Exclusive Interview With The Producer Of The J Street Challenge

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A child of holocaust survivors living as refugees in postwar Poland, moving to Israel shortly after its establishment and then moving to New York City, Avi Goldwasser has by any measure lived an interesting life. Playing many roles including  husband, father grandfather, engineer, financial executive, Jewish community activist and filmmaker he has worn more hats than most. His new controversial film The J Street Challenge, produced by Boston based Americans for Peace and Tolerance, will have its Seattle Premiere on Wed. Nov. 12, 7pm at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. Tickets and information available HERE.

In an exclusive interview with The Mike Report, Goldwasser shares shares his views on Israel, peace and J Street. 

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TMR: You were an accomplished executive, what made you jump into the rough and tumble of Israel advocacy?

Avi Goldwasser (AG): My future son-in-law, a former IDF soldier,  attended Northeastern University and he could not understand the hostility toward Israel on campus . So I became concerned about the anti-Israel activities  I saw on college campuses and the fact the so few in the community were adequately responding to the situation.   I Started getting involved, working with college professors helping students organize for Israel. Along the way I was fortunate to meet Charles Jacobs and we founded The David Project in 2002.

TMR: What did you learn from those first efforts at Israel advocacy?

AG: We realized that the traditional Zionist narrative had been deconstructed on campus. The narrative that started with the Biblical imperative that God gave us the land and the historical record of Jewish connections to the land transitioned to the Balfour declaration and the UN approved partition giving us the land. This new narrative was not convincing to most college students. Meanwhile, Palestinians and their allies were pressing their own narrative – a myth that they are indigenous to the land and Jews are colonialists from Russia, Poland and Brooklyn. This myth resonates with students indoctrinated on European guilt and post colonial theory.

Promotional Poster for Goldwasser's award winning film "The Forgotten Refugees".

Promotional Poster for Goldwasser’s award winning film “The Forgotten Refugees”.

TMR: How did you respond?

We had to change the framing of the discussion of the Middle East conflict.  We had to educate the campus about who  the real indigenous people are by bringing to campus a more representative group of Israelis; non-Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrahi Jews, Jews who have lived in the region for thousands of years before the arrival of Arabs from Arabia.  One of our speakers was Joseph Abdul Wahid an Egyptian Jew. He typically opened up his lecture by speaking in Arabic, many of the Arab students in the audience thought he was a fellow Arab. They were shocked when he identified himself as Jewish. One Egyptian student in the audience said she lived in Egypt her entire life and never saw a Jew, she thought they all had left with Moses in the Exodus.

TMR: So how did you go from pro-Israel speakers to film?

AG: It’s is very expensive to fly in speakers to campus events. Also Joseph Abdul Wahid and his contemporaries who lived through  the Jewish expulsion from Arab lands were getting older and we felt a need to preserve their stories. We had the idea of videotaping them; it was less expensive and easier on them than flying around. This effort ultimately resulted in the production of my first film: The Forgotten Refugees.  Because we had such compelling stories which were mostly unknown, we were successful in promoting the film to be screened in dozens of Jewish Film Festivals and it was broadcast on several PBS stations. The film became a vehicle to educate the public about the multicultural nature of the Jewish community as well to broaden the understanding of the Middle East Conflict to include the destruction and expulsion of ancient Jewish communities.  The film was translated into six languages and was used effectively to incorporate the plight of Jewish refugees which has been mostly ignored by the U.N and and even the Euro-centric American Jewish community. The film was also screened before the US congress, at the UN in Geneva and New York and it was screened in the British and Italian parliaments.

TMR: What other films have you done since The Forgotten Refugees?

AG: In 2004 we produced a film call Columbia Unbecoming which documented the hostility  and intimidation of Jewish students by some Arab and Muslim professors at Columbia University. In 2012 we produced several videos about hostility toward Israel and its supporters at Northeastern University.  Earlier in 2014 we released our most recent film The J Street Challenge.

TMR: Is there a common theme to your work and your films?

