The Man on J Street: The Story of Jeremy Ben-Ami
The urgency he describes is new to neither American nor Israeli political discourse: Groups on the left, like Americans for Peace Now—sister group of Shalom Achshav [Peace Now] in Israel—and the Israel Policy Forum, have been pushing a two-state solution for years. Still, while it is universally acknowledged that any peace agreement will require the involvement of Israel’s strongest ally, most American Jews shun prescriptive points of view, according to a source close to AIPAC leaders. “The established community thinks, ‘We want to have a close relationship with Israel and not tell it what to do, other than that the U.S. and Israel should be strong allies,’” he says.
J Street, by contrast, wants to convince American politicians to pressure both the Palestinians and Israel to make peace, leaving some Jewish groups to wonder if J Street is friend or foe.
The man behind J Street has been called everything from “appallingly naïve” to a Judas, but he seems largely unruffled by the carping, perhaps because he is not the first in his family to raise the hackles of Jewish leaders. Family legend has it that his father, Yitshaq, was the first Jewish baby born in what was, in 1911, the brand new city of Tel Aviv. As a young man, Yitshaq Ben-Ami was tapped by the Irgun militia to help smuggle Jews out of Europe. When war broke out there, he and several comrades redeployed to the United States. Here, under the leadership of founding Irgun member Peter Bergson, they shifted their battles to the political, propaganda and fundraising fronts.
They ran ads, lobbied politicians, organized protests and sought donations to raise the alarm about Hitler. They also advanced Irgun efforts to arm Palestinian Jews and help European refugees break through the British blockade of Palestine. Much of their work drew strenuous protest from well-connected American Jews like Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader of the Zionist Organization of America, and the American Jewish Congress.
After fighting at the Battle of the Bulge with the U.S. Army, Yitshaq Ben-Ami settled into the affluent life of an international metals trader. He and his second wife, the former Eve Stern, raised their two children, Jeremy and Deborah, in an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. (Yitshaq also had two sons from an earlier marriage.) Jeremy, born in 1962, attended the prestigious Collegiate School, but Israel and its hardscrabble origins played a major part in his early years, which included annual summer visits.
In those childhood years, he reminisces, “my house was always filled with arguments and discussions about Israel,” in which opinions ran the gamut from right-wing Zionist to radical right-wing Zionist. “The notion that there is no such thing as a ‘Palestinian,’ that Israel belonged not only in the West Bank and Gaza but in Jordan—that was my father’s world view.” Still, in a pattern many Jews will recognize, Yitshaq “was a liberal on everything else,” adds his son, “always voting Democratic.”
Jeremy became a bar mitzvah at Rodeph Sholom, a Reform congregation in Manhattan, but that was the extent of his Jewish involvement, he says, describing his attitude throughout his teens and 20s as “rather mainstream and disengaged.” He never joined Jewish youth groups or organizations, he adds. “My thing was politics much more than the Jewish community or Israel.”
After completing a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 1984, Ben-Ami concentrated on homelessness and housing issues in New York City government while earning a law degree from New York University. He then worked on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, becoming a deputy domestic policy advisor in the White House with a portfolio that included welfare reform. “[This] made me very unpopular among my liberal friends,” he recalls.