J Street's Ben-Ami On Zionism and Military Aid to Israel

Jeremy Ben-Ami of the liberal lobbying group J Street is the man of the moment: The group's upcoming conference in Washington has become a source of great controversy for many reasons. I interviewed Ben-Ami yesterday by telephone, and here is an edited transcript of our conversation. In our talk, he showed that he learned a bit about triangulation during his years in the Clinton White House. He declared himself a Zionist; condemned the book "The Israel Lobby"; called America's military aid package to Israel untouchable; and told me he hopes his group angers the non-Zionist left by staking out mainstream Jewish positions on Israel and the peace process -- "I hope that we have a very strong left flank that attacks us."

Jeffrey Goldberg: Let's just go right to the Stephen Walt question. Why do you think Walt (the co-author of the book "The Israel Lobby") likes J Street?

Jeremy Ben-Ami: I don't know and I don't care. One of the reasons why I won't answer your call to quote-unquote renounce him is that it really smacks of witch-hunts and thought-police. It's not my business to "renounce."
JG: Witch-hunt? How is it a witch-hunt to argue that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer blame the organized American Jewish community for starting the Iraq War and even helping cause 9/11? It's a statement of fact, it's in their book. I would think that when you have an organization, like you do, one of the ways you define yourself is by saying what you do and don't stand for--

JB: May I finish? I actually respect your writing. I respect your thinking. But then there are the people like Michael Goldfarb, who is a Republican political operative who is masquerading as a (Weekly Standard) journalist. And when he goes after us, and asks people to verify their loyalty to certain principles, that's a different thing. But I'm more than happy to tell you why, on a personal basis, I don't like what Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer have written in their book and in their articles. I don't agree with Stephen Walt. It's his business whether or not he chooses to say nice things about us. I have zero right to tell him, and I have zero interest in telling him, not to say what he thinks. That is his business.

JG: Tell me about the problem with his thesis.

JB: Here's where the line is. There is no question that over the last 40 to 50 years, the American Jewish community has developed a very sophisticated lobbying mechanism to promote its views and its interests, and I am in awe of that as a student of politics. I also happen to respect and value much of what has been achieved. For instance, the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, the essential security guarantee that the U.S. provides, the notion that Israel should always have a qualitative military edge -- those are things that have been achieved by lobbying, by what some people would call the "Israel lobby." J Street is very happy with these achievements, and we support those ends, and we respect and admire much of what groups like AIPAC and others have done over the years.

However, when the analysis of that lobby veers over a line and essentially says that all of American foreign policy is controlled by this one lobby and this one interest group, to me, personally, this does smack of the kind of conspiracy theories contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This notion that somehow Jews control this country, they control our foreign policy, that there is some diabolical conspiracy behind the scenes, this is when you cross that line.  I believe that the analysis in the Walt and Mearsheimer book and article crossed that line, but this doesn't take away from my view that this is an incredibly effective lobby.

JG: You have a situation now in which the Obama Administration has obviously failed to achieve a settlement freeze.  You believe that the American government should pressure both the Arabs and the Israelis to come to the table and reach a deal. If Israel ignores the entreaties of the American president, should continuing American military aid to Israel be up for discussion?

JB: The short answer is no, but there's actually a longer explanation for the no. The short answer is that military aid should not be on the table -- this is an absolutely essential aspect of Israel's security, and it's an essential aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship. However, the U.S. should be able to get across that, as an ally, and as a partner in this relationship with its own interests and view of what will actually move the situation forward, its voice and its views need to be listened to, and that means some serious, behind-closed-doors conversations between the president and the prime minister.

JG: But they've already had those.

JB: I don't know what took places in those conversations.

JG: Well, they didn't work yet.

JB: It's very, very early in the process. What J Street has said is that this issue of a settlement freeze is not the place to put all your cards on the table. If this is a card game, I wouldn't go all in on the settlement freeze. I think that the settlement freeze is an important precondition, it's an important early issue, but the fundamental issue is to get to two states, let's get to a final status agreement, and it's at that point that I think the full force of the U.S. should be brought to bear on all the parties. And let me be really clear: all the parties.  When we get to that point, there should be a very, very different and serious conversation. I don't think this is the point to go all in.

JG: Are you a Zionist?

