Jeremy Ben-Ami started J Street in 2008 in the basement of his house with a staff of four and a couple of laptop computers. Today, it has a staff of 45 in eight cities, a $7 million operating budget and some 160,000 supporters (1,000 in Pittsburgh). J Street itself, a self-described pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy group, has become a hotly debated topic in Jewish circles. Drawing support more from progressive Jews, politically conservative Jews have questioned its support for Israel as well as some of its supporters (George Soros in particular). Ben-Ami, president of J Street, spoke in Pittsburgh this week. The Chronicle caught up with him at Rodef Shalom Congregation:
The Chronicle: J Street is on the record as supporting a two-state solution (which could include a withdrawal from the West Bank and sharing Jerusalem), but what does J Street envision the concessions from the Palestinians being?
Ben-Ami: The most important concession is on the right of return. This is probably the toughest part of the equation for the Palestinians. Many of the families still in the refugees camp harbor a hope — and harbor what I would call an illusion — that they will one day return to the homes that their grandparents left 62 or 63 years ago. I think the leadership of the Palestinian people, and certainly the leadership of the broader Arab community, has done the Palestinians an enormous disservice by failing to really own up to the fact that those refugees are not going back to those homes, and that’s going to be a very hard pill for that community to swallow. There hasn’t been adequate preparation done among the people and by the leadership.
I would imagine there is a small amount of pain or compromise or concession that’s going to have be felt around the issue of Jerusalem. I don’t think that it’s quite as much as the Jewish people will feel. I think both sides sort of view it as a city that is extraordinarily important to them and their religion and their heritage. For Jews it is the city; there is no other city that even remotely comes close. In the Muslim world it is no higher than third [in] hierarchy, but the need to acknowledge by each side that there is a religious connection of somebody else to this city is an emotional and a mental concession, so the notion that both sides are going to share it is certainly part of the concession.
The Palestinian leadership makes a point of reminding us — frequently — that they view their concession in 1988 by the Palestine Liberation Organization to agree to a two-state solution based on what they call 22 percent of land of Palestine as having been a concession they already made … that the line will have to be drawn there. There will probably not be adjustments to what the Green Line was. There are built up settlements right along the Green Line. Depending exactly on how you draw the line you can bring 70 to 80 percent of settlers, not of settlements, but settlers, within the State of Israel but there will have to be swaps of some percent of land.
JC: What do you think of the prime minister’s insistence that the P.A. recognize Israel as the Jewish state?
BA: The key thing that one state has to do with another state is recognize its right to exist in its borders. I think that’s where the focus needs to be. Israel will need to recognize a Palestinian state — a state of Palestine. The Palestinians will need to recognize an Israeli state — a state of Israelis. And they’ll have to recognize that they each have the right to peace and security. What Israel does in the borders of Israel, how it defines itself as a Jewish and a democratic state, what rights it chooses to give to non-Jewish citizens is up to Israel. And similarly what Palestinians choose to do within a state of Palestine is up to them. And so I think that it’s a new idea, that it’s a condition of the peace agreement that the Jewish nature of the state be recognized by the Palestinians and if it results in being one more obstacle on the road to peace, I certainly think that its always been good enough for us that they recognize the right of Israel to exist and I think it should remain good enough.
JC: Alan Dershowitz believes J Street would do better and the Jewish people would do better if J Street were operating under the umbrella of AIPAC. What’s wrong with that?
BA: Alan has said this publicly in debates with me …. There are many of our 160,000 members who I’m sure who are members of AIPAC. I’m sure many members of AIPAC that are supporters of APN (Americans for Peace Now) and of J Street, so I think there is overlap in memberships. There’s overlap certainly in our agendas. I think there’s no question the end goal of both organizations is the same: we all want a safe and secure State of Israel that is the Jewish democratic home of the Jewish people. I don’t think there’s any argument about where we all want to head. The question is how do we get there. And I just think there’s a disagreement at times over policy prescriptions … over the way the discussion should be carried out both in national politics and in the Jewish community. I don’t share with Alan this sense that somehow there’s harm in having this debate and I think it’s actually a good thing for the Jewish community that there be more than one home where people can choose how to express themselves when it comes to Israel. It actually increases the number of people who are engaged on Israel, who feel a connection to Israel. If somebody who feels uncomfortable with Americans for Peace Now they can always go to ZOA. If somebody feels uncomfortable with J Street they can be in AIPAC, but it would be a shame if they didn’t have any place to go.