AG:The unifying theme of all of our work is addressing and educating people about threats to Jews and the Jewish community.

Many in the organized Jewish establishment were very sympathetic to J Street ‘s goals.

TMR: What inspired you to produce The J Street Challenge?

Anti-Israel protest at Columbia University.

Anti-Israel protest at Columbia University.

AG: As I mentioned we’ve focused on what we perceive are threats to the Jewish community and Israel. About three years ago we learned of J Street’s increasing activities in Jewish institutions and on campus. They claimed to be pro-peace, pro-Israel, pro-democracy, pro-Palestine which sounds good. Their messages and sound bites were well crafted but contained  contradictions. Many of the people who funded the organization or were actively involved didn’t seem pro-Israel, I am sure most J Street members are decent well meaning folks who believe fervently that the two state solution will bring peace and that Israel needs some ‘tough love” to be pushed into making peace. Many people in the community did not know how to counter these seductive argument for peace. Many in the organized Jewish establishment were very sympathetic to J Street ‘s goals. J Street framed their arguments in terms of the obvious goal- Peace, but of course that is not the issue. – There is no disagreement that we all want peace-the challenge is how to achieve it? What risks to take and by whom?

TMR: How did you come up with the format for the film, I mean using A-list Jewish thinkers to analyze J Street?

AG: Many J Street activists were lawyers, public relations professional, journalists and academics, they are verbalists, good at debates and argumentation. Many  in the Jewish community were reluctant to challenge these activists not feeling confident they could succeed in  such a debate or discussion. It’s obviously easy to argue for peace when you are offering simple, feel good solutions which typically includes a fair amount of wishful thinking and some whitewashing of a sad reality. So we wanted to bring the most thoughtful Jewish thinkers to every Jewish venue to counter J Street.

TMR: Why a film instead of a lecture series?

AG: Bring them virtually via the film is clearly more economical than flying them in. It was the same principal as The Forgotten Refugees, you make a film and you don’t have to fly the speakers into all the venue. If a J Street person is invited to your community and you can’t afford to bring out a Dershowitz or a Gordis to present the other side, you can show The J Street Challenge .

All we want is fairness, a balanced discussions  not a one-sided presentation.

TMR: Are you opposed to J Street’s perspective being heard?

AG: Of course not. We believe that Jewish traditions are based on dialogue and discussions. All we want is fairness, a balanced discussions  not a one-sided presentation of a particular proposed solution.  No one has yet figured out what it will take to bring peace to the Middle East. It’s pretty arrogant to suggest that a lobbyist organization in Washington DC has the magic answer

TMR: Why do you think the J Street Challenge has struck such a cord?

AG: I think it’s because there is such a frustration in the community about the harm J Street is doing – in an insidious manner at a time when the Jewish community is under assault. And also the fact that Jewish leadership in quite a few cities is partial towards J Street  and is reluctant to host voices critical of J Street. So after the film premiered we were inundated with requests for screenings around North America and Israel.  Still we found out that in some communities there is a concern about offending J Street supporters and the result is that too often we are denied a venue and need to rent movie theatres to screen our film.

Jewish leadership in quite a few cities is partial towards J Street  and is reluctant to host voices critical of J Street.

TMR: And has the J Street Challenge made an impact in your opinion?

AG: I hope so, I think so. I can see by the reaction from J Street. After initially announcing that they will ignore this film. They started attacking us. As the WW II pilots use to say “ you know you are over the target when you get flak”

We hope these activists will use the film to  educate the community about the threats to Jews and at times  the failure of the local Jewish leadership to act with courage in the best interest of the Jewish people.

The film also has inspired  dozen of activists like yourself who are frustrated and want to get more involved in community discussions on important issues and  the film is providing a vehicle for such discussions. We hope these activists will use the film to  educate the community about the threats to Jews and at times  the failure of the local Jewish leadership to act with courage in the best interest of the Jewish people.

TMR: What would you say to a community that brings out Peter Beinart to speak to college students but won’t co-sponsor the J Street Challenge?

