J Street Tries to Become ‘A New Voice for Israel’

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From the moment J Street arrived on Washington's political and policy scene in 2008, it has shaken up longstanding dynamics — and challenged conventional thinking — in the U.S.-Israeli alliance.

The self-described pro-peace, pro-Israel advocacy group has been praised by those on the political left as a welcome and much-needed voice for moderate Jewish Americans. They say it has been a forceful advocate for a two-state solution and a strong champion for a wide-ranging policy debate in the United States about the future of Israel and a rapidly changing Middle East.

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Photo: Macmillan

Conversely, J Street has been reviled on the political right as a wrong-headed attempt to shape the foreign policy debate and condemned for being quick to target one of America's closest allies, but too reticent to challenge Israel's adversaries in the region. Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, has said several times that J Street has backed policies that would hurt Israel. Critics have also questioned the nonprofit lobby group's financial credibility and its national loyalty, while supporters counter that a more evenhanded U.S. approach in the region would ultimately benefit an increasingly isolated Israel.

In the middle of this sharp divide is Jeremy Ben-Ami, cofounder and president of J Street and the author of "A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation." Part memoir, part political manifesto and part history of J Street, Ben-Ami's 2011 book makes the case for a broader political debate in the United States regarding Israel and the Middle East that can help break the Israeli-Palestinian logjam, and he says J Street wants to be the missing voice in that discussion. Ben-Ami also implores Israel to take a fundamentally different tack to resolving its longstanding differences with the Palestinians to survive as the national home of the Jewish people and maintain its status as a vibrant democracy.

Born in New York City, Ben-Ami has extensive ties to Israel. Both of his parents were born in Israel and one set of grandparents was among the 66 founding families of Tel Aviv in 1909. Ben-Ami has frequently visited Israel, where much of his family resides, and considered living there himself. He says he admires Israel and relishes the liveliness of its domestic debates, but believes it now faces perilous challenges.

"Like a train hurtling toward a cliff, Israel must act now to change its current trajectory. The unsustainability of the present course seems clear to just about everyone except the present Israeli government and some of the leadership of the American Jewish community," he writes.

In "A New Voice For Israel," Ben-Ami makes four central arguments. First, he says that Israel's policy toward the Palestinians is dangerously off track and threatens the nation's character and security. Second, he contends that one of the main reasons Israel continues to embrace policies that are contrary to its long-term interests is because the United States has become a reflexive supporter of all Israeli policies, including those that are misguided and even self-destructive. Third, he claims the American Jewish community, while fundamentally progressive, is dominated by a conservative minority that is politically powerful but does not reflect the views of the overall community. Finally, he argues that a moderate voice should be heard in the U.S. political debate advocating for balanced American policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the entire region.

Pervading Ben-Ami's book is the fear that time is running out for a reasonable compromise between Israel and the Palestinians — a fear that's been amplified by the Arab Spring and concerns over how it will alter the region's political makeup, potentially further isolating Israel.

"Israel's very existence is in fact threatened by a progressive, terminal illness. Without defining its borders and ending the occupation, Israel is living on borrowed land and time. And time is no longer on the side of those seeking a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict," Ben-Ami writes.

"If things don't change pretty soon," he warns, "chances are that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will slip through our fingers. As that happens, the dream of the Jewish people to be a free people in their own land also slowly disappears."

Ben-Ami argues that the United States is now supporting Israeli policies that are contrary to the best interests of both nations. In his view, the current Israeli government is taking an intractable, hard-line stance that makes a peace agreement with Palestinians increasingly unlikely. Ben-Ami says the current Palestinian leadership, while hardly perfect, is the best Israel is likely to deal with in the foreseeable future. And he charges that in their unquestioning support for Israel, some in the American Jewish community have turned a blind eye to the moral and ethical implications of the occupation and its impact on the both the Palestinian people and Israel.

He also contends that the U.S. domestic debate has become so badly distorted that anyone with the temerity to challenge Israeli policies is excoriated. One example he cites pertains to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 (Ben-Ami was a Dean aide). Early in that campaign, Dean told several reporters the United States should not "take sides" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and instead should adopt a balanced approach to the dispute. For this seemingly innocuous statement, Dean was vilified by supporters of Israel. Some leading Democrats said that Dean's plea for a more evenhanded approach was tantamount to political suicide by siding with the Palestinians.

It was this incident, coupled with others, that prompted Ben-Ami to question why the major national organizations of the Jewish American community were able to foist right-of-center-views regarding Israel on American candidates for president and other federal offices. Whom, he wanted to know, gave these groups and their leaders the exclusive right to set the rules on the Israeli debate in American politics? And why didn't the rules call for a fair-minded American approach that would actually help Israel secure its future?

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Photo: J Street
Jeremy Ben-Ami, cofounder and president of J Street, offers a history of his advocacy group and his political philosophy in the book "A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation."

Ben-Ami is at his most provocative when he discusses the Jewish American community's stance toward Israel. He argues that the political dialogue on Israel in the United States is badly skewed and far more constrained than it is in Israel. He cites groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations as unflinching supporters of Israel that aggressively discourage more open debate in the United States.

Armed with polling data, Ben-Ami tries to demonstrate that only a small minority of American Jews view Israel as the main political issue in the United States. But this passionate and forceful "8 percent" dominates the public discourse on Israel and shapes the perception of where the Jewish community stands on most issues.

