So there I was at the J Street conference this morning to hear my friend Matthew Yglesias debate my former co-worker Jon Chait about what it means to be pro-Israel. And Jon started out by defining the criteria in terms of who one thinks is responsible for the conflict, historically; added that J Street has a bunch of supporters who don’t define themselves as pro-Israel or who don’t view Israel particularly sympathetically; and said J Street was going to have to at some point make a choice about what it is. Yglesias countered that what you don’t want if you’re interested in peace is to make the criteria for support a question of historical narratives of responsibility, since that’s exactly what accelerates conflict; and it’s a necessary and sufficient criteria for “pro-Israelness” to believe the Jews ought to have a state of their own in their historic homeland.
And there I was, totally ready to embrace Yglesias’ positions wholeheartedly, because they’re substantively correct and programatically more productive, when it turned out that a bunch of people at the audience, in Yglesias’ words, “really were quite uncomfortable self-defining as ‘pro-Israel’ in any sense and that others are uncomfortable with the basic Zionist concept of a Jewish national state.” I confess I was pretty startled. So, on the narrower point, Chait was indeed vindicated.
But OK; so a bunch of (largely) Jewish (largely) professional peaceniks don’t want to call themselves pro-Israel. Should we cease thinking of them as such?
I don’t really have any interest in affixing a label to people that they don’t embrace themselves. But I think the answer is that it would be shortsighted to view them outside the “pro-Israel” community. If Israel doesn’t get out of the West Bank soon, demographic realities will force Israel to make the most painful existential choice of its life: whether to abandon Jewish democracy or whether to abandon Jewish statehood in favor of a binational homeland. Both of these options, in fundamental ways, represent the end of Israel. Not from an Iranian nuclear weapon. Not from a super-empowered Palestinian intifada. But from political failure and international diplomatic failure, the end of Israel can, actually, be achieved.
This is not a hypothetical fear. Unless a settlement is reached before there are more Arabs between the Jordan and the Mediterranean — which is, I don’t know, ten years away? — it will be the case. Even before then, the Palestinian national movement would have very good incentives to stop pursuing the cause of an independent state, because they’d feel themselves to be the majority in a binational state. If they can force Israel to choose between its Jewishness and its democracy — a choice that risks overwhelming and perhaps untenable diplomatic isolation.
So any group or individual that pushes Israel and the U.S. to take steps to avoid that overwhelming and horrific existential choice? I think he/she/they ought to count, objectively speaking as pro-Israel. I am not going to say that someone who doesn’t is anti-Israel, even though that may be the implication of my argument. And that’s because Israel is already so awfully isolated and needs all the friends it can get. We ought to confront people of bad faith. But maybe terminology isn’t actually the way to do it. It’s a big tent, and it covers the Shtetl.