While some on the far left may have been disappointed, they shouldn’t have been surprised: Successful organizations rarely satisfy their fringes. “The more you grow, the more it forces you to become mainstream,” says one observer who finds J Street’s growth impressive. “Coming out of nowhere, they have taken over the Jewish left wing. That is significant.”
Candidates who accept money from J Street do run a risk, however. Tennessee Representative Steve Cohen’s closely contested 2008 re-election campaign received an infusion of more than $35,000 from JStreetPAC. “When I first accepted their endorsements, members of Congress suggested I not do it because there might be reprisals from AIPAC supporters,” recounts Cohen, who went on to win the election. “In some ways that has happened—some AIPAC supporters have not been as strong.” Cohen continues to ally himself with J Street, though. And, despite possible repercussions from AIPAC supporters, many other politicians are recipients of JStreetPAC funds. In January, 41 candidates accepted its endorsement. Although it is difficult to gauge J Street’s actual impact on the Hill, these candidates include political heavyweights like Senator Russ Feingold and Representatives Barney Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Charles Rangel, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
J Street may be flirting with power, but it’s still far from AIPAC’s league. After all, AIPAC, with its much broader mission, has been around nearly 60 years. Even if it wanted to, J Street is unlikely to budge the AIPAC elephant from the room, says J.J. Goldberg, author of Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment. “AIPAC has a major donor in every congressional district who can get their congressman on the phone,” says Goldberg. The main challenge for J Street, he adds, is amassing a similarly single-minded, activist base: “I don’t see J Street coming up with a threat that can match the threat of the right—the threat of flooding your office with angry phone calls, the threat of pouring money into your opponent no matter who it is, to punish you.”
As it grows, J Street—which now has nearly 40 full-time staffers—is in some ways emulating AIPAC with the launch of its campus group J Street U and J Street Local, based on Brit Tzedek’s grassroots network. In February, its Jewish Education Fund sponsored a mission to the Middle East: five members of Congress accompanied Ben-Ami to Israel, Jordan and territories of the Palestinian Authority.
An entrepreneur, Ben-Ami is focused on the present. “I really want this place to operate with a campaign mentality,” he says of J Street. “I’m only worried about right now and two years, three years, five years from now—this is the rough window, if we’re going to win this fight and get peace and try to save Israel. I’m not thinking, ‘Twenty years from now, will we have a nice building on Capitol Hill?’” Rather, Ben-Ami envisions a day soon when Israel might “proudly and affirmatively” approve a peace deal, and “J Street will be able to say its mission has been accomplished.”
Few experts forecast that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be solved in five years, but Ben-Ami thinks the outstanding issues could be resolved quickly once talks begin—maybe within a year or two. “That’s because so much has been done over the last 16 years to really understand what the issues are and what the gaps are. What’s essential to closing the deal is active U.S. engagement in the process, providing ideas and creative solutions for closing gaps the parties themselves can’t close. The actual implementation of the agreement might take a while—maybe much more than five years, but the sides would know the agreed-on end game.” He believes, once the Palestinians can see what they could gain by following the non-violent path, even many who currently support Hamas will accept a diplomatic solution.
At that point, “I’d be thrilled to be able to go and work on other issues,” he says. Given his optimism about solving the Middle East’s thorniest stalemate, perhaps Ben-Ami’s future public policy ambitions should come as no surprise: He dreams of tackling global warming.
Mandy Katz is a senior editor at Moment. She reports on lifestyle topics for The New York Times, and her blog, AngloFiles.com, explores “one Yank’s ‘special relationship’ with all things British.”