Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of a new Jewish lobby known as J Street, loves Israel. But Israel, he has been instructed, must be loved in a certain way. He is among a generation of American Jews who are beginning to wonder where that “certain way” is leading.
Israel today, according to many of its friends as well as its critics in the American and Israeli press, is at a critical stage in its history. Does the word democracy really apply to a political system that maintains two tiers of citizenship, one for Jewish citizens and one for “Israeli Arabs”? Or does the word apartheid, once applied exclusively to the legal separation of whites and blacks in South Africa, more accurately describe the relationship of Jews and Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, where 500,000 Jewish settlers have illegally established themselves? In November 2011 Gideon Levy, an Israeli journalist, wrote a column warning that if some proposed laws were passed in Israel, the democracy would become unrecognizable. He said there would be separate buses and streets for men and women; cities would shut down for the Sabbath; Arabs would not be able to run for Parliament or have the right of a university education but would be subject to capital punishment. Also, said Levy, the West Bank would be annexed, and the piece he was writing would never see print.
The New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes that Israel is endangered by its own leaders: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is isolating his country, and to be blunt, his hard line on settlements seems like a national suicide policy” (10/6/11). Ruth Dayan, the 95-year-old widow of one of Israel’s founding fathers, told Newsweek she longs for the old Israel, where she could travel alone in Gaza the day after the 1956 war. Today there are “roadblocks everywhere. And that horrible wall! It’s not right.” She thinks, “Zionism has run its course.”
It is sadly ironic that a few years ago the word wall meant the remaining wall of the ancient temple in Jerusalem, the Western or Wailing Wall, where visitors from around the world offered prayers. Today the word just as often denotes the huge security barrier walling off Israel from its neighbors in the occupied West Bank and, perhaps in a way, the rest of the world.
Mr. Ben-Ami, J Street’s president and the author of A New Voice for Israel, Fighting for Survival of the Jewish Nation (Palgrave), is a cheerful fellow in a royal blue shirt with 25 years experience as a political operative. He is well connected in Washington but remains on the fringe of the Middle East lobbying world, where until recently the tactics of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (Aipac) dominated the dialogue. Both his grandfather and father were Zionist militants who took up arms to establish a Jewish homeland. After college Mr. Ben-Ami spent three years in Israel as a businessman, mainly because he loved the place and wanted to be part of its development. He also participated in Peace Now, the mainstream Israeli movement for reconciliation with its Arab neighbors.
The Hoodwinked Congress?
Returning to New York in 2000, Mr. Ben-Ami worked first in the mayoral campaign of Mark Green and then for the presidential run of Howard Dean. Each of his clients had made what Aipac would consider a “terrible mistake”: Mr. Green made a donation to Peace Now and Mr. Dean called for an “even-handed” approach to the Middle East. Both politicians were pilloried as “anti-Israel.” Shaken, Mr. Ben-Ami and a few friends founded J Street as a Jewish lobby that would be unafraid to talk straight when Israel was hurting itself.
In early December last year, Republican candidates hustled to surpass one another as friends of Israel in presentations to the Republican Jewish Coalition. Newt Gingrich compared the U.S. “struggle with radical Islam” to the U.S. confrontation with Russia after World War II. Mitt Romney accused the Obama administration of “appeasement” in its Middle East policy and promised that once elected, his first trip would be to visit Israel. It was a scene Mr. Ben-Ami deplored.
In his book and during our discussion in the sleek, modern J Street offices in Washington, Mr. Ben-Ami spelled out the standard scenario for an imagined candidate for Congress. Representatives of the Jewish community set up a meeting and ask the candidate if he or she “supports Israel.” Following a yes, the candidate receives a position paper with talking points that provide answers to questions about the Middle East that the candidate is to give for the rest of his or her career. The candidate’s yes means the candidate is to make no criticism and no objection to settlements. The candidate’s newfound friends will sponsor a fundraiser. If victorious, the new member of Congress will enjoy an Aipac-sponsored trip to Israel, with background briefings and emphasis on the security threats that Israel endures. The new friends also instill a level of fear of what might happen if the new congressional representative sings a different tune after arriving in Washington.
Mr. Ben-Ami says that members of Congress have been to some degree hoodwinked, being led to believe that Israel is the number one issue for all American Jews, when in reality Jewish priorities are about the same as those of other voters. Jews represent only 2 percent of the American population; they are politically active because they believe that “repairing the world” (tikkun olam) is basic to their identity. But only 8 percent of American Jews are hawkish on Middle East policy. J Street polls find that American Jews overwhelmingly favor a two-state solution and believe the settlements are counterproductive to peace. While neoconservative Jewish intellectuals promoted the war in Iraq, 70 percent of all American Jews opposed it. Nevertheless, the average gentile candidate addressing a Jewish audience will start off declaring undying love and loyalty to Israel—as if America’s rising poverty and unemployment and the ongoing war in Afghanistan were afterthoughts to a U.S. Jewish audience.