JB: I am a Zionist personally. I am deeply committed to a Jewish home, to a democratic home, to a Jewish Israel. I'm deeply committed to that and you know my family background.

JG: Ben-Ami is a Jewish name, I think.

JB: Exactly. My great-grandparents were in the First Aliyah, my grandparents founded Tel Aviv, my father was in the Irgun. I've lived in Israel myself. I have 500 cousins there. I'm deeply committed to the safety, the sanctity and the security of a Jewish home in the state of Israel.

JG: Is J Street a Zionist organization?

JB: Well, we are unabashedly for a Jewish home in the land of Israel, that there should be a Jewish home that is a democracy, that has a Jewish character and a Jewish flavor and where the law of return is a fact -- I know you're having a disagreement with Bernie (Avishai) right now. I don't even know what he said about the right of return.

JG: That he wants it repealed.

JB: Well I don't agree with that, I certainly don't agree with that. I think that the notion is that there should be a homeland that is a Jewish homeland. That is the founding principle of J Street. The question is, how do we preserve it? That's where we seem to be getting attacked. Our view is that in order to preserve this, there just simply has to be an independent state for the Palestinians next door, and that's where they will live. And we live in Israel and we live there and there's always going to be a minority in Israel that is not Jewish and we need to treat them like equal citizens and value their participation in our democracy, but it is a Jewish home. This is the Jewish homeland.

JG: Come back to one of the controversies swirling around this conference. Do you believe that AIPAC or other Jewish organizations have been actively lobbying against you and, specifically, lobbied against having the Israeli ambassador come to your conference?

JB: I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea. I hope not.

JG: Why do you think Michael Oren is not coming?

JB: I think there has been a pattern to the behavior of this Israeli government of pushing back strongly against all who disagree with them. It's a way of acting and behaving that characterizes everything about this government and I think it is counter to the long-run interests of the state -- I think that you have to speak to those with whom you disagree, I think you have to find ways and language and places to speak with not only your enemies but just those who disagree with you. So I don't even know that it's just about us -- it's kind of the character of the entire foreign policy of the government at the moment.

JG: On another subject, you're giving some space at your conference to a group of bloggers who range from the anti-Zionist Max Blumenthal to the anti-Zionist Helena Cobban.

JB: There's a lunch. They've asked us that, since there is a lunch, can we have a room where we who are bloggers on this issue can sit and talk to each other? I mean, give me a break, I'm not giving them any approval whatsoever, and there's no sanction to their beliefs.  I'm just saying, sure, there are seven free rooms on the floor, use one. I'm not going to say, "No you can't eat lunch together." I mean really.

JG: They're not eating lunch together. They're having a program.

JB: I don't even know what the program is. They can go into a room - wait, who's speaking?

JG: Helena Cobban and a bunch of others, I think.

JB: Oh man, come on, Jeffrey. I'm letting them have a room for lunch.

JG: Well you did reject a group of anti-Israel poets.

JB: That's because it was supposed to be a formal conference event and there is a red line we have, and that is about using the Holocaust and Holocaust imagery as a political football, and there is more than enough of that in the track records of these poets.

JG: Let me ask you something about something that you said to James Traub in The New York Times Magazine. You said that all of the people who work for you are intermarried and I was wondering --

JB: No, I never said that. I asked The Times for a retraction but they wouldn't give it. I never said that. What I said is that the young generation of Jews is a different generation, and all that. No one is intermarried in my office! No one on my staff is intermarried.

JG: So it's an inaccurate quote.

JB: An inaccurate quotation. Our staff is not intermarried. Not that that's a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with being intermarried.

JG: This is getting Seinfeldian here.

JB: There's nothing wrong with intermarriage. What's wrong with intermarriage?

JG: We're a small people--

JB: Right, but you know what I find? I find that most of my friends, and we're talking mid-to-late forties at this point, most of my friends who intermarried, their spouses either converted, or they're kids are being raised Jewish. What I find so fascinating about my intermarried friends is that they're searching for welcoming Jewish communities. So let's make ourselves a welcoming community.

JG: Look, I have that sadness of 'Oh, why are you leaving?' but I also recognize that you may as well just open up the door and say, "Come on in."

JB: The fastest answer to the shrinking Jewish population is to welcome in all of these spouses.

JG: It's good for the gene pool, too.

