J Street, undaunted by reality: Interview with Jeremy Ben-Ami

“It’s much easier to sit at home and lob criticism through blogs and tweets, and post that this isn’t changing the world overnight. But political change happens one step at a time…If you’re sitting on the sidelines critiquing the runners, I have no respect for you. Get in the race, show you can run it faster, show you can get to the finish line, prove you have better ideas.” -J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami

Flush from the success of its third annual conference, J Street stands at tough crossroads. Its first two years of heady success as the receptacle for an emotional outpouring of long-suppressed liberal Jewish sentiment have run headlong into the unforgiving landscape of American-Jewish-Israel-politics.

The powerful Jewish establishment initially tried to swat down J Street like an annoyance, but as the buzz grew the establishment unleashed its anger, desperate to delegitimize J Street from the right. Over the last year or so, the fledgling lobby took a barrage of criticism over its position that the US should not oppose a UN resolution condemning settlements, only to be flogged by the left for opposing the Palestinian unilateral statehood bid last September. Critique of the harder, outspoken left now flows freely, on a lineup of issues.

The Obama Administration, which J Street originally hoped would usher in a policy paradigm shift, has stagnated dangerously on the peace process, perhaps capitulating to the vise-like grip of the established right-wing American Jewish lobby. Has J Street disappointed the left and been defeated by the Jewish-American right? Is it toeing a line too fine to make a difference? Or is it staking out a genuine ground and digging in to reach a deeper level of long-term  change?

Two days after the conference ended, I spoke with founder Jeremy Ben Ami about some of these issues. The conversation here has been edited for length and clarity.


If Jeremy’s energy level is any indicator, the answer is clear: J Street is single-minded and undaunted. Before I even managed to ask a question, he was gushing about the conference:

Attendance was up 25 percent compared to last year (to 2,500). The enthusiasm level seemed not all diminished despite realities on the ground. On the Hill and in politics, there are people we couldn’t get a meeting with two years ago, and one year ago we could get a staff person. Now they’re meeting and agreeing to put their name on letter, when two years ago we wouldn’t have even been allowed in the door. Person by person, office by office.

DS: As Obama’s first term draws to a close, how do you view the arc of his approach to the conflict? What do you see as his most and least successful moves?

One, he came into office with the clear recognition that resolving the conflict is an essential American national security priority. Two, he recognized that you can’t deal with this in year eight of a second term, but from day one. Three, you need to bring in some fresh people and ideas to do it.

…He had the right vision. He talked about the existential necessity for Israel of achieving a two-state solution, he understood that…that’s what it means to be a friend. He made the commitment to put it into action with a full-on settlement freeze and showed a real desire not just to speak but to act.

And that’s where the good news ends. The inevitability of an Israeli “no” to the concept of a settlement freeze was not fully [thought out]… The president backed down and became very defensive about its friendship with Israel rather than being on the offense and saying that friendship means pursuing a peace deal and providing military hardware, exercises and strategic operations – not just military aid.

At the end of the first term, the vision is unfulfilled, the tactics have not worked. If he is reelected, he has to press reset if he wants to achieve the vision he laid out at the beginning.

DS: J Street’s August poll of American Jews showed 57% who supported the broad outlines of a two-state solution package, but also 60% who feel favorably about Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has paid lip service, but not moved forward on the two-state solution. What’s going on among American Jews?

The biggest hurdle for the Israeli two-state camp and the American pro-Israel pro-peace camp is that people don’t believe there’s a way to get it done and a partner. But this is a far better situation to be in than the other way around. It’s a much harder task to change minds of the majority on the substance, than to mobilize people who agree with you.

The way to change the current situation is political leadership. Sadat changed public opinion overnight by speaking in the Knesset. Any one of the leaders in Ramallah, DC, Jerusalem stepping forward and leading on this issue will change the perception that [peace] is never going to happen. I have argued [this] to President Abbas …and to Israeli leaders who meet with us…to the White House, the President and will argue with whoever the American leader is after November. This is what will dissipate people’s doubts that [peace] can’t happen.

DS: J Street is committed to the two-state solution. Amos Oz said “[Israelis and Palestinian conflict resolution] is not a honeymoon, but a fair and painful divorce.” Isn’t this the old rhetoric? Is J Street being inflexible by not opening up different options?

This isn’t just a five or ten year old idea. For 80 years, there’s been no other realistic answer to how you resolve this conflict. You have two peoples, with an unbreakable claim on one piece of land. You have three options: a. one side wipes out the other, and controls all the land; b. you both continue to live there and continue to fight ad infinitum, with blood, tears, violence and war; c. you figure out a way to draw a line, and say you’re here, we’re there. For 80 years, it’s been really hard to figure out where that line is…but that doesn’t mean that we’re naïve to keep trying.

The other two outcomes are simply not acceptable. It may be academically interesting to debate…but the entirety of human history tells us that that’s not possible.