Peter Beinart at a J Street/ Seattle Jewish Federation sponsored lecture at UW Hillel.

Peter Beinart at a J Street/ Seattle Jewish Federation sponsored lecture at UW Hillel.

AG: Every time we screen a film we reach out to J street supporters to come see the film. We even put an ad in the paper in Boston asking them to join us onstage. Before screening the film in Tel Aviv the head of J Street in Israel, Yael Patir   expressed interest in coming to the premiere and representing J Street. I said great!  Let’s meet for coffee! I offered her a copy of the film so she can prepare before the screening, but she cancelled out.

When we get to the Q & A we always ask “any J Street supporters here? You get the first questions”. Its not like you have to write the questions down and I choose which questions to answer. You can ask any question you want.

It’s a problem when any Jewish leader thinks they know what the right answer is, that there’s only one right answer and they’re going to restrict  discussions on the matter.

So when the Jewish community invites Jeremy Ben-Ami or Peter Beinart or anybody that’s critical of Israel, that’s fine, but you have to have balance, you have to have multiple voices in the community heard. Unfortunately that’s often not the case. Certain community leaders tend to promote people with similar ideological orientation and that’s a problem. It’s a problem when any Jewish leader thinks they know what the right answer is, that there’s only one right answer and they’re going to restrict  discussions on the matter. For people who claim to value discourse, discussion and debates, that’s not fair not decent, that’s not very Jewish, that’s not the Jewish tradition.

What is not ok is for an organization to be organized for a specific purpose which is to influence the US government to coerce the Israeli government.

TMR: What is wrong with J Street advocating for a specific position?

AG: There is nothing at all wrong with that. What is not ok is for an organization to be organized for a specific purpose which is to influence the US government to coerce the Israeli government, to circumvent Israeli democracy, to act in a manner contrary to what the Israeli electorate wants. Israel is a democracy, let them decide.

I always ask J  Street supporters, do you think it’s decent for an American organization to circumvent Israeli democracy?

If J Street  wants to change the government of Israel, let them go to Israel and do all of the promotions that they want to influence the citizens to vote differently for a different government. But it’s quite different to mobilize American Jews to influence their government to squeeze Israel – a democratically elected government – to act in a manner contrary to what its citizens want.

I always ask J  Street supporters, do you think it’s decent for an American organization to circumvent Israeli democracy? Because you are not participating in the Israeli democracy to change things, you are here trying to influence congress, the White House, not the Israeli people not the Israeli government directly, and that’s the problem. Its an end-around the Israeli people, its an end-around Israeli democracy.

Voting in Israel.

Voting in Israel.

Jews in America are entitled to say what they want about anybody, nobody is questioning that right. That having been said, prior to J Street I can’t name a single example of when US citizens asked the US government to act in an imperialistic fashion to punish another democracy.  

TMR: Does The J Street Challenge propose a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

AG: The film is not about the two state solution, it is not about any solution to the Middle East conflict because we’re not smart enough to know what the solution is. We have people in the film who support a two state solution, and we have people in the film who support it but are concerned that now is not the right time to do it. I don’t think anybody in the film advocates for Israel to rule over Palestinians forever. I think most people recognize that Israel is in a difficult position, with very bad options very bad choices.

TMR: But aren’t people like Jeremy Ben-Ami and Peter Beinart just seeking peace?

AG: We all are, but why does Peter think he has the right answer? Why should he decide for the Israeli people? The situation in the Middle East is so mind boggling complicated. You throw in ISIS, you throw Iran into the mix, I don’t think J Street’s solutions factor in those variables.

It’s clear to me how much J Street leaders care about real genuine peace. What is much more obvious is that they care even more about not being tainted by a Jewish state that acts in what they consider to be an illiberal manner

I think one has to be in denial of reality to believe that if Israel withdrew from the West Bank right now that there’d be peace.