Direction From J Street
The greatest obstacle to peace between Palestinians and Israelis, according to Mr. Ben-Ami, is the insatiable hunger for land on the part of the settlers’ movement and supporters in the rest of Israeli (and American) society, who imagine some transcendent right to the entire Palestinian territory. How can Israel still imagine itself a democracy if it continues to illegally drive out non-Jews, bulldozing their homes and seizing their fields and water resources? It cannot, Mr. Ben-Ami says. Although he is not ready to describe Israel as an apartheid state, he cannot deny that a worrisome trend is evident.
The kind of peace imagined by J Street could help reverse that trend. Mr. Ben-Ami would begin by talking about a Jewish “homeland” in which Jewish religious law would be the basis of civil law, not a “state” in which the “chosen people” occupy a promised land in fulfillment of God’s Covenant. In this homeland the 20 percent of the Israeli population who are Arab would have full citizenship, including representation in the Knesset.
Mr. Ben-Ami approves of both the border separation wall—he believes it has cut down on terrorism—and the new security fence under construction that will separate Israel from Egypt. But he would move the wall, which now overlaps sometimes deeply into Palestinian property, to correspond to the 1967 Green Line border. Regarding the settlements, Mr. Ben-Ami suggests a “land swap” that would move two-thirds of settlers inside a new Israeli border. The new Palestinian state’s rights to the water sources and the highways threading through the West Bank would have to be guaranteed, too, but he did not say how.
In Mr. Ben-Ami’s vision of a practical peace, Palestine would have a police force but no army and would have no control of its air rights. An international force would administer the border between the two states. In an appearance on “The Colbert Report,” Mr. Ben-Ami opposed the Palestinian Authority’s decision to raise the question of statehood at the United Nations. However valuable U.N. membership may be, he believes that the two-state solution must be settled before anything else. Nor did Mr. Ben-Ami approve a settlement freeze as a condition for negotiations. I reminded him that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strategy seems to be to build so many settlements so fast that the residents of the West Bank will be completely overwhelmed. He agreed, but said that made the two-state solution all the more urgent.
Under a two-state plan, there would be a territorial passageway across Israel linking Palestine and Gaza. While many Palestinian families still retain the keys to the homes they left in 1948, Mr. Ben-Ami argues that the Palestinian leadership should prepare those in exile for the likelihood that they will never get their homes back. Instead, these exiles should be compensated, he thinks, and offered homes in the new Palestinian state or in a third country. Jerusalem would be the shared capital of both Israel and Palestine, Mr. Ben-Ami says, but it does not seem a J Street priority to restore to the Palestinians those neighborhoods usurped through Netanyahu’s inexorable building spree.
Peace, Not Pandering
Does J Street really speak for mainstream Jewry, or is it only a nagging voice on the fringe of Jewish public opinion? Mr. Ben-Ami points out that the movement, started with just himself and two friends three years ago, now claims 180,000 members and maintains a $7 million annual budget. J Street has 50 staff members and 40 local chapters. Membership includes those from the far left to those slightly right of center. The Monday after our interview, all 180,000 members received an e-mail message, one of several sent each week, deploring Mr. Gingrich’s description of Palestinians as an “invented” people, Michele Bachman’s refusal to surrender “one inch” of land for peace and Rick Perry’s implied endorsement of the annexation of “Judea and Samaria.” The message called on readers to sign an open letter to the 2012 candidates saying, “I’ve had enough” political pandering. A follow-up letter asked for donations for a little-known Congressional candidate who backs peace, not pandering.
Even if peace were in sight and a two-state solution were on the brink of ratification, the Palestinian state would face an enormous challenge in economically and politically revitalizing the Gaza Strip: 50 percent of the 1.6 million population are under 18; 38 percent live in poverty; and 26 percent of the workforce are unemployed. Each day 50 to 80 million liters of partially treated sewage are dumped into the Mediterranean Sea; 90 percent of the water from the Gaza aquifer is undrinkable.
Israel will still have to struggle with two big internal problems: the growing power of the ultra-Orthodox population, who would use the Knesset to make Israel a “Jewish State” rather than a “homeland” at the expense of human rights; and the growing economic inequality, one of the highest in the world, which has sent an angry population into the streets demonstrating for economic reform. These are big challenges; but, says Mr. Ben-Ami, “Every challenge is surmountable.”
I asked Mr. Ben-Ami to what extent J Street might draw on American Catholics for support or on his Jewish religion for inspiration. He believed the Catholic Church was committed to justice and that Catholics did not view all issues related to Israel in black and white. He thought Catholics were realistic enough to see compromise as the only way forward. Mr. Ben-Ami describes himself as a Jew who takes his family to the synagogue, but who is not strictly “observant,” for example, of kosher laws. Ultimately his morality is based on the maxim of Rabbi Hillel the Elder (1st century B.C.E.): “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another.” Add to that Leviticus, “Love one’s neighbor as oneself.” From the Jewish history of persecution and its experience, he says, with “the dark side of human nature...should come a heightened awareness of justice when running our own state, and a sense of responsibility for fair treatment of any minorities living in our midst.”
Listen to excerpts from America's interview with Jeremy Ben-Ami.