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

By | Oct 04, 2011

Ben-Ami stepped to the Lucite podium, and with his accustomed placidity, addressed the crowd in calm, emphatic tones. His broadest gesture was the poking of an index finger into the air as he issued a distinctly net-nerdy challenge: “This is a conversation that some would say it’s better to either have privately or not at all,” he announced defiantly. “So, to make matters worse, not only are we taking it public, we’re webcasting and we’re Tweeting, so welcome to the 21st century.”

Back in the analog world, J Street had mustered all the firepower it could for the three-day event. Hosts, panelists and guests included senators, congresspersons and several members of Israel’s Knesset, plus former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. Tzipi Livni, also an ex-foreign minister and the Kadima Party’s leader, sent a congratulatory note. When Reform movement leader Yoffie co-chaired a “Jewish Community Town Hall,” participants booed him for his earlier criticism of J Street’s statements on Gaza. And, signaling J Street’s continued clout at the White House, National Security Advisor General James Jones was the keynote speaker.

But equally noteworthy was who was not there. There were no high-ranking members of Israel’s current government. In the week before the conference, 10 of J Street’s 160 original congressional “hosts,” including New York Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, dropped out. The most prominent rebuff was from Middle East scholar and new Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren, who declined to attend on the grounds that J Street positions “could impair Israel’s interests.”

It was, however, the left-right clashes among J Street followers, playing out before and during the conference, that revealed one of the most formidable obstacles facing the new organization. As even its allies in the “progressive-center” will attest, many in J Street’s constituency hail from the far left. Though a much needed voice, the organization is “too open to people who should not be welcome in the tent,” according to one professional Israel advocate, who insisted on anonymity. It’s a delicate balance, he says. “If people come in from the left who are not most interested in Israel’s security and well-being but are interested in human rights and justice, you end up with a left flank that is very robust but that is not pro-Israel. When you stretch the tent, it gets too thin and can tear.”

Ben-Ami was hard-pressed, therefore, to show he could keep the more extreme tent-dwellers at arms’ length, even as they took the stage at his conference. Critics were ready to call him on it. As The New Republic’s James Kirchick, who participated in the conference, wrote: “And while Ben-Ami is trying to assert his group’s Zionist bona fides, a number of speakers at the conference questioned the very idea of a Jewish state—and actually received loud applause. Cheers greeted Bassim Khoury, the Palestinian Authority’s former Minister of National Economy, when he said that ‘if the majority of the Israeli people want to define Israel as a state with a religion like the Islamic Republic of Iran, let them.’”

To shore up centrist support, Ben-Ami gave an interview to The Atlantic’s staunchly Zionist Jeffrey Goldberg, in which (in Goldberg’s words) he “declared himself a Zionist; condemned [John Mearsheimer’s and Stephen Walt’s 2007 book], The Israel Lobby [and U.S. Foreign Policy]; called America’s military aid package to Israel untouchable; and told me he hopes his group angers the non-Zionist left by staking out mainstream Jewish positions on Israel and the peace process.” Ben-Ami himself stresses that J Street is “not anti-AIPAC or anti-anything and willing to work with any organization that shares its overriding goal of a two-state solution.”

The conference is seen as having moved J Street incrementally closer to the center. One sign of this was the appointment of Hadar Susskind as J Street’s director of policy and strategy. Susskind came from the Jewish Public Affairs Council, which is liberal but mainstream and highly respected. “In terms of leadership they are looking for mainstream, not Jewish Voice for Peace,” says one observer, referring to the San Francisco group that believes that the United States should stop military aid to Israel. In other rightward signs that have led some critics to reassess J Street, Ben-Ami supported Iran sanctions legislation from California Democrat Howard Berman, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He also condemned students who heckled Ambassador Oren at the University of California at Irvine.

While Israeli officials are still all over the map about J Street—Israelis generally look to AIPAC as a critical channel to American aid and arms, rather than a player in the peace process—even Oren has softened his stance. “The J Street controversy has come a long way to resolving,” he said in a February interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA). “The major concern with J Street was their position on security issues, not the peace process. J Street has now come and supported Congressman Berman’s sanction bill. It has condemned the Goldstone report; it has denounced the British court’s decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream.”

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