I think one has to be in denial of reality to believe that if Israel withdrew from the West Bank right now that there’d be peace. I do believe that withdrawal from the West Bank tomorrow would make certain Jews feel less tainted in front of non-Jews. Right now they feel tainted because Israel in their eyes doesn’t behave in a way that a liberal progressive country should.  And they want to be part of a liberal progressive nation. In the film you will see J Street people say that for the sake of the Jewish people there will be peace forever as soon as we withdraw from the West Bank. These are not a serious people

Israeli withdrawal will initially ease international pressure which is one of their arguments, and make some American Jews feel less stressed, less tainted by the Jewish state.  

TMR: What about your average J Street member, do you question their intentions?

AG: I distinguish between the leadership and the rank and file. The J Street people I’ve met, especially on college campuses and even in my community are wonderful decent, well meaning people. I think the leadership on the other hand is very cynical. I think the J Street members, like Jews throughout the ages really want peace, they don’t want conflict, Jews don’t like conflict it’s not our thing. Israel’s situation creates enormous stress on Jewish communities in the Diaspora. And we’ve seen it with the Gaza war, Jews don’t like it, they want to run away from it, they want to get away from that.

TMR: So you think J Street is embarrassed by Israel?

AG: For some Jews in the community any Jew behaving badly is a kind of embarrassment. J Street supporters believe Israel is behaving badly and they feel a kind of collective guilt. You may recall that when those vicious hoodlums  in Israel burned the Palestinian youth after the three Jewish boys were murdered, we all felt guilty for that, because it taints of all of us. Jews are somewhat  unique that way. J Street members want relief from this sense of collective guilt and if Israel ends the occupation there will be relief, momentarily. But you know what will happen next, the Palestinian right of return will be the new thing.

J Street members want relief from this sense of collective guilt and if Israel ends the occupation there will be relief… momentarily.

Throwing rocks at Jews near the Temple Mount.

Throwing rocks at Jews near the Temple Mount.

TMR: Are the Palestinians ready to make sacrifices for peace?

AG: I’ve never seen a Palestinian event on the conflict, a conference or rally where they talk about building a beautiful democratic Palestine.  Every Palestinian event is about destroying Israel. I mean you have to be blind not to see that is what they do. They are not talking about peace. This is the dilemma that Israel is in. Israel’s control over the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank is primarily to to prevent them from killing Jews in Israel.  This is a defensive occupation which is terribly unfortunate, even tragic.

TMR: So is there a good solution?

AG: There is no good or bad, there is bad or worse and it’s not clear which is which. And instead the status quo may be better than two terrible alternatives

TMR: What is the real J Street agenda?

AG: My conclusion is that they have a strange definition of Zionism. What they call progressive Zionism is a non-nationalistic Zionism-an oxymoron. I don’t quite understand how you can be a progressive and a Jew at the same time. Progressivism or today version of  liberalism is really universalism – and Judaism is about particularism, you cannot be both. Jewish nationalism, Jewish self-determination is inconsistent with universalism which wants to eliminate borders, nations, religions which universalists believe divide people and are obstacles to their fantasy of world peace.

We’ve had people go to J street conferences, it’s schizophrenic.

TMR: J Street says they want a two state solution.

AG: I’m not sure that J  Street leaders really believe in a two state solution given their universalist leanings. We’ve had people go to J street conferences, it’s schizophrenic. Half the people are against Zionism and the other half are well intentioned idealistic kids who just want peace.

TMR: Would you support a two state solution if it would bring peace?

AG: Genuine peace-Of course, but the J Street political campaign today does not appear to be about genuine peace, it has to do with taking the pressure off a situation that is hard for some Jews to justify, how do you justify the occupation of another people?  On the other hand a reasonable person has to acknowledge that pressuring Israel to withdraw at this moment in time presents enormous existential risks to Israel.  How long will it take ISIS or Hamas to infiltrate the West Bank? It’s such a messy situation. I’m not smart enough to know the solution but I do know that what J Street advocates is not a serious proposal. And to coerce Israel to do it is indecent and dangerous. Withdrawing from the West Bank right now will bring a variety of things but peace is not one of them.

