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J Street: "We Have the Ear of the White House"

Courtesy of PBS

The lobbying group J Street was founded in April 2008 to push for an administration that would more forthrightly pressure Israel to cease its continued occupation and settlement of the West Bank. The group sought to provide a home to Americans, and particularly American Jews, who felt that the more established Jewish groups (for example, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Anti-Defamation League) did not speak for them. At the same time, J Street was designed to be politically savvy: Its founder and executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, is a longtime Democratic communications strategist; the group took care to declare itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” the two positions coequal in importance.

When I spoke recently to Ben-Ami, it was unclear whether Secretary of State John Kerry—who had spent a good part of July trying to jump-start the first formal Israeli-Palestinian talks since the Arab Spring—had succeeded. Not until this past Sunday did the State Department announce that Israeli and Palestinian Authority negotiating teams will meet Monday night. For a peace process-nik like Ben-Ami, these are trying and—perhaps—promising times.

Marc Tracy: Your recent New York Times op-ed basically argued that it was distressing to you to see people who support a two-state solution to express pessimism or cynicism about John Kerry’s efforts to wrangle peace talks. I read this almost like a Pascal’s wager: The peace process may work, the peace process may not work, but it will be better if it works, so I’m going to believe in it.

Jeremy Ben-Ami: My argument is that the way in which people talk about the chances of it working creates an atmosphere around the talks which actually impacts the outcome. By constantly harping on all the reasons why it won’t work, you make the talks even less likely to succeed.

MT: Who are people who are not obvious opponents of the peace process whom you’d nonetheless characterize as cynical?

JB: The thing that really set me off was The New York Times piece. I think it was [Mark] Landler and [Jodi] Rudoren. Jodi is a good friend of mine, and I told her it pissed me off. It was really sort of making fun of the Secretary of State for devoting this much energy and saying that there is this sense out there that he is on a fool’s errand. It is sort of the conventional wisdom among the cognoscenti; it’s the cooler position to hold.

MT: Why is the peace process the most urgent issue in terms of Israel’s self-interest? Why not Iran, or Syria, the ultra-Orthodox, or inequality?

JB: Taking the position that this is an existential question for Israel doesn’t rule out that there is a whole range of other problems. The essence of Zionism is, in fact, having a state. And at the moment, Israel doesn’t have borders, and it isn’t clear what the world recognizes as that state. And if Israel wants to keep all of this land that it has, then it has to give rights to all of the people who live there. Otherwise it’s going to be an international pariah.

MT: Is it worth releasing prisoners for the sake of peace talks, as the Palestinians are insisting? Including prisoners who probably deserve to be in prison?

JB: Absolutely. These prisoners are the hardest of the hardcore. But [they are] also at the center of the sense of Palestinian dignity and respect. It is not only addressing a fundamental Palestinian issue, it is also a political issue for Abu Mazen and the Fatah party—the people you want to make a deal with.

MT: But every J Street statement I see contains the caveat that Israel’s security is very important to J Street. How does that jive with releasing prisoners?

JB: Well, if the Prime Minister of the state of Israel, whose name is Benjamin Netanyahu, is going to release these 82 people*, I am not going to say, “I know better than him.”

*EDITOR'S NOTE: This past Sunday night, Netanyahu announced he would release 104 prisoners, a controversial move that apparently lifted the last obstacle to talks for now.

MT: J Street was founded a little more than five years ago. Where do you think the zeitgeist on Israel is, especially in the American Jewish community? Has it changed in the past five years?

JB: Generationally, the conversation is different—I think a lot of the grandparent-age people now will, in a very self-aware way, say, “I realize that I think about this differently than the way my kids or my grandkids do.”

MT: But which is your constituency, the grandparents or the grandchildren?

JB: Both.

MT: But J Street is a group. J Street is not supposed to advocate for everyone. Do you worry that in actively calibrating so that you have a big tent, you miss some of the passion that’s animating young American Jews? Are you worried that they are going to go to Americans for Peace Now or some group that has a smaller tent than J Street but is perhaps more suited to channeling that passion?

JB: I always refer to us as the “passion moderates.” We are not standing on street corners, shouting into our megaphones, and expressing our anger at Israel. If you require that, J Street is not the place for you. We are advocating for a balance between the security needs of Israel and the human rights of the Palestinians. It is by definition a moderate, centrist place.

MT: But nuance and moderation—those are not the sorts of things that are typically as effective at channeling passion. Is that a concern for you?

