Interview: Jeremy Ben-Ami
In April 2008, after 25 years of experience in government, politics and communications, in the United States and Israel, Jeremy Ben-Ami became founding executive director of J Street, which bills itself as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” advocacy group. Ben-Ami, 48, served as domestic adviser to President Clinton and was also in Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. He was a top executive at Fenton Communications, headed public relations for the New Israel Fund and lived and worked in Israel in the late 1990s.
Q: What motivated you to start J Street?
A. First, because I am so deeply concerned about the future of the State of Israel and what might happen from a failure to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians sooner rather than later. My sense is that the American Jewish community’s voice has been taken by one segment, which has helped to skew actual policy and events. Pro-Israel, pro-peace voices must be heard in this country. I knew dozens if not hundreds of people like me, peers and friends who were Zionists…who felt they weren’t being spoken for. Beyond the personal motivation, I felt the playing field in Washington had been abandoned by people who hold my views. They didn’t engage in politics. Within the American Jewish community, the right of center understood Washington and how to play politics. As a political creature myself, I had seen the center and center-left focusing on think tanks and policy arguments but they weren’t playing in the political arena. So J Street needed to fill a vacuum and create a new voice in the American Jewish community.
Q. How do you differ from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is synonymous with the pro-Israel lobby, and also from left-of-center groups such as American Friends of Peace Now?
A. We didn’t start J Street to be an “anti” organization. There are probably places where we agree with AIPAC and certainly things we agree on with Americans for Peace Now. What AIPAC and other traditional bodies in the American Jewish community don’t do is make the resolution of this conflict their number one priority. They don’t proactively push it as something that American foreign policy should prioritize as well. J Street pointedly wants an American leadership active in resolving this conflict. The parties themselves won’t reach a resolution on their own. I think a lot of the mainstream traditional groups in the American Jewish community believe it’s fine if a two-state solution happens one day, and would support it were it to happen, but they are not really going to lift a finger to make it happen. J Street is here to help make it happen.
Q. What distinguishes you from other organizations?
A. Primarily through our tactics and engagement in the political arena. We started J Street with a registered lobby and a federal political action committee, which can endorse candidates and raise money. The policy game in Washington is driven in large measure by money and lobbies. And if you choose not to have either a lobby or a political action committee, you are unilaterally disarming from the fight. Many of my friends who helped start J Street are involved in wonderful center or center-left groups: Ameinu; Americans for Peace Now; the Israel Policy Forum, or what was Brit Tzedek V’Shalom. All these groups were charitable organizations. They cannot lobby and they can’t be involved in politics. We probably look at the world through a similar lens…but it is the tactics and the machinery that we uniquely added to the mix.
Q: Some speculate official Israel is at war with J Street, both in Jerusalem and in Washington. Israel’s ambassador and key government officials in Jerusalem are either boycotting you or consulting with you, depending on who you talk to. What is the real story?
A. It truly is a relationship in progress. We reserve the right to criticize the policies of the government of Israel. The government is not used to this from an American lobby group that cares about Israel. That creates a new dynamic that hasn’t existed before and certainly a level of discomfort. I have met with Ambassador [Michael B.] Oren several times. Our leaders met with President Shimon Peres when we were in Israel. We met with Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor, with Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai. This very afternoon I have a meeting with people from Israel’s Foreign Ministry on how to address the BDS [Boycott Divestment Sanctions] movement. When it comes to construction in East Jerusalem, when it comes to the settlement issue, when it comes to the priority for a two-state solution—we will be critical of Israel’s present government policies. We have good relationships and contacts but there is also tension.
Q. J Street continues to be subjected to sharp criticism from respected individuals such as Ambassador Oren, Professor Alan Dershowitz. They accuse you of everything from having hidden left-wing agendas to questionable funding sources to sowing disunity within the American Jewish community. What is your reaction?