J Street promotes a simplistic notion that sounds and feels good, that in the right circumstances may be the right answer. But the way they go about trying to force their view upon the Israeli population and the Jewish community is dishonest

An Iranian ballistic missile is paraded through the streets of Tehran. (Fars)

An Iranian ballistic missile is paraded through the streets of Tehran. (Fars)

TMR: Any thought on J Street’s lobbying to postpone increased Iran sanctions?

AG: I think Iran is a great example of something that is hard to understand. Why is J Street taking any position on Iran? Why have they accepted donations from organizations with Iranian connections, its just bizarre.  Professor Alan Dershowitz offered J Street a sizable sum of money if they would issue a clear statement where they stand on Iran because they are all over the place, intentionally ambiguous, intentionally confusing.

TMR: J Street’s position on Iran seems to be in sync with President Obama’s, who is influencing who?

It’s hard to find an issue where J street disagrees with the Obama administration.

AG: Almost everything J Street says about Iran meshes with the president’s evolving positions. In fact it’s hard to find an issue where J street disagrees with the Obama administration. In the film we talk about this. Caroline Glick observes that the Obama administration is  in tandem with J Street, which is probably not a coincidence. Why does Ben-Ami gets invited to the White House? In fact J Street has a new film that has come out called The Art of the Possible. They frame the whole conflict as this heroic struggle by this small organization against this giant AIPAC.  It also features how Jeremy Ben-Ami has easy access to the White House, I wonder why? Bibi cant get a dinner in the White House but Jeremy easily gets in? 

J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami in Washington DC.

J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami in Washington DC.

TMR: Do you have anything to say about J Street’s critiques of the J Street Challenge?

AG: I am very proud of the integrity of the J Street Challenge film, we don’t say anything that we can’t back up.  Within two days of the premiere J street  issued a press release saying  the film is full of unspecified lies and distortions and they won’t waste their time responding to it. That was the correct PR response. J Street is a marketing PR machine. This is Ben- Ami’s genius, he is a PR guy. However, the  more traction we got in the community the more feedback they got not to ignore the film. They began to turn on us. Jeremy Ben Ami and his supporters wrote several op-eds attacking us. They are smart people, they know when to attack and when not to attack.

I am very proud of the integrity of the J Street Challenge film, we don’t say anything that we can’t back up. 

TMR: What would you say to  somebody who is a member of or sympathizes with J Street?

I don’t question their motives, I’m sure they care about Israel and the Palestinians and they want peace. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t want peace, I don’t know anybody who is pro war. So I appreciate that they’re interested in peace, but nobody has a monopoly on solutions. Solutions are very hard. This is a 100 year old conflict that the best brains in the world have tried to solve and have not succeeded, its extremely complicated. I would urge them to open their minds and to look at the conflict from a different point of view than what J Street is promoting. Its not as simple as just withdrawing from the West Bank.  They have to realize it’s much more complex. They should not be afraid to see a different point of view despite the fact that the j street leadership has discouraged  them from seeing the film. If they consider themselves liberal and open minded, they should come in [to see The J Street Challenge], they can ask any questions they want.

They should not be afraid to see a different point of view despite the fact that the J Street leadership has discouraged them from seeing the film.

TMR: But isn’t it J Street that says we have to be willing to have the “difficult discussions?”

AG: This is the irony, we are offering to discuss the film, we are offering to discuss whatever they want to discuss about the film. They are the ones who have prevented  people from seeing it and they are the ones who don’t want to engage other people in discussion and they are the ones who believe theirs is only one answer and they own it. Astounding for people who call themselves liberals and progressives.

It’s a puzzle to me that they can’t see or do not want to see the ugly reality – and they are reluctant to even discuss it.

The J Street Challenge film is ultimately about how we perceive reality, how our emotions and personalities cause us not to see it as it is. Many J street people I have met are very smart, they are wonderful  people, some are neighbors and friends and caring people and they just don’t see it. It’s a puzzle to me that they can’t see or do not want to see the ugly reality – and they are reluctant to even discuss it, 

Celebrating the birth of Israel, May 14, 1948.

