JSpace and J Street

This past weekend I attended the fourth biennial conference of JSpace Canada, an organization distinctively different than J Street in the United States which very recently held its own conference. I will offer my impressions of the Canadian conference, but it may be helpful if I first introduce JSpace by comparing it to J Street, for both claim to occupy a position as progressive organizations in support of Israel favouring a two-state solution. Needless to say, this is my analysis of the similarities and differences; the leaders of each organization may differ somewhat from my detailed depiction.

As a preliminary, as you will read, the overwhelming current information on both organizations deals with the issue of borders, settlements, boycotts and civil rights, with JSpace clearly placing a greater emphasis on combating antisemitism and anti-Zionism.  Both J Street and JSpace presumably oppose the current efforts of the interim Israeli government to extend its sovereignty, presumably as part of creeping annexation, to both the Megilot Region of the Dead Sea in the initial move on the Jordan Valley and to include Efrat and Betar Illit within the auspices of the Gush Etzion Regional Council. Both oppose interference in the civil rights of Israelis and Palestinians critically reporting on activities of the Israeli government and the IDF in the West Bank, such as the very recent short term “arrest” of a B’Tselem researcher, Arif Daraghmeh from Tubas, photographing a protest against an “illegal” outpost.  These positions have to be assumed; the absence of noise on these issues of immediate and current interest should not be interpreted as reflective of the positions of the two organizations.

But what about taking a stand on longer term general issues, such as the on-again off-again Palestinian elections, now on again, but conditional on a very unlikely step, the Israeli government giving permission to the Palestinian Authority to set up ballot boxes in East Jerusalem? What about a stand on Iran’s role in supplying arms to both Hezbollah in the north and Gaza in the south, especially in the light of intelligence that Hezbollah since the second Lebanon War in 2006 has built up an arsenal of 150,000 rockets while the three wars with Hamas in Gaza were followed up by the Hamas regime rebuilding its armaments to an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 missiles?

What about the widespread conviction in Israel that since Arafat in 2000 rejected the Clinton and Barak proposals and Abbas subsequently rejected Ehud Olmert’s proposals along the same lines virtually granting the Palestinian Authority almost everything it demanded, and that in between the Second Intifada (otherwise called the Palestinian War) killed 1,000 Israelis, mostly as a result of attacks on civilian targets, and that these events were followed by the widespread Israeli convictions that Israel lacked a partner for peace? This was also the result of Israel’s disengagement from Gaza and the forced removal of 9,000 Israeli settlers. Increasingly, Israelis came to believe that peace with Palestinians was more remote than ever?

What about the original “progressive” opposition of the Israeli left to the security fence to reduce the number and severity of terrorist attacks which largely worked by reducing the numbers killed from almost 500 to 14 last year, though now stabbings and car ramming have provided a very weak replacement? What about Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem? What about the recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights? I ask these questions not to set myself apart from the progressive political scene or any of the above positions but in the interest of comprehensiveness.

However, the differences that the organizations take on a much smaller list of issues are telling. J Street is an advocacy organization. JSpace is an educational organization. These two functions overlap, but there is a great difference between an organization determined to create a space where Jews (and non-Jews) from various progressive perspectives can learn and talk and an organization focused on influencing government policies as in the case of J Street, namely U.S. government policies directed towards Israel. Both organizations are pro-peace. Both organizations favour a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Both accept the principles of mutual recognition and the legitimate rights of both peoples to self-determination, peaceful coexistence and security. Both oppose questioning Israel’s right to exist. Both oppose the BDS movement.

But those similarities disguise very different perspectives and approaches. J Street is explicitly a political lobbying group. JSpace, in contrast, defines itself as a centre for a “discussion of social justice, peace and civil rights” determined to create a safe space where views from various perspectives can be discussed without rancour. Thus, while J Street is deeply embedded in American politics, JSpace tends to focus on civil society, offering speakers, panel discussions and briefings from informed personnel from various perspectives and invites representatives from all political parties to participate.

As an explicitly advocacy organization, J Street organizes and mobilizes progressive voices of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That means it has to take very explicit and detailed positions on a number of issues. JSpace can largely avoid that problem. Both are pro-Israel wanting a secure and democratic national home for the Jewish people. Both are explicitly Zionist organizations. But J Street, as an advocacy organization, mobilizes American voters to advance the interests of both the U.S. and Israel, while JSpace tends to define itself in terms of values rather than interests, primarily in terms of a respect for equality and human rights.  

A main difference is that J Street defines itself in opposition to the establishment voice in America on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, most specifically AIPAC, while JSpace views itself as a progressive voice within the range of Jewish organizations focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. JSpace does not define itself as an anti-establishment organization. In contrast, J Street explicitly set out to transform the national conversation in America and give voice to what they believed was a majority view of Americans on the issue. JSpace, however, is precisely about creating a space for dialogue and discussion rather than seeking to determine that the government of Canada adopt specific policies.

Thus, while J Street is heavily involved in the debates largely within the Democratic Party, JSpace seeks to be involved in discussions with all the political parties in Canada. J Street engages in political campaigns; JSpace remains aloof from such activities. J Street seeks to open up political space for elected leaders to support specific policies. JSpace operates largely within civil society to create space for Jews and others to engage in dialogue.