JB: It's incredibly good for the whole community. I think to put forward the notion that intermarriage is bad is exactly the kind of unwelcoming feeling that this community gives off to this generation.

JG: I don't think it should be phrased as bad or good. I think that marrying someone Jewish should be considered a positive thing, and we should be able to say that we'd like you to marry Jewish people or marry someone who wants to be Jewish and join the Jewish community.

JB: Right, continuing the Jewish community and keeping the Jewish people alive.  Let me say, because I married the daughter of a cantor, so I'm totally in the Jewish community here, but I wanted to marry someone I loved. That's my first criteria. That's what I want my kids to do. What I would like them to do is to feel that when they marry and they have kids, that they will be welcome in Jewish communities and that they'll want to be a part of this community and they'll want to raise their kids in this community. I actually don't think it is fair to put anything on the kids and on this generation about who they marry. What we want them to do is retain the sense of community and identity and bring them into the fold.

JG:  I think we've become seriously diverted. So, what do you think accounts for the cessation of rocket attacks into Israel from Gaza since the Israeli army incursion?

JB: You mean the 250 rockets that have come since then? It's not a cessation. When there was a ceasefire for four and a half months, from June until early November of last year, there were zero rockets. So if you're to compare actually which strategy provides zero rockets, a negotiated ceasefire is actually the strategy. (UPDATE: Please see this post for a clarification about the number of rocket attacks that took place during the cease-fire.)

JG: Do you think Israel should be negotiating with Hamas?

JB: That's up to Israel to decide. The one thing I feel very strongly about is that we should not, as a Jewish community or as a U.S. government, prevent Israel from negotiating with Hamas. And in fact, if there is a Palestinian unity government, and you keep hearing rumblings about this, that we shouldn't prevent the Israelis from dealing with a unity government that brings the Palestinians back together, because if we're really going to have peace, there has to be unification.

JG: Why are some congressmen and senators dropping out of the list that you put together of conference co-sponsors?

JB: Well, I think that the biggest problem that J Street has actually been created to solve is the political atmosphere on Capitol Hill. Our mission is to change the dynamics of American politics when it comes to Israel and the Middle East. This process by which one Republican partisan operative has scared five of the six Republicans off of our host committee--

JG: You're talking about Michael Goldfarb?

JB: It has scared people who don't know enough about who we are. We're only 18-months-old, we only have four lobbyists, we haven't met every member of Congress personally. There's a general sense that we are moving in the right direction, that this is a rational and sane set of views that is actually the mainstream of American foreign policy and of the Jewish community, but it's early days for us, and people don't know us 100 percent. So they get a call from a Republican operative telling them you just signed up on the list of a group that is anti-Israel and pro-Hamas. And they're like, 'Wait a minute! I didn't do that.'

JG: Go to one more thing. You once said Israel is treating Palestinians in a way that forces them to become terrorists. Could you go into that a little bit more?

JB: Well, let's really take a step back. Ehud Barak, in 1999, when he was running for prime minister, said "If I was a young kid growing up in the Palestinian territories, I'd probably be a terrorist, too." There is a sense of hopelessness, there's a sense of a lack of future in the Palestinian territories and particularly in Gaza. When an Israeli kid grows up, he wants to launch the next big start-up, they want to make a billion dollars by having an IPO out of their garage, by having the next great idea, right? In Gaza, the kids are growing up wanting to be the next great suicide bomber, and that's where martyrdom comes in, that's where fame comes, that's where family honor comes from, because there's no other path. So we have to recognize that this is a part of the climate in the Palestinian territories. This is not blaming Israel for terrorism.

JG: Well, it is.

JB: No, it's not blaming--

JG: Israel is creating conditions for the Palestinians to become terrorists, you're saying.

JB: In order to solve a problem, you must be able to rationally analyze its causes and discuss the best solutions. And if we can't have an open and an honest conversation about the role that the conditions in which kids are growing up in the territories plays in their development and what they're growing up to be, then we're not going to solve the problem. I'm not casting blame. This is a terrible conflict and there is really absolute hatred and anger about suicide bombing and rockets and terrorism and violence -- that is not the way to achieve your hopes and your dreams and your aspirations, and I condemn it and we condemn it, but that's not enough to really solve the problem. And then I can just close up the doors and say, 'Well we solved the problem because we condemn the tactics of the other side' -- no, we actually have to solve the problem, so we say, 'Okay, let's talk about the problem.'