A. Their words are typical of criticism from one segment of the community. I want to emphasize that the three public polls on our Web site show that a majority of American Jews share our views when it comes to settlements, to the importance of a two-state solution, to the priority American foreign policy should give to resolving this conflict. We get criticism from one part of the community and a welcome embrace from another large part of the community. I would emphasize that both Oren and Dershowitz are not uniformly critical…. The volatility of their views captures the difficulty that both the government of Israel and traditional pro-Israel advocates have in coping with a movement and the slightly generational shift we embody. We find ourselves sufficiently liberated to say what we think when it comes to Israel. There was a tendency in the early decades of the state to see it as a fragile new plant that barely had its roots set in the soil. You didn’t want to do anything to threaten that. The community developed a habit of staying quiet, keeping things behind closed doors. But this is the 21st century, a generation or two removed from the Six-Day War, from the Yom Kippur War. How do you deal with friends, family telling you something you don’t want to hear? This kind of criticism resembles that. Everyone is going to have to get used to it because, as time goes by, this generation and way are going to be the mainstream majority approach.
Q. How do you answer American Jews who say, “The Israelis are paying the taxes and shedding military blood for their decisions, we don’t have the right to get involved”?
A. American Jews express themselves about U.S. foreign policy. If one group is expressing themselves by saying let the parties do it themselves, others have the same right to stand up and say as U.S. citizens they believe it is a fundamental vital American interest to resolve this conflict. This conflict has an impact on us as Americans but even more so as Jews. Israel’s actions and situation do impact on Jews all over the world. We have a stake in what happens there, and if this conflict should deepen, turning even uglier and more violent, there will be repercussions for Jews around the world. I would argue that as lovers of Israel, we have been asked for decades to provide money, support, make aliya, visit as a tourist, bring our kids for bar mitzva—we are asked for all of these investments and to be a part of Israel and that gives us a stake in what goes on there.
Q. There is confusion about the funding role of George Soros, the wealthy Jewish leftist activist, has played with J Street. He apparently contributed significantly, but the impression given by the organization was that he did not. What is the truth?
A. George Soros and his family decided to donate to J Street in the fall of 2008, well after our launch and two years after he publicly stated that it would not be helpful for him to assist in getting the effort off the ground. The family contributed an average of $250,000 per year over the last three years [2008-2010] and their support amounts to just over 7 percent of the total funds raised by the J Street family of organizations. I accept responsibility for being less than clear about Mr. Soros’s support once he did become a donor. I said Mr. Soros did not help launch J Street or provide its initial funding, and that is true. I also said we would be happy to take his support. But I did not take the extra step to add that he did in fact start providing support in the fall of 2008, six months after our launch. My answers regarding Mr. Soros were misleading. I apologize for that and for any distraction from J Street’s important work created by my actions and decisions.
Q. Is J Street Zionist? Pro-Israel? Pro-Obama?
A. There is no question that J Street is a pro-Israel, Zionist organization. We exist to help the State of Israel survive and be secure, democratic and free. This is our belief and many of us have lived there, done IDF service, regularly travel there, are clearly dedicated to Israel as the helm of the Jewish people. We are not “pro” any politician for the sake of the politician; we advocate a set of policies. To the extent that the Obama administration does in fact prioritize ending this conflict and does perceive an active diplomacy and does put their capital behind such efforts, we support them. To the extent that they don’t do that we are going to push them to do it. If they don’t do this, we will criticize them.
Q. You are firm advocates of a two-state solution, but even if the Palestinian Authority gets serious about the idea, half of the Palestinians—those ruled by Hamas in Gaza—will have nothing to do with the idea. How realistic is this?
A. What’s the alternative? There isn’t one. Gaza polling shows more support for a two-state solution amongst them than the polling in the West Bank. There is a very serious problem with Hamas, no question. How are you going to beat Hamas? We can’t beat them militarily. We are not going to send the IDF in to get rid of Hamas unless there is a willingness to stomach epic disaster in terms of human life and suffering. Starving them out, which was the unwritten and unspoken policy for the last four years—that’s now over, too. [T]he only way to do it is to offer a better idea to the Palestinian public. If a deal is struck with the P.A. and a two-state solution is inked and put to a referendum, it will be passed by the Palestinian public. Maybe 15 to 18 percent of Gaza’s population follows a fundamentalist Muslim lifestyle. Until 2005, this was a highly educated, commercially based economy with Western-focused residents whose main point of contact with the outside world was through Israel. I do believe the Palestinian Authority can enter into a deal that…will create a political dynamic too big for Hamas to fight against because they will have achieved the end that the Palestinian people want—freedom and an end to the occupation. It will be very hard for Hamas to maintain its legitimacy politically.
