The Man on J Street: The Story of Jeremy Ben-Ami
He’s Been Called a Judas, But Unruffled, Continues Lobbying U.S. Policymakers to Push Israel Toward Peace
Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, the new “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby, is eating his lunch—green salad with flatbread and bottled iced tea. He orders the same thing every day from the Cosi downstairs. He may be on K Street, proverbial home base for tasseled-loafer lobbyists in the nation’s capital, but Ben-Ami’s plain fare matches the spare modernist quarters. Sublet from a software firm, its blue and orange offices furnished with little more than laptops and filing cabinets give J Street the feel of a start-up.
Which it is. The two-year-old lobbying organization, complete with an online and grassroots network and a political action committee, is making headlines by aggressively campaigning for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—even when that means brazenly criticizing Israel on matters like West Bank settlements and military action in Gaza. Despite J Street’s relatively small size, it has roiled the waters of American Israel advocacy, perhaps causing ripples for even the AIPAC super-tanker. And while this has endeared Ben-Ami to many left and centrist Jews who have looked askance at the Israel advocacy business, it has also rendered him a seemingly dangerous unknown in some powerful circles.
The media is abuzz about J Street and its potential impact, but anyone expecting to meet the wild-eyed fanatic behind this taboo-busting organization may be surprised by Ben-Ami himself. This wonkish, salad-eating 46-year-old in a tweedy jacket, with his wire-rimmed glasses and neatly combed ginger hair, has all the radical aura of an Episcopal church deacon.
Ben-Ami speaks precisely, in fully formed sentences, his slightly nasal voice barely rising as he recalls an event that hastened his transformation from domestic-policy technocrat to megaphone for U.S. policy in the Middle East. In 2003, when he was national policy director for the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the candidate suggested in a speech that America should be “evenhanded” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “The next thing you knew, he was subjected to a letter from a hundred congresspeople telling him he was not pro-Israel,” Ben-Ami says. “He [Dean] was forced to sit down with all sorts of American Jewish leaders. I called them ‘come to Jesus meetings.’”
It fell to Ben-Ami and other aides to give the candidate an emergency crash course in what Ben-Ami calls “the chapter in the rule book of American politics on ‘How to Deal With the Jewish Community.’ There are certain words and phrases you can and can’t say, a certain language you need to memorize,” he elaborates. “One of the goals of J Street is to rewrite this chapter in the rule book, because it’s not serving the best interests of Israel, the U.S. or the American Jewish community.”
What is in the best interests of Israel is at the heart of the debate. Ben-Ami thinks Israel’s future is best ensured by the creation of two states along the lines of Israel’s pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem as shared capital. Although Israel’s most hawkish defenders disagree, a broad range of mainstream pro-Israel groups support a two-state solution—as does Israel’s Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Still, like Israelis, American Jews diverge wildly on how that goal should be reached, under what kind of pressure from the United States and with what degree of urgency.
Ben-Ami is in the “urgent” camp, impatient with those who claim that the time isn’t right for peace. They see a peace deal, he says, as “a distant aspiration. Mostly it’s phrased, ‘if the other side were ever to be willing to make peace, then we’d be for it.’” But, to Ben-Ami, surveying the failure of peace talks since Oslo and the Arabs’ demographic ascendance in Israel, time is running out. “The failure to reach a two-state solution in the coming few years is an existential threat to the state of Israel as a Jewish democracy,” he says. “If we fail to solve this now, then, 20 years from now, I don’t think my kids will have a state of their people that they will be able to visit.”