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

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.