JB: I’m sure we could raise more money or have more people if we were more extreme, but that’s not the goal. We want members of Congress to know that a sizeable part of their constituency hold what we call “pro-Israel, pro-peace” positions, and that’s where they should aim to be.

MT: Peter Beinart will be featured prominently this year at the J Street Conference. He advocates, among other things, what he calls “Zionist B.D.S.” It’s basically a boycott, as I understand it, of settlements. That’s not your position. Is that right?

JB: It would be a very boring conference, it would be a very boring life, if the only people you ever invited to engage with you were the people you agree with.

MT: That’s fair, but Beinart offers a position that is not extreme and is slightly more passionate. Do you worry that young, liberal American Jews might say, “Well, J Street, those are my grandparents, so I’m going to go to the Beinart school, I’m going to be in favor of a partial boycott. I am going to make sure that if the Park Slope Coop is offering products from the settlements, I’m not going to buy them”?

JB: I think probably a lot of people in J Street don’t buy settlement products. I would hope that the politically strategic young people still find [our organization] to be the more effective way to have joint, communal political action. We have the ear of the White House; we have the ear of a very large segment of Congress at this point; we have very good relations with top communal leadership in the Jewish community. If you want to have a voice in those corridors of power, then get involved with J Street.

MT: Do you buy settlement goods?

JB: I don’t. I just feel uncomfortable providing personal economic support to the settlements. But that’s just me. It has nothing to do with building an organization and a political and communal voice that stands for a certain set of policies and viewpoints. I’m very comfortable with that distinction.

MT: Can you give me some specific examples of effective political action that J Street has undertaken?

JB: When Chuck Hagel was first talked about [as nominee for Secretary of Defense], and nobody at the White House could defend him [against charges of anti-Semitism and not supporting Israel], we were the first group to circulate point-by-point rebuttals about his record that put it in context. I think that in that one-to-two week period before he was officially nominated, we played a critical role in protecting him and making sure he was still viable as a nominee.

MT: Who were you fighting that battle for? I always saw the Hagel nomination—at least from the administration’s perspective—as not having anything to do with Israel. What made J Street want to so robustly defend Hagel?

JB: Have you seen “House of Cards”? [In one episode] in 1978, an editorial in the main character’s college newspaper—that he didn’t even write—said something about Palestinian rights. And that sinks his nomination for Secretary of State. That’s taking it to the extreme, but it is this notion that there is some politically correct set of positions and views that you absolutely have to take, and if you deviate from them, then somehow you become invalid or not appropriate for a high-level position. It is absolutely ludicrous. And it has a chilling effect on the way in which important issues of Middle East policy are talked about in Washington, D.C. Everybody who talks in a nuanced and thoughtful manner will put things in ways that they regret. [Hagel] is a free thinker. It is almost less important specifically what Hagel said. It’s the notion that somebody shouldn’t be disqualified from being Secretary of Defense because there are a couple of things that weren’t popular with established Jewish leaders.

MT: What was your initial reaction when you watched that “House of Cards” episode?

JB: I took a drink. [laughs] No, my honest truth is that it makes me embarrassed for the American Jewish community. That we are essentially a laughing stock in a plotline. [The show] went right at the Anti-Defamation League. [The ADL] is the bastion of Jewish liberalism. To protect the rights of minorities, to ensure that people aren’t slandered, to make sure they’re given freedom of religion—these are liberal, Jewish positions, and it’s this liberal, Jewish group that always leads the charge to enforce the orthodoxy of what’s politically correct. It makes me embarrassed on behalf of what I believe in, which is that the Jewish people in this country have been a force for good when it comes to fighting for liberal values, in fighting for protection of minorities, for freedom of expression. It’s not right, and it galls me.

MT: As an organization, probably the biggest reason you were in the news—that you probably didn’t want—over the past five years was the thing with George Soros. [J Street suggested Soros had not been a donor, but confidential, IRS documents that leaked showed he had been.] My former colleague Allison Hoffman’s profile in Tablet from a couple years ago quotes someone saying, almost as a joke, “It was an election year, maybe there was some politicization of the IRS.” Well, in fact …

JB: I know, I know, I’ve been thinking about that ever since that happened. Look, I mean, it’s kind of astounding that our tax return somehow got leaked. This is a document that is supposed to be confidential. I have no basis to say that there is somebody who didn’t like J Street within the IRS who deliberately leaked it. Or was it a one in a billion computer glitch? Who knows? But it is interesting to note.

MT: Do you still take money from Soros?

JB: Absolutely. His son is a contributor now, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Marc Tracy is a Staff Writer for The New Republic. Follow @marcatracy.