He credits these established groups for building support for Israel in America over the decades and securing generous financial aid from the U.S. government, but he says the views of this minority are out of date and don't reflect the broader Jewish American public. Ben-Ami criticizes the "loudest 8 percent" for creating the impression of a Jewish American community with a single-minded focus on Israel that insists U.S. officials cannot pressure Israel in any respect, and he believes it's time for a more honest debate in the United States about the alliance with Israel — one that reflects the views and values of most Jewish Americans.

In 2004, Ben-Ami and his J Street cofounder, Daniel Levy, began to discuss creating a different kind of pro-Israel group. They envisioned J Street as providing a new voice from the center-left mainstream of the Jewish community that would advocate for a two-state solution and a larger peace accord in the region. It would lobby policymakers, distribute campaign contributions, and rewrite the rules of American Jewish politics. "Believing that active American diplomacy is essential to ending the conflict, our core mission is to change the political dynamics that prevent its resolution, while opening up a greater space for debate and discussion on Israel in the Jewish community," Ben Ami writes.

According to its cofounder, J Street has grown impressively in its first three years. Launched in the spring of 2008 with a full-time staff of four and an annual budget of $1.5 million, the group now has a staff of 50 and a budget of almost $7 million. J Street has 170,000 online supporters, a presence in 50 college campuses, and 600 rabbis who are members of its Rabbinic Cabinet, Ben-Ami says. J Street's first national conference in the fall of 2009 attracted 1,500 people, 200 media outlets and 150 members of Congress. Its second meeting drew more than 2,000 participants. In the 2010 election cycle, it distributed more than $1.5 million to congressional candidates.

J Street's goal, Ben-Ami insists, is to be a new voice for Israel, but not the only voice of the American Jewish community. "We want a voice in the American political debate that reflects the progressive and liberal tendencies of that community and that is consonant with the values on which we were raised," he writes.

He also believes that unless the U.S. debate about Israel becomes more robust, Jewish Americans will lose interest in Israel. "Until the American Jewish establishment welcomes debate and dissent, no amount of improved 'messaging,' advocacy training or even free trips [to Israel] will overcome the disconnect that many Jewish Americans of all ages feel between the values with which they were raised and the national homeland of their people. Without fundamental change, the long-standing Jewish institutions of the United States will see their support base shrink until there's only one pole standing."

Ben-Ami says that most in the American Jewish community want Israel to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians that ensures the long-term security and survival of Israel as the democratic home of the Jewish people, establishes borders for Israel that the world recognizes, and gives the country enduring legitimacy in the international community.

He adds that the basic compromises between the Israelis and Palestinians have been apparent for more than a decade, since President Bill Clinton tried to broker the Camp David accords in 2000. That agreement calls for the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea to be divided into two states, Israel and Palestine. The borders of the two states would be based on 1967 lines with some land swaps to reflect current population realities. The new Palestinian state would be as large as the area captured by Israel in 1967. Under this accord, each nation could establish its capital in Jerusalem, where there would be a special administrative regime for the city's holy sites. Palestinian refugees would not have the right of return to their former homes, but there would be financial compensation and resettlement programs for them in the new Palestine state or in third countries. The new state of Palestine would be demilitarized and rigorous security would be established.

"The leaders of both peoples understand the general contours of the likely deal, and polling on both sides indicates that, even after a generation of unfulfilled promises and overblown expectations, a strong majority prefers the two-state solution over available alternatives," Ben-Ami writes.

Reaching that elusive solution, he adds, is more urgent than ever because increasingly lethal weapons and sophisticated weapons technology are abundant in the region, religious tensions are intensifying, and demographic trends are in place whereby the 5.7 million Jews in Israel proper, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza are now almost equaled by 5.2 million Arabs.

"Israel finds itself at a critical fork in the road, facing a choice of existential proportion: Either end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now through a two-state solution or cling to an untenable status quo that leads to the decline of its Jewish character, its democratic values and its international standing," he writes.

"The creation of a political home for the Palestinian people at some point in the coming years is inevitable. The question is whether the Israeli political system can muster the will to swallow the compromises necessary to achieve this outcome peacefully and diplomatically now, or whether it will take years or decades, not to mention thousands more lives lost."

"A New Voice for Israel" is a compelling and persuasive book. Ben-Ami has strong views but presents them calmly and respectfully. He avoids personal criticisms or gratuitous attacks.

I would have preferred a fuller discussion about how and why the so-called 8 percent minority in the American Jewish community has become so powerful and influential. Many political observers have noted that passionate minorities often wield enormous influence when the views of the majority are held less forcefully. Ben-Ami's call for "passionate moderates" to assert themselves seems laudable, but only time will tell if that passion truly materializes. It would also have been helpful for Ben-Ami to explain how the "passionate moderates" in the Palestinian community will sustain power and broker a deal with Israel.

Ben-Ami does not address another reality that must be troubling from his perspective. While J Street has grown in size and reach over the past three years, American policies toward Israel have arguably become even more hard line and less balanced. A number of commentators have observed that the U.S. Congress has taken a hostile stance toward the Palestinians while full-throatily embracing the conservative government in Israel, which many in the international community blame for the current deadlock. Why is this so? How can this be changed? And when will J Street begin to see the fruits of its labors? These are hard and important questions that Ben-Ami does not answer, and perhaps does not have any answers for.


About the Author

John Shaw is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on June 12, 2014