A challenging voice from the Left?

Answering 'the loudest 8 percent' of American Jews, J Street founder Ben-Ami stresses Israel’s role in obstructing peace.

Obama AIPAC 311  (photo credit: Screenshot)
Obama AIPAC 311
(photo credit: Screenshot)
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder of the dovish Israel lobby J Street, is on a pretentious mission to fight “for the survival of the Jewish Nation.” Placing himself as a prophet of doom, he joins the long dialectic of Jewish woe-mongers stretching back to Jeremiah. In A New Voice for Israel, he argues that “if things don’t change pretty soon, chances are that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will slip through our fingers... [Furthermore,] a progressive, terminal illness” is threatening Israel, and “it is now time for friends of Israel to perform the ultimate act of Zionism – to tell Israel the truth.”
He begins his quest to tell us the truth by regaling the reader with the story of his patriotic Zionist ancestors. This is typical of those who critique Israel, even those who hate it; they want to burnish their Jewish credentials and connections to either the Holocaust or the founding of the State of Israel, in order to then bash the country.
Ben-Ami’s grandparents immigrated to Israel from the Russian Empire between 1882 and 1891. They played a limited role in the early settlements at Petah Tikva and Tel Aviv. The author’s father was a member of the Irgun and an activist for the Bergson group, which agitated in the US to save Europe’s Jews.
Ben-Ami believes he is following in his father’s tradition; in both their cases, he says, “efforts designed to sound the alarm over imminent catastrophe for the Jewish people have been met with stiff opposition from the ‘establishment’ leaders of the American Jewish community.”
The author, born in 1962 in New York, describes growing up in the US in the 1970s and being surrounded by stories about Israel. Yet, to his annoyance, “I discovered that there is more than one narrative when it comes to the history of Israel and Palestine... yes, the Palestinians are a people.”
Ben-Ami became a professional Democratic political activist, working for Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Howard Dean. In 1997 he made his first extensive trip to Israel, where he learned Hebrew, met Palestinians, was near a suicide bombing and decided he would “dedicate myself to ending [the conflict].” At this time he was already ensconced in the world of the Israeli far-Left and its NGOs, consulting for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund.
A New Voice for Israel argues that the American Jewish community’s political advocacy has long been dominated by a small group of loud voices, perhaps “the loudest 8 percent” who do not represent the mainstream liberal and progressive Jewish community. The author notes that American politicians “don’t stand in front of Jewish audiences talking primarily about the economy”; instead, they express support for Israel and fear that not doing so will gain them the ire of AIPAC and other pro-Israel Jewish organizations.
“It is easier to have one all-powerful bogeyman than to actually explain the complex political structures and processes surrounding the issue,” he writes. Politicians are afraid of these right-wing Jews who supposedly dominate the discourse because “Jewish Americans do provide a disproportionately large percentage of funding for American political candidates.”
What Ben-Ami correctly points out is that this money isn’t necessarily tied to whether the candidates are hawkish on Israel. He also notes that many young Jews are becoming alienated from the Jewish establishment. The author’s solution was to create J Street, a dovish, Israel-critical lobbying group that would encourage the US to be more active in ending the conflict and provide liberal and moderate Jews with a voice.
“We sought to fill this gap by providing a political voice for friends of Israel who care deeply about its long-term survival and security and who are willing, when appropriate, to break with Israeli government policy,” he writes.
This all sounds nice. But in the last third of his manifesto, Ben-Ami reveals the reality of what being “pro-Israel” means to him. First he claims to be a victim of “vilification,” “name-calling” and “McCarthyism.”
He asserts that politicians speak in hushed tones about Israel because they fear being painted as anti-Israel, and even “tenured professors are afraid to express their critical-of-Israel views in public.” He sets up this straw man in order to pretend he is a lone voice willing to speak out.
But reality does not bear this out. Entire faculties at American universities have voted to boycott Israel, numerous student groups hold Israel Apartheid Weeks, and if politicians don’t express anti-Israel opinions, it is only because they are used to sucking up to every group in America, right-wing Jews included. The success of J Street belies these claims as well; it has more than 170,000 supporters, including 600 rabbis, and a budget of nearly $7 million.
Ben-Ami wants to encourage young American Jews to express their “concern and anger,” their “criticism and dissent,” and “engage with the complexity of the conflict.” The problem with this recipe is that we have already seen its fruit at the New Israel Fund and all the Israel-critical faculties. Their supposed “support through criticism” doesn’t make anyone pro-Israel, it just churns out anti-Israel voices that only offer words of dissent. When trips to Israel only involve taking young Jews to see the conflict and Palestinians, those students don’t come home pro-Israel, they come home seeing it as a failure to be protested and hated.
J Street’s manifesto seems to suffer from the same problem. Not only that, but it seeks to impose American Jewish values on the Israeli public – and the former do not necessarily mesh with the needs of Israel’s Jews.