The Man on J Street: The Story of Jeremy Ben-Ami

By | Oct 04, 2011

Jewish internecine political warfare dates back at least to King David but has rarely come to blows. That’s why a Jew-on-Jew skirmish in Israel’s earliest days remains notorious. In June 1948, vying for control of his fledgling military, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion ordered the Israel Defense Forces to fire on a newly arrived Irgun arms ship, the Altalena. The fighting left 16 partisans and three soldiers dead. Jeremy Ben-Ami’s father’s New York efforts had helped pay for the ship. Yitshaq Ben-Ami, who died in 1984, never forgave Ben-Gurion. Indeed, the Irgun-IDF struggle was just one example of many in which the senior Ben-Ami and his allies pitted their radical vision against powerful opponents claiming the “official” Zionist mantle.

Despite such disagreements, by 1948 most American Jews were united in support of the infant state of Israel. The decades following saw the rise of a plethora of new philanthropic and activist organizations, most of which were eventually represented in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Formed in 1956, it now consists of 52 member groups. Meanwhile, in the face of a traditionally Arabist State Department and the influence of “petro-dollars” on Capitol Hill, the group that would become the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) was emerging under the leadership of Canadian-born ex-journalist I.L. “Sy” Kenen, with funding from various Jewish organizations. AIPAC soon became a tireless behind-the-scenes advocate for Israel.

Despite its name, AIPAC is not a federally registered political action committee that can endorse or donate directly to candidates. AIPAC’s mission is to lobby Congress to promote strong ties between the U.S. and Israel. The group’s power stems from educating members of Congress with briefings and missions to Israel, careful vetting of candidates’ views and the activism of its members and some two dozen Jewish PACs that carefully digest its analysis.

Through the 1970s, AIPAC grew in strength and numbers, playing a critical role on Capitol Hill in ensuring financial support and arms for Israel. What once seemed fairly straightforward became more complex in the 1980s when, after years of Labor rule, Israel’s right-wing Likud Party came to prominence, and an era of dramatic left-right power flips began. AIPAC, which is non-partisan, duly swung with the political pendulum, installing staff and leaders with ties to whichever party dominated in Washington and Tel Aviv and expanding its reach from Capitol Hill to the executive branch. Still, while AIPAC has occasionally irked conservative groups, the organization—with 100,000-plus members and a $140 million endowment—has been seen by many as skewing rightward on the peace process in apparent accord with the views of a handful of powerful donors.

In response, Israel-focused organizations began springing up on the left. Americans for Peace Now, founded in 1981 as a fundraising arm for Shalom Achshav, soon evolved into a membership organization in its own right, known for its efforts to halt settlement expansion. With the encouragement of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a think tank called the Israel Policy Forum was created in 1993 to promote the peace process among U.S. policy makers. The Israel Policy Forum flourished when Rabin and Shimon Peres were in power, but its influence waned after Israel’s Labor Party fell out of favor. In the 1990s, volunteer-run Breira began to organize Jews at the grassroots level in support of a two-state solution; many describe Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (the Alliance for Justice and Peace) as its successor. But none of these included a political action committee or enjoyed anywhere near the influence or collective power—in Washington or the national media—of AIPAC and established Jewish organizations like the Presidents’ Conference, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee.

Ben-Ami, since returning from Jerusalem, had been discussing his idea for a new pro-peace voice with other Zionist progressives—in particular, British-born political scientist Daniel Levy, a former official at Israel’s foreign ministry and now co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC. Other early key advisors included Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Davidi Gilo, a wealthy Israeli tech entrepreneur with Silicon Valley ties.

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