Street battles for Jewish hearts and
minds A New Voice for
Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish
Nation by Jeremy Ben-Ami
Reviewed by Mitchell Plitnick
WASHINGTON - The "pro-Israel, pro-peace"
lobby group J Street has drawn a lot of attention
in its short lifetime. Despite decidedly moderate
politics, its leader, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has
repeatedly been the center of controversy, and the
group's very existence has stirred debate in the
United States Jewish community about the
boundaries of acceptable discourse on the
A New Voice for Israel, is both a memoir
and a manifesto laying out J Street's political
program. His personal tale is gripping and
revelatory. But the book leaves one wondering
whether he can put together a
strategy to impact US policy in the Middle East.
Many readers will be surprised
as Ben-Ami devotes the first part
of the book to drawing a
parallel between his activities with J Street and
his father's work in the Irgun. The Irgun was the
armed wing of Revisionist Zionism, regarded by the
British as Jewish terrorists.
was the precursor to today's Likud, the right-wing
party of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Ben-Ami uses this provocative
analogy for two purposes.
The first is to
remove any doubt about commitment to Israel, as
his family stretches back to the first wave of
Zionist immigration to Palestine.
second is to compare J Street's efforts to sound
the alarm about the threat to Israel and the
Jewish Diaspora from the ongoing occupation of
Palestinian lands to the Revisionists' vain effort
to rouse the US and Palestinian Jewish communities
to do more to rescue the Jews of Europe in the
face of escalating Nazi atrocities more than 70
"Voices of dissent bring views
and ideas that are at times uncomfortable to
consider," Ben-Ami writes. "But they may also have
a critical message to convey - a message that can
save lives and change history. If the experience
of the Bergson Group [the American delegation of
the Revisionists] teaches us anything, it is that
the appropriate way to deal with those new voices
is not to reflexively shut them down but to engage
them on the merits and see what value there may be
in what they are trying to say."
father was ignored and blackballed by the Jewish
establishment in Palestine and the United States,
just as Ben-Ami now faces ostracism and attacks
from major Jewish institutions for his efforts to
rally the Jewish community behind a viable
two-state solution that would provide Palestinians
their right to self-determination.
an impressive organization behind him. It has
expanded its staff quickly and spawned a political
action committee (PAC) that distributed US$1.5
million to congressional candidates in 2010, more
than any other single pro-Israel PAC ever,
according to its website.
has remained remarkably impervious to Ben-Ami's
arguments. And, if the US discourse on Israel has
opened up to some extent, it seems this is due at
least as much to Israel's sharp turn to the right
and policy excesses in recent years than to J
Ben-Ami lists the
lobbying forces arrayed against him - Jewish
groups led by the American-Israel Public Affairs
Committee; neo-conservative think-tanks; Christian
Zionist groups; dozens of hawkish PACs and
individual contributors - that promote an "Israel
right-or-wrong" policy. At the same time, he
rejects the notion "that the organized Israel
Lobby exercises control over American foreign
policy. I think it is one influence, not the only
or even necessarily the most important force".
And while he stresses that the Israel
Lobby does not represent the views of most US
Jews, he concedes that what he calls "the loudest
eight percent" has been able to "write the
rulebook" for acceptable political discourse about
It's hard to reconcile that with
his contention that the Lobby does not have
decisive influence in Washington on issues of
direct concern to Israel.
More to the
point, this apparent contradiction leads to the
main question that Ben-Ami's book raises, and
which he leaves largely unanswered: how is J
Street going to change US policy regarding the
illustrates this very question when he describes
President Barack Obama's failure to get Israel to
agree to freeze settlement construction. He says
"No one in the Obama administration seemed to have
thought about what would happen if and when.
Israel said no."
Yet Ben-Ami does not
answer that question. Instead, he says the US
should "publicly put the widely accepted
parameters of a peace agreement on the table and
ask the parties to respond". But those parameters
are on the table - in agreements like the Oslo
Accords, the Arab Peace Initiative, and the
Clinton Parameters. So what is J Street's plan to
stop Israel from saying no this time?
issue was crystallized by Ami Eden,
editor-in-chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
"During the past year," he wrote recently, "one
could make the argument that the upstart Jewish
Voice for Peace (JVP) has emerged as the main
challenger for the hearts and minds of Jews on the
left who feel alienated from Israel and the Jewish
Jewish Voice for Peace
(JVP), which is often depicted as "too radical" to
be allowed inside the mainstream policy discussion
on Israel-Palestine, is a grassroots organization
that calls for divesting from corporations that
are complicit in Israel's occupation and
suspending the $3 billion Israel gets in annual US
military aid until Israel withdraws from the
direct-action tactics and stakes out a
human-rights stance that places Israelis and
Palestinians on equal footing. JVP's approach
appears to hold great appeal to the same younger
generation of US Jews that J Street has targeted.
J Street has so far opposed the pressure
tactics favored by JVP. But Ben-Ami's alternative
of "opening up the debate" here in the United
States, hoping that will change Israel's policies
looks increasingly dubious, particularly when
President Barack Obama, in whom J Street had
placed great hope, has shown little appetite for
taking on the Lobby, despite his clear dislike for
How will J Street muster a
force that can counter The Lobby? Though broad,
its base has been relatively apathetic about
Israel. Alarm over Israel's future as a "Jewish
and democratic state" and the growing alienation
of young Jews from the organized Jewish community
are not sufficient motivators for that base,
particularly at a time of economic turbulence and
growing inequality at home. The "Israel Lobby's"
backers, on the other hand, are much more narrowly
Meanwhile, a growing number of
mainstream peace groups, such as Americans for
Peace Now, have endorsed boycotts of settlements,
which is very close to JVP's position, and are
coming to believe that Israel under Netanyahu's
coalition has gone so far astray that only
tangible pressure can change its course.
Street is precisely the organization that many
people have been hoping would arise for years: a
mainstream, Jewish group seeking to make a serious
political push inside the Beltway for a real
resolution to this conflict.
But has it
come too late? "Given the urgency of the
situation, we need to [organize political backing
for peace] swiftly and convincingly," Ben-Ami
writes. But if he opposes tangible pressure on
Israel, it's hard to see how he can do that.
A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for
the Survival of the Jewish Nation by Jeremy
Ben-Ami. Palgrave Macmillan (July 19, 2011).
ISBN-10: 0230112749. Price US$26, 256 pages.