JG: Loop back finally to this one because I want to make sure it's clear. At the point that negotiations aren't working, and the administration thinks it's in part Israel's fault, and someone in American society says, you know what, if they don't do what we're asking them to do, maybe we should just condition their military aid on participation in this process. Would you ever support that? If it really became clear to you that the Israelis were the recalcitrant party in this, and that Obama chewed their ears off for hours and nothing worked, would you support taking actual legislative steps to pressure Israel to come to the table?

JB: No is the first word of the answer. I don't think that it will ever come to that. I think that there are enough people in Israel who share the basic worldview -- Tzipi Livni just sent us a very warm letter of welcome and congratulations.

JG: But she's not coming, though.

JB: Right, well, it's a long journey to come and say hello for the leader of the opposition, and I understand that. She sent a very warm letter. This is what she stands for, the basic positions of J Street are positions that can command majority support in the Israeli population. Now I understand that there is a great deal of conflicted thinking within the Israeli population. You can get a majority, an overwhelming majority to support military solutions, you can get a majority as well to support diplomatic ones, so I think we're--

JG: People are complicated.

JB: And confused. Look, it's a difficult and confusing situation with very little sense of hope, and I think that if the U.S. and the world community and the Arab League can come together and put on the table a proposal that is eminently reasonable, that you would agree with, that I would agree with, I don't think that it's ever going to get to the point where you actually need that kind of legislative action or that kind of risk to the alliance. In fact, you probably need the strength of that alliance to give the Israelis the assurance that they can make this kind of a risk for peace. It's actually counterproductive -- if you're willing to put the aid at risk, then you're actually giving an argument to the other side, that Israel has no lifeline, we can't--

JG: Right, that Israel's got to hunker down.

JB: I think tactically it's a huge mistake, but I don't think we're ever going to get to that point.

JG: Are you surprised, pleased, unhappy with the level of controversy that this conference is obviously generating in the Jewish universe?

JB: I'll differentiate between quality and quantity. I'm very pleased about the controversy. One of the goals of J Street is to open up debate and discussion on these issues, to be able to talk about some very difficult things openly, that there are a lot of people who would prefer you not to talk openly. So the fact that this is actually getting such play means we're actually fulfilling our mission, so I think that is terrific. What I'm not happy about is that I think it is very bad for our community, very bad for the Jewish people, that some of those who don't want us to be having this conversation have gone over the line in the way in which they personally attacked and used lies and smears to try to make their point.

JG: Lenny Ben-David and others have actually been doing you a favor in a kind of way by identifying the donors he doesn't like as Arabs rather than as opponents of Israel.

JB: Right, and they're not opponents of Israel. That's his problem, they actually aren't.

JG: But they're by no means Zionists. Helena Cobban, who is going to be speaking on this blogger panel, is close to a one-stater, as far as I can tell.

JB: J Street officially will not use the term "One-State Solution." That is an oxymoron because it is a one-state nightmare. That is the thing we are most opposed to -- moving in a one-state direction.

JG: A nightmare for practical reasons or a nightmare for moral reasons?

JB: A nightmare for the Jewish people. There would be no more Israel. One state is not a solution, one state is a dissolution.

JG: The thing I'm worried about with the conference is that I think most of your supporters are well-meaning, left-of-center Jews who love Israel and are tortured by the various dilemmas, who do stay awake at night worrying about this. But there are others who are glomming on to you guys as a cover, just using you to advance another agenda entirely.

JB: I hope that we have a very strong left flank that attacks us, that Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups that are consistently upset with us for backing Howard Berman's sanctions plan and for refusing to embrace the Goldstone report and for standing up for the right of Israel to defend itself or for its military aid -- I hope we get attacked from the left because I would characterize J Street as the mainstream of the American Jewish community.

JG: You believe that you're at the center of American Jewish thought?

JB: I believe that we are at the center. The Marty Peretzes and the Michael Goldfarbs and the Lenny Ben-Davids are on the right, to the far right, and there are people to our left, and we are in the middle trying to put forward a thoughtful, moderate, mainstream point of view about how to save Israel as a Jewish home.