A good part of the difference is that the U.S. government is a critical player, in fact, the most critical player other than the Palestinians and the Israelis in the efforts to resolve the conflict between the two groups. Canada occupies no such position. J Street seeks to shape policy. JSpace encourages discussions over issues.

That does not mean that both organizations have very different voices and different positions. Both are progressive voices within their respective communities. Both support a two-state solution, but J Street takes a very proactive position on issues and JSpace tends not to, except where there is a broad consensus within the Jewish community. Both organizations support diplomatic rather than military approaches to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but given America’s explicit financial aid to Israel, J Street also supports the use of American economic leverage to influence Israeli policy.

Karen Mock, the chair of JSpace, has stated that although “it is not a question of whether a two-state solution will be achieved, but when,” nevertheless, “it is not for us in the Diaspora to suggest that Israel makes concessions that compromise its security.” In contrast, J Street stresses the urgency of creating a two-state solution and has opined that, “the window of opportunity for achieving a two-state solution is rapidly closing” and that “the trajectory is trending against the two-state option thereby threatening Israel’s future.” In contrast, JSpace tends to stress the resistance of the Palestinian leadership that makes a resolution currently untimely; in its literature and on its website, the Palestinian role as an obstacle to peace seems to be underplayed by J Street.

JSpace, while critical of Israeli settlement policy as creating obstacles to peace and a threat to Israeli security, does not take the position of J Street that goes further and advocates dismantling from 25% to 50% of the settlements. JSpace opposes expansion of the settlements and takes no position on dismantling existing settlements.

One of the most controversial areas is the attitude of both JSpace and J Street to the BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions) movement. J Street is viewed as less opposed to boycotts than JSpace. Is that correct? Both organizations are aware that BDS activities have roiled campuses. J Street has a detailed policy on BDS, much of it mirroring that of JSpace. Neither advocates boycott, divestment and sanctions. Both are explicitly opposed to the BDS movement because BDS is viewed as both opposing the two-state solution and the right of Jews to self-determination in their ancient homeland. Insofar as a two-state solution remains a possibility, BDS advocates a return to the pre-1967 Green Line. Some supporters of BDS have even engaged in antisemitic tropes.

However, J Street openly seeks to distinguish between efforts to label products produced in the West Bank as distinct from products made in pre-1967 Israel. Further, it not only advocates that this be done, but supports the right of any American to join in and engage in boycott efforts, particularly if, in conducting the boycott, it only applies to products made in the territory on the other side of the Green Line so that the distinction is maintained between efforts that undermine the interests of Israel and those which simply oppose the occupation.

JSpace, other than opposing BDS and supporting the right of individuals to determine what goods they buy and from where they are made, has no position on boycotts. Thus, as far as I know, it has not engaged in efforts at “honest” labeling, that is, efforts to ensure that individuals have the correct information to determine whether or not they wish to purchase goods made on the other side of the Green Line. This J Street demand for transparency applies to communal civic organizations which, in its view, have obligations to keep their members informed.

Further, since the official U.S. government policy prior to the Trump administration regarded all settlements as illegitimate, and, prior to 1981, as even illegal, if they were constructed on occupied rather than administered territory, J Street advocated transparent labeling was a required corollary of opposition to settlements. Further, J Street advocates reinstating the label “illegal” on West Bank settlements. Since JSpace simply opposed the expansion of settlements, it sees no need to advocate so-called correct labeling on products made by Israelis in the West Bank and nerver refers to settlements as either illegitimate or illegal though I believe many of its supporters probably hold that view. Thus, J Street in contrast to JSpace advertises itself as pro-Israel, pro-peace but also anti-occupation and not just anti-expansion of settlements.

What about efforts not to engage with BDS advocates or even encourage legislative actions to delegitimize, penalize or even criminalize BDS? J Street opposes such efforts. JSpace, as far as I know, has never taken a stand on the question, but seems explicitly to avoid inviting BDS spokesmen from advocating their position.

In summary, J Street is a far more activist organization with much stronger positions on anti-settlement positions and on boycotts compared to JSpace. Whereas J Street as a minimum urges American opposition to expansion of settlements, for JSpace this is its position rather than a basic starting point. Further, its position is an expression of belief rather than a basis to strongly advocate government policies. Thus, J Street applauded when the U.S. Obama administration refrained from using its veto to void a UN Security Council anti-settlement motion. J Street also advocates that U.S. Jewish community organizations end funding for projects and activities in settlements.

JSpace does not take the position of J Street that the pre-1967 Green Line remain the recognized separation between Israel and the territory it captured in the Six Day War and that adjustments can only be made based on negotiations. JSpace does not take the position that maps only be officially used which mark out that Green Line. JSpace does not take the position that a new border can only be established based on the Green Line with equivalent swaps mutually agreed upon.

As I relay my record of the discussions of the conference, I will go into further detail on JSpace’s views on these matters. Both J Street and JSpace celebrate democracy and self-determination by and for the Jewish people on its ancient homeland. J Street explicitly regards settlement activities as endangering the whole enterprise of Zionism and adopts the position that the U.S. has an obligation to save Israel from itself. JSpace takes no similar stance.

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