J Street’s public launch occurred in April 2008 at the same time Barack Obama was campaigning for president, promising to restart peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians and to open communication lines with Syria and even Iran. For Ben-Ami, the timing couldn’t have been better. “J Street was part of a perfect storm,” says one ally from the progressive camp who did not want to be quoted by name. “The whole discourse shifted in the direction of this budding organization, J Street. They had a tremendous amount of cachet. People supportive of their message were associated with the [future] White House and went to work there. They enjoyed the political circumstances tremendously.” Nor did it hurt that Ben-Ami’s old boss, Howard Dean, was chairing the Democratic Party.
J Street’s new political action committee, JStreetPAC, went into action: Its first order of business was raising money for the November 2008 elections. The $578,000 it distributed was “more than any other pro-Israel PAC in the two-year cycle,” the organization boasts. (NORPAC, a prominent hawkish PAC, disbursed less than $500,000 to candidates during the same period, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.) Of the 41 candidates J Street endorsed, 33 won their races. All but one—Louisiana Republican Charles Boustany—were Democrats.
Late December brought J Street a new flurry of attention when, within 24 hours of Israel’s first air strikes on Gaza, it issued a public statement calling the action “counterproductive” to peace—a view echoed by Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek (which had yet to merge with J Street). Throughout the three-week Gaza incursion that followed, J Street continued calling for a ceasefire, resulting in a barrage of criticism. Even an ally, Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie, wrote a sharply-worded op-ed in The Forward in which he called J Street’s position “morally deficient” and “profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment.”
Ben-Ami, though, was unbowed, reiterating J Street’s view that this was simply another way to be pro-Israel because anything that threatens the peace process threatens Israel’s security. His position deepened doubt among Israel’s conservative supporters and roused suspicion in Israel, where even many on the left supported the war and the conservative Likud Party was poised to win the February 2009 elections.
But the Gaza debate boosted J Street’s national prominence, as did a Democratic House primary in Silver Spring, Maryland, the following June. Representative Donna Edwards had angered local Jewish leaders by not voting to support Israel during the Gaza War and by visiting Gaza. They were considering other candidates when J Street, which had already given Edwards $3,000, came to her aid. Ben-Ami’s email appeal raised $15,000 from 270 contributors in four hours; Edwards won her election, and J Street demonstrated its Internet fundraising prowess.
J Street’s biggest 2009 visibility-booster came in the form of an invitation. In July 2009, when President Obama hosted his first official White House meeting with Jewish leaders, most of his 16 invitees hailed from the Presidents’ Conference, representing venerable stalwarts like AIPAC, Hadassah and the Orthodox and Reform movements. But Obama also included J Street’s Ben-Ami, the new kid on the block, in a guest list shake-up that also brought Americans for Peace Now back for the first time since the Clinton administration, and excluded the right-wing Zionist Organization of America (like Americans for Peace Now, part of the Conference of Presidents). ZOA President Morton Klein, a harsh critic of J Street and Obama, responded to the snub by accusing Obama of refusing “to engage at this face-to-face meeting with pro-Israel organizations that disagree with him.” Given Ben-Ami’s political ties, his inclusion could not have come as a complete surprise, but J Street nevertheless heralded the invitation as a sign of its arrival.
On the first evening of J Street’s inaugural national conference, in a downtown DC hotel in October 2009, two 60-something men in windbreakers slouched against a pillar outside the main entrance. Nearby, a shiny placard emblazoned with the J Street logo read, “J Street: Driving Change, Securing Peace.” The men had a sign, too. Hand-lettered, it said, “Quislings. Kapos. Appeasers. J Street: the New Judenraat.”
Several floors below, with conference attendance having ballooned from 1,000 to 1,500 in just a few days, crowds were swelling at the sign-in tables. The plenary session was about to start, and overwhelmed staffers finally just gave up on registering guests and threw open all doors to the cavernous, dimly lit hall. Television cameras were lined up along the back of the room, with representatives of other media arrayed, laptops open, behind long narrow tables stretching to either side.