Q. Some people have sought to tar brush J Street with the odious Goldstone Report. Is there any basis for that connection?
A. We didn’t take a position on the report…. The Israelis didn’t provide the evidence, so you have a biased report projecting only one side of the story. [Justice Richard] Goldstone himself said this. It is like an indictment from a prosecutor who is only collecting the evidence. We didn’t criticize the report, we didn’t support the report, it’s not our place to do either. What we did say was that the mandate of the report was flawed. It was only when Goldstone said, “I am going to look at Hamas, too,” that he was told that the mandate of the report was to only look at Israel, which is typical of the one-sided bias you get in the U.N. Human Rights Council. We rejected that, saying Israel should do its own independent investigation. We were also very vocal about the personal vilification campaign against Goldstone. That just doesn’t fit with Jewish ideals, nor with the best interests of our people. This is an esteemed person, clearly a lover of Israel, on the board of Hebrew University. This is not an anti-Israel zealot. To vilify him in the way people like Alan Dershowitz and others did was unbecoming and unfitting. Israel should have cooperated with Goldstone’s inquiry, which would have ensured its inclusion of both sides of the story.
Q. You apply a similar standard to the post-flotilla episode post-mortem?
A. It’s the same idea. The real issue is the political decision-making in the first place. The IDF isn’t empowered to look at that. In the past, there was the Winograd Commission, there were reports about the Yom Kippur War and other wars that resulted in political change because they examined the decisions made on the political level by the government that were really the mistake. I don’t think it is fair to look at the behavior of commandos on the ship’s deck from the flotilla. It is not fair to look at the individual infantry soldier on the streets of Gaza City. They have to do what they have to do to survive whether in the context of urban warfare or of being attacked on the deck of a ship. The real issue is should they have been there in the first place? What was the strategic decision-0making process and was that fundamentally flawed? Was the intelligence flawed? Did people go in there without knowing what they were getting into? No Army committee can really look into these questions. Israel would have been better served by a more far-reaching commission including present or former Supreme Court judges, looking at Gaza more holistically.
Q. What is J Street’s position on settlements?
A. We have felt, J Street and me personally, that the focus on just the settlements and just the freeze is looking at a symptom rather than the underlying disease. J Street is all about assuring Israel’s long-term survival and security as a Jewish, democratic state. I don’t see how that is possible if Israelis and Jews continue to live over the Green Line with expanding numbers and jurisdiction over a majority of people who are not Jewish. Unless we figure out a way to separate from the Palestinian people and to draw a border that the world recognizes, the whole Zionist enterprise is finished. This is the more important question. Whether the bulldozers start working again over the Green Line is a tactical question, but the bigger one is: Will the government of Israel, the country as a whole, recognize that it is on a vehicle that is heading off a cliff? This may not happen today or next year, but at some point Israelis are going to wake up and see they are a minority in the geographic area they control, that they haven’t given rights to the majority, the country itself has become isolated from the rest of the world….
All of this will gradually happen. And one day everyone will ask, How did we get into this position? It is still not too late to make decisions to change course. I’d rather the discussion in Israel be what Tzipi Livni and even Ehud Barak are trying to get the focus to be—not yes or no to extending the settlement chill…for a few more months, but how to actually resolve the underlying conflict. Let’s get a border, let’s agree what settlements are staying with us, what land we are giving back, and let’s end this conflict. What do I think will actually happen? I think the focus will be on the freeze, that under pressure, the Israeli government will concede and will extend the freeze for another number of months so that the peace process might continue.