Let’s acknowledge that in the political debates among American Jews about Israel’s policies, J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami brings lots of yiches to the table (that’s a Yiddish word meaning enhancing one’s credibility through family connections). In fact, Ben-Ami is not above reminding people of his Zionist bloodlines in order to advance his organization’s agenda of pressuring Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian lands.
Last week he sent a mass e-mail to his supporters announcing that he would be testifying in front of a Knesset committee and explaining why J Street “deserves to carry the tagline ‘pro-Israel.’” He said he would tell the Israeli parliamentarians that he “started J Street because of my family’s deep four-generation connection to Israel and because of the importance I place on there being a secure national home for the Jewish people that promotes the Jewish and democratic values on which I was raised.”
Ben-Ami’s paternal grandparents were, indeed, Zionist heroes. At great personal risk they moved from Czarist Russia to the Land of Israel as part of the First Aliyah (wave of immigration) of the late nineteenth century. They were among 66 Palestinian Jewish families who defied the warnings of their own community’s leaders and purchased a large plot of land from Arab effendis in 1909 on the sand dunes north of Jaffa. The families then conducted a lottery on the beach to distribute the plots on which they would build their individual homes — thus laying the foundation for Tel Aviv, the “first Hebrew city.” Two years ago Tel Aviv’s municipality celebrated the centennial of the city’s founding. Ben-Ami and his children took part in a ceremony reenacting the 1909 lottery on the beach along with other descendants of the original Jewish families.
Writing about the event in the New York Times, Ben-Ami hailed his grandparents’ generation of Zionist settlers who created Tel Aviv as a center of Jewish learning, culture, and commerce. But he then contrasted that noble achievement with the allegedly atavistic attitudes toward the Palestinian Arabs of the “Netanyahu/Lieberman government.” Further, Ben-Ami bemoaned the fact that “in America, reflexive support for Israel’s every move — no matter how morally questionable or strategically counterproductive — continues to guide the established institutions and voices of the American Jewish community. Critics of Israeli policy are too often labeled enemies of the Jewish people, rather than engaged in open and intelligent debate over what is best for Israel and for U.S. interests in the region.”
Jeremy’s father, Yitzhak Ben-Ami, was also a Zionist hero and a rebel. Growing up in Tel Aviv in the 1920s and 30s, the elder Ben-Ami dissented from the official Jewish leadership’s political line and joined Irgun Zvai Leumi, the underground military organization that frequently retaliated forcefully against Arab attacks and eventually launched an armed revolt against the British mandatory authority. Ben-Ami spent most of the war years in the United States as one of the leaders of an Irgun delegation trying to build international support for transforming Palestine into a Jewish state.
When news of the Nazi extermination plan for Europe’s Jews was confirmed by the U.S. State Department in November 1942, Ben-Ami and his colleagues suspended their Zionist activities and threw all their energies into publicizing the plight of the remaining European Jews under threat of annihilation. Known also as the “Bergson group” (after their leader Peter Bergson) they established the Emergency Committee to Save the Jewish People of Europe and launched a public lobbying effort to pressure the Roosevelt administration into trying — by any diplomatic or military means available — to rescue the remnant of European Jewry.
The Committee attracted support from Jews and non-Jews alike and from across the political spectrum (including celebrities such as writers Ben Hecht, Max Lerner, and I.F. Stone, Democratic Congressman Will Rogers Jr., and the prominent Republican Senator Guy Gillette). Aside from the Roosevelt administration’s calculated indifference, the biggest obstacle the Emergency Committee faced in trying to make rescuing European Jews part of America’s war aims was the hostility and obstructionism of large parts of the Jewish establishment.
No single figure did more to undermine the Committee’s work than Rabbi Stephen Wise of Temple Emmanuel, undisputed boss of several national Jewish organizations and often referred to as “King of the Jews.” On the day that Ben-Ami and his colleagues were leading 100 orthodox rabbis in a demonstration in front of the White House to protest the Roosevelt administration’s inaction on rescue, Wise was advising administration officials that the Bergson group “did not represent Jewish thinking in America.” Wise viewed the young Palestinians and their American supporters as interlopers and even tried to get Ben-Ami and his colleagues deported. Accused by Wise of being a draft dodger, Ben-Ami then enlisted in the American Army.
The main political motivation for Rabbi Wise was to protect his friend and hero Roosevelt from undue pressure by American Jews while the president was preoccupied with fighting the war against the Nazis. Despite the roadblocks thrown up by Wise, the Bergson group did manage one life-saving achievement. The group’s lobbying campaign in the U.S. Congress for a rescue resolution finally embarrassed the Roosevelt administration and forced it to create a new wartime agency called the War Refugee Board. Though it was far too late, the rescue agency was able to save more than 100,000 Hungarian Jews from deportation to Auschwitz in the final days of the war.