Celebrating the birth of Israel, May 14, 1948.

TMR: Why do you suppose J Street folks have such a hard time acknowledging  the risks posed by their approach?

AG: In the film professor Richard Landes suggests that the problem may be moral narcissism. J Street  people want to    be  good and virtuous. Doing the right thing as they see it makes them feel good about themselves, makes them feel morally superior compared to other Jews and that is a prime motivator. They are less concerned about the consequences of their feel good actions. Surely,  if they really wanted to help the Palestinians they would be screaming about the Palestinians being slaughtered in Syria, or all those dispossessed in Lebanon where they are trapped in refugee camps without being able to have any rights. Moral Narcissists only seem to care when Jewish actions affect the lives of Palestinians,  

It’s not really about human rights and social justice.

It’s not really about human rights and social justice. They don’t speak with the same passion about slavery in Africa or slaughter and beheadings by ISIS, they’re mostly concerned about Jews behaving badly in their opinion – because that taints them and diminishes their moral superiority as Jews 

"There are about 7 million Jews in Israel and about 400 million Arabs. Israel does not decide if there will be peace."

“There are about 7 million Jews in Israel surrounded by 400 million Arabs in the Middle East. Israel does not decide if there will be peace.” – Avi Goldwasser

TMR: Are you saying the J Street approach is too simplistic?

AG: Young J street supporters often frame the conflict in a simplistic Marxist fashion, in a moral binary manner, there is an oppressor, there is an oppressed, they don’t need to know anything else.  The moral imperative is to stop the oppression, consequences don’t matter. End the occupation, minimize the consequences – especially the unintended consequences.

TMR: But shouldn’t we be held to a higher standard?

AG: Jews should seek to be treated equally as people and as a nation. Israel is being punished by the international community and by some Jews for failing to achieve moral supremacy. Why the double standard? Many Jews confuse personal morality with political morality. Seeking to be morally pure in the violent and messy international political arena is suicidal.  That is another lesson of the Holocaust.  Six million dead morally pure Jews is enough for me, morally pure people usually get slaughtered, ask the Yazidis, The Yazidis are like Jews in Israel, just without weapons.

Six million dead morally pure Jews is enough for me, morally pure people usually get slaughtered, ask the Yazidis.

Now lets talk about the Middle East; of all the countries tell me which you would support and why?  On what basis would you discriminate against the most progressive, liberal democratic country in the middle east? Because its Jewish? Because it’s successful? The only way Israel’s critics win is by holding Israel to a double standard and they shouldn’t get away with it.

burka

“As long as women are disenfranchised in those societies there will be war.”

TMR: You say you don’t have the answer to how to achieve peace in the Middle East, are you willing to speculate a little bit?

AG: I don’t have an answer, but it seems to me that the oppression of women and minorities in the Arab world is part of the problem. A society that is at war with itself is less likely to live in peace with other and different societies. So part of the answer is the empowerment of women in the male dominated  Arab society. As long as women are disenfranchised in those societies there will be war.

TMR: Isn’t there anything the Israeli government can do to bring peace or prevent the next war?

AG: There are about 7 million Jews in Israel and about 400 million Arabs. Israel does not decide if there will be peace. It really does not matter who the prime minister of Israel is. The Arabs decide for peace or war, Israel can only react. 

To think that pressuring Bibi or the government will bring peace is either delusional or insidious.  Whatever it is, it’s not decent and it’s not fair.

We can’t change the tragedy of dysfunctional Arab societies -Societies at war with themselves are not likely to live in peace with neighboring and more successful societies. Israel just wants to survive in this violent region. To think that pressuring Bibi or the government will bring peace is either delusional or insidious. Whatever it is, it’s not decent and it’s not fair. That’s why we did the film.

The J Street Challenge will have its Seattle premiere at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, Wed. Nov. 12 at 7PM. More information at http://thejstreetchallenge.com/

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