Another dumb move by J Street

The organization’s attack on Elie Weisel, after his ad on Jerusalem appeared in major US newspapers, was pure PR suicide.

May 11, 2010 11:02
4 minute read.
The J Street Web site

j street website 311. (photo credit:


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Pity J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami and his we-condemn-Israel-because-we-love-it lobby. In the recent tension between the Obama administration and the Jewish state over building in Jerusalem, the pro-Israel camp was represented by Elie Wiesel, whose full-page ads in major American papers criticized President Barack Obama’s ban on Jews living anywhere in the holy city. The ads, as with everything Wiesel writes, were haunting, and deeply personal.

“For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than 600 times in Scripture and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem... The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem.”

The letter caused such angst in the White House that Obama changed his schedule to invite the Nobel Peace laureate to a private lunch in order not to appear out of sync with him. Like Lyndon Johnson, who panicked when he lost Walter Cronkite over Vietnam, Obama understood that losing Wiesel over his Middle East policy would spell almost certain doom.

But while the president behaved courteously, Ben-Ami did precisely the opposite. Not content with Judaism’s greatest living personality having the last word, the J Street head quickly responded to Wiesel with full-page versions of a bizarre editorial by Yossi Sarid, the former Meretz politician, utterly unknown to the American public.

The man with whom Oprah travelled to Auschwitz and whose book Night she chose as a main selection of her book club and whose novels are studied in the world’s leading universities, was dismissed by Sarid as a writer ignorant of current events. “You know much about the heavenly Jerusalem, but less so about its counterpart here on earth.”

SARID WAS only getting started. Next he accused Wiesel of being naïve and easily misled. “Someone has deceived you, my dear friend.” Sarid’s friendship would intensify two paragraphs later, when he accused a most eloquent voice for the oppressed of being a religious fanatic “imbuing our current conflict with messianic hues.”

Finally, not content with his dismissal of Wiesel as ignorant and fanatical, he concluded that Wiesel intentionally sought to mislead and misinform others. “It is unfortunate that a man of your standing must confuse fundamental issues and confound the reader.”

How unfortunate that Ben-Ami and Sarid were not able to forewarn the gullible American president not to invite the ignorant Holocaust survivor to lunch! Which brings me back to Jeremy Ben-Ami, whom I would like to address directly.

JEREMY, MY dear Jewish brother. Since the launch of J Street not long ago you have tried hard, like any effective CEO, to make a name for your organization. The methods you have used, however, appear to involve a cavalcade of insults and attacks. While this has worked in the short term, I am fairly certain it will backfire in the long run.

Last September I wrote a column commenting on your statements in a New York Times Magazine feature where you insulted all staunch American Jewish supporters of Israel as paranoids who believe the world is filled with murderous anti-Semites. Surely that kind of character assassination indicates significant insecurity about your message. Not that I blame you. I realize you have the most difficult job of any Jewish organizational head in the world, namely running an organization that purports to be pro-Israel but invariably finds itself in the company of Israel’s worst enemies and critics.

But even so, I never believed that someone as media-savvy as you would make the mistake of spending money on full-page ads attacking Elie Wiesel. That, my brother, is pure PR suicide.

I twice hosted Prof. Wiesel at Oxford University for public lectures, and more than 2,000 non-Jewish students hung on his every word. I took him to lecture to the Mormon Church in Utah where thousands more felt awed to simply stand in the same room, and just months ago I hosted him at a seminar of values in New York City where you could hear a pin drop, as more than 1,000 people stood in line to hear him.

In each of these forums, people from all walks of life came to bask in the light of the man regarded as the most courageous living voice for victims of hatred and genocide. He is regarded by most as a living saint, and his books, are among the most influential of modern times. You might as well take out ads savaging Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa or the Dalai Lama.

I suggest your PR consultant be fired and that you recalibrate your message to simply criticize Israel, which J Street has done with considerable success, rather than attack the voice of the six million which has, predictably, brought an avalanche of condemnation in print and over the Internet.

And Jeremy, my brother, please be advised that while my advice is free, Wiesel’s words are priceless.

The writer, founder of This World: The Values Network, is publishing this week his new book Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life (Basic Books).

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