After the war Ben-Ami again took up arms for the Irgun and played an important role in the struggle to create the state of Israel. He then returned to the United States and launched a successful business career. Jeremy Ben-Ami grew up in the liberal Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, attended Princeton University and NYU law school, and then served in the Clinton administration. In 2008 he created J Street in order to provide a “pro- Israel, pro-peace” alternative to AIPAC, the official Israel lobby in the U.S.
Ben-Ami and his fellow J-Streeters have not only accused AIPAC and the Jewish establishment of the sin of slavish support of misguided Israeli government policies, but also of stifling dissent within the community, particularly dissent by younger, liberal and left-wing Jews challenging Israel’s “repressive” policies towards the Palestinians.
Notwithstanding the fact that the elder Ben-Ami was a life-long militant hawk on policies towards the Palestinian Arabs and his son grew up to become a liberal dove, Jeremy seems to believe that in some respects he is following in his father’s footsteps, that he too is a righteous dissident challenging the rigid and unthinking Jewish establishment.
But it takes a huge historical leap and considerable conceit to suggest that there is any valid comparison between J Street’s political movement of today and Jeremy’s father’s struggles in the 1940s to alert Americans to the ongoing destruction of European Jewry. For daring to advance their own ideas about the best way to rescue the endangered Jews of Europe, Yitzhak Ben-Ami and his Irgun colleagues were subjected to calumny and dirty tricks directed against them from mainstream Jewish leaders like Rabbi Wise. These leaders betrayed their moral obligation to forcefully advocate the rescue of Jews in Nazi occupied Europe because of their lack of political imagination and a cowardly unwillingness to challenge a popular American president.
The situation today is almost reversed. Whatever else one might say about AIPAC and the current “establishment,” American Jewish leaders have apparently learned the dreadful lessons of the 1940s. On the other hand it is the J Street “dissidents” who seem indifferent to the fact that Israel’s five million Jews are threatened with either physical destruction or politicide by a new international coalition of Jew haters. In that circumstance it is perfectly reasonable for American Jews to express their solidarity with whatever government Israelis have chosen (at the ballot box) to lead them in the current emergency.
Freely choosing to express solidarity with Israel hardly turns American Jews into unthinking dupes of the “establishment.” On the other hand, it is hard to see what exactly is so “pro-Israel” about an organization like J Street that frequently gives aid and comfort to those who would put the elected Israeli government in the dock, while also turning a blind eye to Palestinian rejectionism.
Even more galling is the fact that J Street’s damage is accompanied by a phony siren song of victimhood. At the organization’s recent conference in Washington, D.C., speaker after speaker celebrated the fact that “pro-peace” J Street was finally giving the powerful “Jewish establishment” (presumably not in favor of peace) a run for its money. Conference speakers boasted of “conquering the campuses” (with chapters at over 40 colleges), of garnering 180,000 supporters, of the hundreds of honorable rabbis and the 30 progressive Jewish organizations who have now enlisted in the cause. “Our voices are being heard,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami.
Yet almost in the same breath, Ben-Ami conjured up an imminent suppression of those voices by that same old, all powerful Jewish establishment. J Street’s right-wing enemies are trying to shut us up, he said, to deny our right to free speech, and thus end any possibility of open debate in the Jewish community about the serious problems facing Israel. The hatred and threats directed against “our movement” are so severe, said several other J Street speakers, that it takes extraordinary personal courage to espouse the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” perspective and to fight for the only rational solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict — an independent Palestinian state next to a Jewish state.
It’s bad enough that attending J Street’s conference meant listening to speakers like Peter Beinart laying all the blame for the lack of Middle East peace on the Israeli government and its AIPAC enablers. Far worse on the scale of idiocy was to hear Jeremy Ben-Ami introducing Beinart as a J Street “hero” and a public intellectual of great personal courage. Ben-Ami’s father exhibited true courage when he stood up to Rabbi Wise in the 1940s and championed the lost cause of the European Jews. On the other hand, it is truly an Orwellian moment when Ben Ami anoints Peter Beinart as courageous for writing an article for the New York Review of Books (which Beinart followed up on by bagging a six figure book advance and lucrative Passover speaking engagements at Jewish resorts). It became all the more grotesque when Beinart, in his J Street speech, cited Rabbi Wise as his own liberal Zionist hero.