Jeremy Ben-Ami says he has Israel’s best interests at heart. So why do so many Jewish community leaders disbelieve him?
By now, Ben-Ami has grown used to criticism. As the executive director of J Street, a liberal alternative to the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, he is attacked for everything from being soft on Palestinian terror to coddling Jimmy Carter.
In its 18 months as a Washington, D.C.-based lobby, J Street has been accused of accepting funds from the Saudi government, calling on Israel to negotiate with Hamas and appeasing Iran in its quest for nuclear weapons.
All of which Ben-Ami strongly denies.
“If you believe what you read, we’re for the destruction not only of Israel but of the Jewish people,” Ben-Ami said in an interview with j. during a Sept. 14 Bay Area fundraising swing. He was joined by Colette Avital, a former member of Israel’s Knesset and now a senior J Street adviser.
“Other than saying ‘You’re wrong,’” continued Ben-Ami, “responding [to critics] would only distract us from what we’re trying to do to.”
What is that exactly? “We want to be a voice for Americans who believe a peaceful resolution of this conflict is in Israel’s best interests, in America’s best interests,” Ben-Ami said.
His notion of “best interests” often flies in the face of the mainstream Jewish community’s conventional wisdom: It includes the option to publicly criticize Israel.
While acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas rockets, J Street criticized Israel for launching an offensive in Gaza last December — just as most voices in the Jewish community applauded Israel for taking military action against Hamas.
At the time, J Street campaigns director Isaac Luria stated, “While there is nothing ‘right’ in raining rockets on Israeli families or dispatching suicide bombers, there is nothing ‘right’ in punishing a million and a half already suffering Gazans for the actions of the extremists among them.”
That led Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, to call J Street “profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and appallingly naïve.”
In his own defense, Ben-Ami pointed out that Yoffie will speak at J Street’s national conference next month in Washington, D.C. And he was quick to explain Luria’s comment.
“The question becomes, ‘Did [the Gaza War] make the situation better or did it deepen Israel’s level of isolation around the world, the level of hatred of people [that Israel] will ultimately have to make peace with?’ Our conclusion on balance was it would probably have been better not to do this.”
Also set to speak at the conference is Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. The invitation drew fire because of comments Al-Marayati has made, including his contention that Israel was behind the 9/11 terror attacks and his subsequent apology, which many in the mainstream Jewish community considered half-hearted.
Ben-Ami remains unapologetic about inviting Al-Marayati.
“We want a diversity of views,” he said, “and that includes [Al-Marayati]. He has made mistakes, he has apologized for saying some of the things I would consider offensive. But he is a supporter of the two-state solution. If you have 100 speakers, all of whom agree on everything you believe, it’s a pretty boring conference.”
He also pointed out that other conference speakers include former heads of the Shin Bet (Israel’s domestic intelligence agency) and the Israel Defense Forces, as well as former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who will deliver the keynote address.
In advance of the Oct. 25-28 conference, J Street has launched a PR offensive. The organization landed a lengthy profile in the Sept. 13 New York Times Magazine and started a campaign to heighten J Street’s presence on college campuses. The spotlight brought further attention to J Street, but also accelerated the criticism.
A recent Jerusalem Post article revealed J Street has accepted donations from Arab and Iranian American sources, with the unspoken suggestion that those donors have been pushing J Street policy in a direction harmful to Israel.
And in a Sept. 14 syndicated column, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach blasted J Street as “shameful” for its “cheap tactic of creating its name by attacking AIPAC, the ADL and the ZOA [Zionist Organization of America].”
J Street does have some Arab and Muslim donors — about five, Ben-Ami said. “These are individuals, not organizations, corporations or foreign countries. Well over 90 percent of our money comes from Jewish Americans and Christians.”
The J Street budget this year came in at around $3 million.
“Why do we get some Arab and Muslim funding?” Ben-Ami continued. “Because the definition of pro-Israel we use is: Let’s find a win-win solution where we can have something good for Israelis, the Palestinians and the whole world.”
As for Boteach’s charge that J Street belittles mainstream Jewish organizations, Ben-Ami said: “There’s a big difference between the American Jewish community and Jewish Americans. The opinions expressed by the community leadership are out of touch with Jewish Americans.”
He backed that up with a poll showing a majority of U.S. Jews support J Street positions favoring a two-state solution and assertive American diplomacy, and opposing expanded Jewish settlements in the West Bank. J Street co-founder Jim Gerstein conducted the poll.
On Iran, Ben-Ami said J Street believes the Tehran regime is a “serious threat” and that “we have to make sure Iran does not get nuclear weapons. That is at the top of our list.”
But he prefers diplomacy to sanctions, at least for now.
“We’re not opposed to sanctions per se,” he noted. “But things there are so tenuous, if you jump into it with an American action to rock the boat, you may actually play into the hands of the hard-liners. Let’s not rush down this path until we really think it’s right.”
He also denied that J Street is the “anti-AIPAC,” saying the two organizations share much in common, especially a belief in the fundamental strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
“A lot of what AIPAC has done is really important for that relationship,” he said. “They are critical to ensuring its continued renewal through military aid, economic programs, cultural exchanges. There’s just this one big thing on which we disagree: how best to bring [the Arab-Israeli] conflict to an end.”
For Ben-Ami and his supporters, the best way is through talks and more talks. The goal: Reduce Israel’s presence in Palestinian territories, freeze Jewish settlements and bring all factions to the table, including Hamas if it renounces violence.
“Until Hamas meets the conditions, then the U.S. should not engage,” Ben-Ami said. “But we would be deluding ourselves if you think you can reach a comprehensive regional conclusion and leave Hamas totally out of the equation.”
That may seem like blasphemy to many, but Israelis aligned with J Street say the rationale makes sense. Avital loathes Hamas but thinks the terrorist group’s stock will go down as other Palestinian factions strengthen their hands.
“Hamas doesn’t reject the 1967 borders,” she said. “They reject the 1948 borders. This is something nobody can live with. Unless there is some kind of reconciliation with the mainstream of Palestinian [society], which is getting stronger, then Hamas will always have a nuisance value.”
While some J Street critics believe the organization is little more than a Barack Obama fan club, Avital has criticisms of Obama’s Middle East policy.
She laments that the president has “notmade any gesture, visit or speech directed towards the Israelis. That kind of feeling has not been advanced toward the Israeli people, and I think this is lacking.”
However, while many Jewish voices have blasted the Obama administration for being openly critical of Israel, Avital said the United States has made as many demands of the Palestinians and neighboring Arab states.
“It’s a good thing Obama put the Middle East peace process as a priority, as opposed to the previous administration, which did nothing for years,” she said. “Do we look [only at] what is missing, or what to do with what exists today? If we look for the perfect situation, it will never turn up.”
Though the criticisms will not likely fade any time soon, Ben-Ami said he wants to focus on bringing more Jews into a pro-Israel tent, especially among the 60 percent that polls suggest have no Jewish community involvement.
He believes mainstream Jewish organizations such as federations are not welcoming enough to Jews who share his political outlook, which is why he says J Street has had a good year.
Ben-Ami said his biggest achievement this past 12 months was not a shift in U.S. foreign policy, but creating a sense of excitement among people who like the J Street message.
“We have 110,000 people on our e-mail list and we will have perhaps 1,000 people coming to D.C.” for the conference, Ben-Ami said. “There is this sense of ‘Maybe there is a place for me. Maybe I’m not all alone if I put my voice together with tens of thousands of other people.’ ”