DS: Did J Street cut too far to the center/right? In trying too hard to please all, is its message getting diluted?

I am one-thousand percent convinced that two-thirds of Jewish Americans fall squarely in the middle of the political map which is the space that J Street is trying to claim. There is a very, very activist group on the right, a very, very activist group on the left, they are more passionate, they are louder, they are more intensely engaged in the debate, but ultimately, the power is going to belong to the center, which is rooted in Jewish values, committed to Israel, it wants peace….it [holds] liberal views on issues like human rights, civil rights, peace and democracy. That’s why we see our movement growing, expanding year to year.

DS: Why did you ask Obama not to oppose the UN resolution against settlements, but you opposed Palestine’s unilateral statehood bid? Were you influenced by the fallout against J Street following the UN settlement issue?

They’re completely different questions. If there was a United Nations resolution tomorrow on [settlement condemnation], we’d take the same exact position, which reflects American policy for over 40 years, to oppose the settlements over the Green Line.

The application for statehood is a separate question…This Administration was in line with United States policy, not against it, that the state of Palestine should be admitted [to the UN] as a result of a peace deal. We felt that jumping ahead to membership was just a symbolic statement. If Palestine had been admitted, today nothing would be different;[it] would not change the reality of occupation, of continued encroachment of settlements on land where they have to build their state.

DS: After inviting Peter Beinart as a central speaker at the conference, did you reject his views when they went too far?

I have absolutely no problem with his book. I am thrilled by the sense of urgency that he is infusing into the discussion, I am one-hundred percent supportive of his desire to rekindle a passionate liberal Zionism that unites our values and our love of the project of building a national home for our people. Does that mean that I’m going to agree with every single tactical recommendation he makes? No. Is he going to agree with all of ours? No, but that doesn’t influence the philosophical case we are making.

We are here to solve the broken dynamics of the American political system, and broken leadership of the established American Jewish community, which stakes out positions on Israel that are not in line with the American Jewish public,and represent a small hawkish part of it….We deserve to have all voices represented in the discussion.

It’s fine for some groups to [boycott settlement products], but it’s not our mission. Many people within J Street are not going to buy products made over the Green Line, spend a dollar or see a play in Ariel, because if you support J Street’s vision and you’re grounded in our values, you’re probably not going to buy those products, or attend the plays. But we’re not going to endorse that.

DS: You are both a political lobby but also committed to pushing the boundaries of the conversation among American Jewry. Is there any tension or contradiction between these?

We have a single mission – to advance American support for a two-state solution…The broader the conversation in the Jewish community on Israel, the healthier that community will be. I’ve never staked out any claim or made any pretense that J Street is left of center or far left, other people have tried to paint us that way or marginalize us, but since day one, we’ve been passionate moderates.

DS: What are your next steps?

In 2012, the campaign is the future of “pro-Israel”: to help define “pro-Israel” in American politics so that it doesn’t mean this downward spiral of ever-more hawkish pronouncements by politicians who think they’re currying favor and support from Jewish communities. We have to make clear that the future of “pro-Israel” in this country is to support the necessary moves to achieve a two state solution…We want Obama, or the next leader, to know that the politics support them in doing that.

DS: What would you see as short-term and long-term achievements?

This is a marathon [disclosure: Jeremy is a multi-marathon runner – ds]. When we created J Street, we thought there was a possibility that Obama would sprint forward and maybe get to a two-state solution within his first two years. We wanted to clear the political space, be the “blocking back” for him. That was J Street 1.0. When that didn’t work, it became very clear that we are absolutely in a marathon and to win we’re going to have to do the hard and slow work, community by community, synagogue by synagogue, member of Congress by member of Congress…

It’s amazing to see yearly growth, we have the 5000 students involved in J Street U after just two years; there were 650 students at the conference… The progress on Capitol Hill has been enormous. There are dozens [of members] today who are engaged and openly have a relationship with us. If you can continue at that rate, every year you add 10-20 more members, that’s real progress.

DS: Are there any possible ripple effects beyond the direct impact of J Street?

If voices to our left can get more organized and bring in more activists, that’s good for the Jewish community to have this argument about what their values mean. I hope people who disagree with us on the left won’t just confine their critiques to internet but get off their seats and do something.

That’s the hard work. It’s much easier to sit at home and lob criticism through blogs and tweets, and by posting that this isn’t changing the world overnight. But political change happens one step at a time, one foot in front of the other to reach the finish line of the marathon. If you’re sitting on the sidelines critiquing the runners, I have no respect for you. Get in the race, show you can run it faster, show you can get to the finish line, prove you have better ideas, but don’t put your energy into simply critiquing the form and style of other runners.

Read also:
Why I am proud of my work for J Street
J Street third annual conference marks shift to the right
What’s wrong with J Street – an open letter to members
WATCH: Why does a Palestinian speak at a J Street conference?