J Street, the most prominent American pro-Israel, pro-peace group, has packed its 2011 national conference with sessions on nearly every aspect of the Israel-Palestine conflict, U.S. Mideast policy, and American Jewish attitudes toward Israel. Conspicuously missing, though, is the most important topic of all: The narrative of Israel as a brave but insecure little nation, constantly forced to fight for survival. As long as that narrative frames American public conversation about Israel, nothing J Street or anyone else does to change U.S. policy will make much difference.
In Israel and Palestine, it's taken for granted that competing narratives play a central in keeping the political conflict going. But in the U.S., we are somehow blind to the role of narrative. So we get a J Street conference without a single session devoted to that absolutely crucial topic.
When I raised the point with a conference organizer, I was told that no separate session was needed because the issue "should be present throughout many of our conversations." It's like giving a course on how the human body works without devoting a class session to the bloodstream, because something about blood will probably come up in other classes.
The story of Israel as an innocent victim, constantly on guard against "existential threats," is the lifeblood of the right-wing pro-Israel lobby, which still has the upper hand in making U.S. policy despite the best efforts of J Street and others. As long that story holds sway, even Israel's most egregious acts will continue to be widely forgiven as unfortunate necessities. Though few Americans know the Hebrew mantras -- "ein breira" (there is no choice); "hacol bishvil bitachon" (all for the sake of security) -- most Americans take that underlying message for granted.
So Israel's occupation of the West Bank, its economic stranglehold on Gaza, its foot-dragging on peace-making, and the suffering that inflicts on Palestinians all get a pass from the U.S. public and policymakers because they sympathize with Israel's supposedly overriding need to protect its security.
Pro-peace groups spend little time promoting the obvious counter-narrative: Israel is by far the Middle East's strongest military power; no nation in the region has even the slightest chance of defeating Israel, as it has shown in every war since 1948; while we're bombarded with fears about a fantasy of a single Iranian nuclear weapon, Israel's 100 to 200 nukes are ignored; Palestinian violence against Israel has virtually ceased, since both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are enforcing a nonviolent approach to the conflict.
Instead of hammering away at these obvious facts, the peace groups offer alternatives that will have little impact as long as the story of Israel's insecurity dominates the land.
J Street's preferred narrative is simple: As long as Israel occupies Palestinian land, Israel can be either a Jewish state or a democratic state but not both. But that view doesn't gain much traction with a public that makes national security a higher priority than democracy. If "the evildoers hate our freedoms," they'll wipe out those freedoms as soon as they get a chance; our first job is to make sure they never get that chance. That logic is a pillar of American political life.
It's only natural that it should be applied to our "endangered ally" Israel -- especially in the Jewish community. As long as most U.S. Jews credit Israeli claims of "existential threat" as realistic and reasonable, they'll continue to accept the argument that Israel can take no chances for peace. And as long as the American Jewish community tells that story, it will be hard to break its hold on the American gentile community.
So Obama, whatever his personal wishes, will find it politically too dangerous to do what J Street wants him to do: press both sides to define the border between the two states, and if they can't do it soon (which is likely) to present a U.S. map and demand a simple yes or no decision.
J Street's president Jeremy Ben-Ami has said publicly that Israelis' fear of unprovoked attack is the biggest obstacle to peace. What he doesn't say is that a similar fear for Israel's safety among U.S. Jews -- his main target audience -- is an equal obstacle to peace. Why won't J Street challenge the hegemonic Jewish narrative head on?
Staffers have told me privately that they don't want to risk closing down the lines of communication, and in some cases influence, they've opened up with the Jewish community and some members of Congress. Publicly, Ben-Ami now says that J Street will soften its critical tone: "We've come on slightly too edgy, too ready to hit away at people we don't agree with. That rough edge hasn't been helpful." It's not likely, then, that his organization will risk whatever success it's enjoying by challenging the foundation of the American-Jewish narrative about Israel.
Groups to the left of J Street, like Jewish Voice for Peace and the U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation don't have the same political worries, so they're free to take a more aggressive approach. And they probably assume the narrative of Israeli insecurity is so absurd it's not worth mentioning; so they don't mention it. Instead, they work day and night educating the public about Israel's immoral violence and human rights abuses.
But the public already has a fair idea of the facts. They see it on TV. The problem is that so many don't define what they see as outrageous or abusive. What counts as a human rights abuse or moral outrage depends on the context. Suppose you strike out at someone who is menacing you or your child? Isn't that just self-defense? That's how most Americans see Israel's use of force and its human rights offenses.
This views prevails partly because it's repeated endlessly by top political leaders. When Barack Obama made his most famous statement on the Israel-Palestine issue, in Cairo, he started off with a full paragraph about the horrors of the Holocaust, proclaimed that "threatening Israel with destruction... is deeply wrong," and insisted that "Palestinians must abandon violence." He never said a word about the Israeli violence that has so decimated the Palestinian nation.
But the most powerful reinforcement of the Israeli insecurity narrative comes from the mass news media, who take it for granted as the frame for all their reporting on the Middle East. Consider the reporting on the Egyptian upheaval in the New York Times. The Times offered a steady stream of stories from Israel in the days before Mubarak's fall, as if the impact on Israel were somehow of paramount importance. The gist of it all was a picture of Israelis "fearing that the more time passes the more the region is against them." "Anti-Israeli sentiment runs high in the neighboring countries." Israelis "believed that whoever followed Mr. Mubarak would be less friendly to Israel," and they "could be left without an ally in the region." So Mubarak's departure left Israel with "abiding worries about the future."
On the op-ed page, the Times' most influential writer, Thomas Friedman, reported from Cairo that the uprising "is not owned by, and was not inspired by, the Muslim Brotherhood. Most of all, it is not about some populist upsurge that craves restarting the war with Israel." He reaffirmed his call for the Israelis to make more concessions for peace. And, in a surprising about-face, he went even further than J Street in calling for President Obama to put forth his own peace plan now.
Yet Friedman prefaced all this by reaffirming the common wisdom: "This is a perilous time for Israel, and its anxiety is understandable." "Everyone can or should understand Israel's strategic concerns. They are totally valid... Of course Israelis are worried about convulsion here."
The Times' coverage offered a fine example of what Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Committee, once decried (on the Times' own op-ed page) as widespread "pathological" fear about Israel's security. But the Times presented it all as straightforward factual reporting.
As long as pathological fear passes for fact, none of the arguments presented by J Street and other peace groups will make much of a dent in the American political scene, no matter how logical and well packaged they are.
It will remain too politically risky for the Obama administration to change the decades-old pattern: Though U.S. leaders do criticize specific Israeli policies and actions, when the chips are down the U.S. will side with Israel.
Before its next conference, J Street will have to make a choice. It can go on broadening its appeal in the Jewish community by avoiding a direct challenge to the insecurity narrative -- and see little, if any, progress toward its goal of serious U.S. pursuit of a two-state solution.
Or it can change direction and attack the insecurity narrative head on. That won't guarantee a shift in administration policy. But it will open up the possibility for J Street to do what Ben-Ami says he wants to do: replace the debilitating narrative of fear with a narrative of hope that is the only road to a lasting peace. And at least it will guarantee that we can have, for the first time, an honest and meaningful public debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.