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

By | Oct 04, 2011

When Dean’s campaign folded in 2004, Ben-Ami took up in earnest his father’s focus on Israel. Bringing his experience and a list of progressive donors acquired since his Clinton years, he sought advice from David Fenton of Fenton Communications, a consultancy for progressive non-profits. “David convinced me to do the incubation as a project of Fenton,” Ben-Ami says. Now based in Washington, Ben-Ami consulted for other Fenton clients on issues like climate change, while pushing for a new organization—possibly a merger of existing groups, that would also be the Zionist left’s first registered lobby.

By the fall of 2006, he and Morton Halperin—former aide to Presidents Clinton, Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson—were meeting with representatives of America’s leading Zionist dove organizations, on the one hand, and of liberal foundations and donors on the other. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited participant at a meeting they held on October 25 was Hungarian-born financier and philanthropist George Soros. Soros had founded the Open Society Institute, where Halperin served as director of American advocacy. Though Jewish and a Holocaust survivor, Soros has rarely donated to Israel-related causes and had provoked an uproar a year earlier by harshly criticizing AIPAC in The New York Review of Books. Still, Ben-Ami hoped the billionaire activist would back his still unnamed project, drawing enough attention and additional donors to amass the several hundred thousand dollars he estimated was needed to launch.

Soros, too, knew what his backing could mean and had his answer ready: It was “no.” He “walked into the room with a prepared statement that announced that he would not be a part of the project because he felt his involvement would be counter-productive,” as Ben-Ami explains (and Soros has confirmed in print). Those concerns were borne out. Some opponents still think of J Street as a covert Soros project. In a rueful nod to J Street’s lingering Soros taint, Ben-Ami gripes good-naturedly, “We got tagged as having his support, without the benefit of actually getting funded!”

Merger talks, meanwhile, also weren’t going well. Marvin Lender, the bagel-dynasty scion who then chaired the Israel Policy Forum, recalls attending several J Street meetings over six months before his group and Americans for Peace Now walked away. (The Israel Policy Forum this year folded itself into the Center for American Progress, headed by former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta.) Only Brit Tzedek proved willing to merge with J Street, as happened on January 1 this year. Marcia Freedman, a Brit Tzedek founder and member of J Street’s Advisory Council, says the larger union failed because “the more established organizations were reluctant to give up their organizational identities.” Lender counters that the Israel Policy Forum’s rejection was political. Ben-Ami “was very good at bringing various groups together… But the way J Street was positioning itself and the people that were associated with it, starting with Jeremy himself, were too far to the left for most of us in the Israel Policy Forum.”

Around the time the merger idea was abandoned, another prospect was also falling by the wayside: that of enlisting a “big name” from the Jewish community to lead the new organization. “It increasingly became clear that either Jeremy was going to head this, or it wasn’t going to happen,” says Levy. When it comes to finding the right person to lead, “you can’t invent people.” Ben-Ami had proven himself and demonstrated personal qualities that perhaps made him a safe choice in a field where egos sometimes loom large. “Jeremy doesn’t have an evangelical kind of style to him,” says Levy. “He’s good at spotting people, good at delegating and disciplined with his time.”

Ben-Ami became the head of J Street for another important reason: He could raise money. Early funders included Gilo, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Alan Solomont, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser. But it was an infusion from the family foundation of New Jersey real estate magnate Alan Sagner that enabled Ben-Ami to cut the cord with Fenton in late 2007 and run J Street full-time from the basement office of his Washington, DC, home. The start-up stake of roughly $200,000 was far lower than he had hoped, but “I was able to at least tell my wife we can pay the mortgage,” says Ben-Ami, who now earns $200,000 a year for running an organization with a roughly $4-million annual budget.

In what proved a branding coup, the organization’s official name also emerged from the Fenton bivouac. For months, the group had been casting about for names—“Coalition to Support __” or “Jews United for __”—but found none to their liking. In the meantime, they had nicknamed the project “J Street” after the thoroughfare famously missing from Pierre L’Enfant’s alphabetical street plan for the nation’s capital. At least one veteran of the merger talks dismisses the name as signifying “‘J’ for ‘Jeremy,’” but J Streeters scoff at the notion. They say the name is a play on multiple sources: the “K Street” label for lobbyists, “J” for “Jewish” and, like the street it honors, the pro-peace voice “missing” from U.S. discourse on the Middle East.

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