JC: Do you see J Street as a competitor to AIPAC or ZOA?
BA: Well, I don’t see us as a competitor because we’re really new; we’re still much smaller. What I think we are is at times providing an alternative perspective to some right of center groups… I think AIPAC has done a very good job of being a consensus-based group that tries to follow the policies of the government in Israel. We are an advocacy group that at times is going to be critical of the government of Israel, and I think that’s a very big distinction. That’s not necessarily a competitor. That’s just the way we’ve defined it — to be pro-Israel doesn’t mean you can’t be critical of the government of Israel.
JC: Last month, a Boston area synagogue, under pressure from some of its members, canceled an appearance by you. How would you characterize the state of dialogue between J Street and mainstream conservative Zionists?
BA: Well, I don’t think it’s great. And I think it’s a shame. I think the Jewish community would be a lot better served if the disagreements that we do have on policy, on prescriptions for the future, could be discussed openly and civilly and with a focus on substance, and I don’t think that’s the case. I think too often people … try to shut out those they don’t like; this happens on both sides. What we should be doing is having forums in JCCs and JCRCs where a diversity of views that reflects the range of opinion in the Jewish community is heard out thoughtfully and in a civil manner and the fact we can’t do that is a real shame.
JC: Do you consider yourself a Zionist?
BA: Absolutely. You know, the whole reason that J Street exists is because there’s a fear on the part of a lot of us that this whole Zionist enterprise is at risk, that in 20 or 30 years, if we don’t somehow come to a resolution of this conflict with the Palestinian people, there isn’t a formula that lets you have a Jewish and democratic state. The secretary of state (Hillary Clinton) lays this out very well. The demographics, the ideology and the technology are all working against Israel and really the only solution that allows you to have a safe secure Israel is to have a safe and secure Palestine living alongside in peace and security. So we’ve got to figure out how to make that happen. Otherwise we’re going to lose the whole enterprise.
JC: Looking back on it, how would you have handled the revelation that [George Soros] is a financial supporter of J Street differently?
BA: It’s obviously not a situation that you count on, that your tax return is going to get leaked; 501-C4 organizations, lobbies like J Street, are entitled to the confidentiality of their donors and funders. Groups like AIPAC and other lobbies don’t reveal who their funders are, and J Street doesn’t and didn’t either, so looking back I would still stick by that because this is a legal matter. Donors are entitled to their confidentiality.
JC: Soros is a lightning rod in the community. Many people think he is anti-Israel. Do you think his support of J Street helps or hinders your cause?
BA: I think it definitely helps; that’s one reason we went to him in the first place. His willingness to support something like this indicates to other funders that it’s serious, it’s meaningful, it’s thought through, so his support is a huge validation among progressive Jewish funders, and so we absolutely sought his support, we’re proud to have his support, think of it as an asset, and I would urge those who are critical of George Soros to really read in more depth his writings… they’re nuanced, they’re thoughtful, they’re critical, but they’re certainly not anti-Israel.
JC: Are they pro-Israel?
BA: In the sense that you can be pro-Israel and criticize the government, yes. He is not a Zionist … but he unquestionably supports the right of Israel to exist and supports the right of Israel to defend itself, and I think those two are the critical criteria, but he himself says he’s not a Zionist and I don’t have a problem with that.
JC: Does J Street you have the ear of Israeli officials whether they listen to you or not?
BA: Now, yes, and I’m really happy with the way in which the relationship has evolved. We’re not going to see eye to eye. The policies of this prime minister are, in our view, not 100 percent moving Israel in the right direction, so just as with the opposition parties in Israel we’re going to criticize the prime minister… but the key is having the conversation. Initially, they decided they weren’t going to have any conversation [with J Street], now they’ve decided to have a conversation, so that’s really a positive development. The recognition that there is a big tent and there are going to be disagreements in that tent is, to my mind, extremely positive.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com. View the video of Ben-Ami.)