J Street's Jeremy Ben-Ami: No Zionist Hero

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.