Getting the Gist of J Street
If you were to ask Jeremy Ben-Ami if he is a Zionist, he would say yes. He would also tell you his great-grandparents moved to Israel from Russia in the late 1800s; his grandparents helped settle the city of Tel Aviv; and his father fought in the Zionist Irgun organization before Israel became a state. “I’m deeply committed to the safety, the sanctity and the security of a Jewish home in the state of Israel,” he said in October 2009.1
But many would differ. Ben-Ami’s newly minted organization, J Street, refuses to defend Israel against malicious criticism, attracts funding from Muslims, and spurs accusations that it is really a pro-Arab lobby masquerading as pro-Israel. Liberals like it, and conservatives warn that Israel might be better off without it.
J Street (the J stands for Jewish) opened in April 2008 in Washington, DC, and from the beginning has raised the eyebrows of conservatives who view it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Its Web site, jstreet.org, calls itself “the new address for Middle East peace and security” and says it wants to “change the dynamics of American politics and policy on Israel and the Middle East.” It also wants a “two-state solution and regional, comprehensive peace” and promotes “meaningful American leadership…to broaden the debate on these issues nationally and in the Jewish community.”2
In other words, it supports strong U.S. intervention to establish an independent Palestinian state next door to Israel. Many say that translates into bullying Israel into accepting conditions that will compromise its security to appease the Palestinians.
In a February 16 article in The Jewish Daily Forward online, Josh Nathan-Kazis quoted Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon on the subject of J Street: “The thing that troubles me is that they don’t present themselves as to what they really are. They should not call themselves pro-Israeli.”3
Other Jewish lobbying groups, such as AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) and The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, are also pro-Israel and pro-peace; but they differ from J Street in that they support Israel’s government on all such issues, while J Street does not.
Ben-Ami, J Street’s founder and director, supports President Barack Obama and his administration’s view of Israel. “Our No. 1 agenda item is to do whatever we can in Congress to act as the president’s blocking back,” said Ben-Ami.4 AIPAC, on the other hand, sees itself as Israel’s blocking back.
J Street Connections
Ben-Ami is no stranger to American politics. He served as former President Bill Clinton’s deputy domestic policy adviser and was policy director for Vermont Democrat Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. His strong liberal connections have led to unusual associations.
For example, in October 2009 J Street’s conference speaker was Salam al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. Hours after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America, al-Marayati told a Los Angeles, California, radio audience, “We should put the State of Israel on the suspect list” of possible perpetrators.5 He defends suicide bombers and has likened Israel’s supporters to Adolf Hitler.
In an open letter, former Israeli diplomat Lenny Ben-David criticized Ben-Ami for being senior vice president of Fenton Communications, which signed contracts in early 2009 with a Qatari foundation that plans to lead an 18-month-long anti-Israel campaign in the United States, with a special focus on college campuses.
An October 2009 World Tribune article titled “AIPAC rival ‘J Street’ tied to Qatar, George Soros” reported, “Ben-David said J Street’s 160-member advisory board included those listed as foreign agents for Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Middle East Newsline reported. His letter also cited J Street’s ties with U.S. billionaire George Soros, said to have long sought to undermine the traditional pro-Israel lobby in Washington.”6
Ten percent ($300,000) of J Street’s funding was revealed to come from sources not friendly to Israel. And J Street has refused to reject the UN’s Goldstone Report that condemned Israel’s three-week military incursion into Gaza last winter to ferret out Hamas terrorists. “By attempting to criminalize Israel’s strategy of crippling Hamas, the [Goldstone] report in effect declared the entire antiterrorism campaign to be a war crime,” wrote John Bolton in The Wall Street Journal.7
Michael Goldfarb, writing for The Weekly Standard, expressed concern about J Street when he said, “The entire pro-Israel community, ranging from Republicans to Democrats, from Middle East hawks to peace-process-ing doves, has been (quite properly) united in condemning the Goldstone Report as fundamentally biased and extraordinarily reckless and irresponsible. Everyone except J Street.”8
Ben-Ami, however, says his organization is in step with American Jewry. American Jews are overwhelmingly liberal. Seventy-eight percent voted for Obama in November 2008.
Yet the majority also tends to support and defend decisions made by the Israeli government. In August 2005, American Jews supported Israel’s disengagement from Gaza as a goodwill gesture toward peace. They also strongly supported the Gaza incursion, Operation Cast Lead, in the winter of 2008–2009. J Street called Operation Cast Lead “counterproductive,” destined only to “deepen the cycle of violence in the region.” It also claimed, “The only way to truly halt rocket fire into southern Israel is a diplomatic solution.”9
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, blasted J Street, charging it with “fooling around with the lives of 7 million people.” Oren said, “It not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments.” 10
J Street also opposes one of Israel’s staunchest supporters, Bible-believing Christians, calling the working relationship between Christian Zionists and Jews an “unholy alliance” that is “out of step with fundamental Jewish American values.”11 Though Christian Zionists strongly differ with their Jewish friends over the Person and work of Jesus as Messiah and Lord, no group has demonstrated more consistent, unconditional support for Israel and the Jewish people’s right to live there in perpetuity. They stand with one clear, loud voice in solidarity with the Jewish state. Unlike J Street, Christian Zionists do not align themselves with Israel’s enemies and claim to be pro-Israel.
- Jeffrey Goldberg, “J Street’s Ben-Ami on Zionism and Military Aid to Israel,” October 23, 2009 <jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/10/j_streets_ben-ami_on_being_a_z.php>.
- “About Us” <jstreet.org>. This statement has now been revised.
- Josh Nathan-Kazis, “Ayalon on J Street: ‘They should not call themselves pro-Israeli,’” The Jewish Daily Forward, February 16, 2010 <blogs.forward.com/bintel-blog/125816/>.
- James Traub, “The New Israel Lobby,” The New York Times, September 9, 2009 <nytimes.com/ 2009/09/13/magazine/13JStreet-t.html>.
- Morton Klein, “Op-Ed: J Street should rescind its invitation to Al-Marayati,” JTA, September 9, 2009 <jta.org/news/article/2009/09/09/1007745/op-ed-j-street-marayati>.
- “AIPAC rival ‘J Street’ tied to Qatar, George Soros,” World Tribune, October 26, 2009 <worldtribune.com/worldtribune/WTARC/2009/me_gulf0835_10_26.asp>.
- John Bolton, “Israel, the U.S. and the Goldstone report,” The Wall Street Journal, October 19, 2009 <online. wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704500604574480932924540724. html>.
- Michael Goldfarb, “J Street: Pro-Goldstone, Anti-Israel,” The Weekly Standard, October 17, 2009 <weeklystandard.com/weblogs/TWSFP/2009/10/j_street_progoldstone_antiisra.asp>.
- John Perazzo, “A Street Named Surrender,” FrontPageMagazine.com, January 12, 2009 <http:// 126.96.36.199/readArticle.aspx?ARTID= 33671>.
- JTA, “Oren blasts J Street,” Jewish Journal, December 10, 2009 <jewishjournal.com/nation/article/israeli_ambassador_to_us_michael_oren_ blasts_j_street_20091210/>.
- Jeremy Ben-Ami, “Statement on Pastor Hagee’s remarks at the CUFI Conference,” J Street, July 22, 2009 <jstreet.org/blog/?p=504>.