply

    David Atik makes a good point here.

    In deference to Jeff, I’ve just added the New Israel Fund and Americans for Peace Now to my list of J St. allies arguably to its left. But my list differs from Jeff’s. The Israel Policy Forum is more centrist than J St., and Tikkun–although not an opponent of J St.–tends to be closer in thought and action to Jewish Voice for Peace than J St.

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