Is J Street Pro-Israel? A Recap of an Evening with J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami
On January 24, 2022 Jeremy Ben-Ami, President and Founder of J Street, spoke at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle for about 90 minutes in a discussion titled “J Street: Myths & Facts.” Ben-Ami opened the program with a few minutes of introduction, with the evening’s discussion driven by questions and answers from both the moderator and about 150 attendees. The question on my mind and of many in the audience was if J Street is actually “pro-Israel” and deserves the support from the pro-Israel community. This article is a review and critique of the conversation with Ben-Ami. Note that Ben-Ami’s statements in this article are direct quotations.
J Street is a frustrating organization. It is a self-identified “pro-Israel” organization that is filled with confounding positions and contradictions that belie its supposed position as a supporter of Israel, as will be described below. Ben-Ami is a skilled speaker who presents headline statements and slogans that are quite reasonable, but through questioning and analysis, deep contradictions and falsehoods arise. Ben-Ami notably deflected and refused to answer many probing questions that would pierce his simplistic and incorrect view of the Israel-Palestine conflict – which is that Israel is a nation that immorally oppresses Palestinians, has never agreed to a two-state solution in contrast to the Palestinians who have sought peace for more than three decades, and the entire fault for lack of peace and the onus going forward falls entirely on Israel. It is for good reason that J Street is rejected by many in the pro-Israel community who simply cannot reconcile pronouncements of being “pro-Israel” with statements, actions and endorsements that are most certainly not.
The opening question noted that J Street’s website and Mission & Principles page did not include the word “Zionist” or “Zionism.” Ben-Ami was asked if “there is a controversy over the term Zionism for J Street?” Ben-Ami responded that: “I am proudly a Zionist and J Street is a Zionist organization, so there is no question about that,” although he did not address the specific question about the website. He added that to him Zionism means “just the belief that the Jews as a people have collective right to self-determination, period, end of story,” and that “that right was thankfully was realized in 1948, now the question is what to do with that and that’s where J Street starts.” Ben-Ami also said that “the Law of Return, which is exceedingly important, this [Israel] is the place that if Jews needed a place to go from all over the world, that’s where they could go back to.” Having listened to many J Street conferences over the years I do not recall the word Zionism used; I wonder if Ben-Ami confirms that he is a proud Zionist in his next opening speech if he would be met with applause – I am skeptical.
Ben-Ami offered many positive statements that a majority of pro-Israel people would likely agree with. He was clear that a two-state solution was the best outcome for the conflict and that the so-called one state solution “is a nightmare… the idea of there only being one state between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea is the end of Zionism, the end of the idea of a state for the Jewish people.” He added that “it is an existential necessity for Israel, to be Jewish and democratic, for there to be a second state, if it does not have the second state then we are in the one state nightmare.” Ben-Ami stated that along with Israel “there is a recognition on [J Street’s] part that there is another people on the exact same land that also think it’s their land and the only way that Israel can be both a Jewish home and democratic is if those other people have some place that is their home too, so our vision of Zionism is that Israel must allow for there to be a second state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea that will be the national home for the Palestinians.” These views are reasonable and do not conflict with a pro-Israel stance, and if only left to that, it is unlikely that J Street would be considered problematic by many in the pro-Israel community.
A significant portion of the discussion focused on J Street’s financial support for Congressman Jamal Bowman, who happens to represent the district where the synagogue is located, despite positions that he holds that are widely considered not pro-Israel. Bowman has co-sponsored bills that cannot be considered supportive of Israel, aligning himself with a small fringe of representatives that consistently vote on bills that demonize Israel. For example, in 2021 Bowman co-sponsored a bill by Congresswoman Betty McCollum titled “Defending the Human Rights of Palestinian Children and Families Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act.” The bill’s 19 pages accuses Israel of a long list of wrongdoings in demonizing fashion, much of which is incorrect, and seeks to add restrictions to U.S. aid to Israel.[i] For example the bill claims Israel “detains around 500 to 700 Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 17 each year” but offers no source or context. The actual number is far lower (never more than 250 in a single year) and does not mention that many Palestinian teenagers are involved in terrorist attacks and military action against Israel.[ii] The bill claims that minors arrested do not have “a chance to consult with a lawyer” but this is untrue.[iii] It is also notable that McCollum’s home state of Minnesota incarcerates 2.3x more juveniles per capita than Israel in the territories and the Palestinian Authority 3.5x more than Israel.[iv] The bill is wholly incompatible with a “pro-Israel” stance given its egregiously false accusations against Israel that glaringly omits Palestinian terrorism as a key factor that forces much of Israeli actions, and further seeks to condition aid to Israel based on these falsehoods.[v] In fact, the 2,900 word bill does not mention the word “terrorism” even once. The Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) called the bill “yet another in a series of one-sided, demagogic anti-Israel bills.”[vi] Not only does J Street support Bowman, but was one of the “Endorsing Organizations” for the bill,[vii] a highly problematic action which is the stark opposite of being pro-Israel.
Bowman came up again later in the discussion noting that he was one of only six co-sponsors for a May 2022 bill titled “Recognizing the Nakba and Palestinian’s refugees’ rights” introduced by Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (along with AOC, Ilhan Omar, Betty McCollum, Marie Newman and Cori Bush).[viii] The text of the bill is highly problematic and most definitely anti-Israel by egregiously falsifying history such as by charactering the events of 1948 as nothing else but “Zionist militias” cruelly attacking and expelling innocent Arabs. There is no mention of Arab rejection of the partition plan, the fact that it was Arab militias who initiated hostilities against Jews with an intent to stop the formation of the Jewish state, and the invasion of Arab armies. The bill’s opening sentence states that the UN voted “to partition Palestine into two states against the wishes of Palestine’s majority indigenous inhabitants,” deliberately erasing that Jews are indigenous to the Holy Land and treats Jews as a group with no rights or legitimate “wishes” in the region. Passage of the bill would effectively enshrine into U.S. law that only Palestinians are indigenous to the Holy Land. Finally, the bill claims that the so-called “right of return” is absolute international law (it certainly is not[ix]) and explicitly calls for the U.S. to officially support the literal implementation of this “right,” which is simply another way of saying that Israel should end its existence as a Jewish state.
The fact that only seven representatives, including Bowman, supported this bill demonstrates its fringe nature – but this is not of concern to J Street. When Ben-Ami was asked how J Street can support Bowman given his support for the bill, Ben-Ami starkly misrepresented the intent of the bill as something benign, thereby justifying Bowman’s support for it. Ben-Ami did make clear that J Street did not endorse the bill itself but then proceeded to mischaracterize the bill as simply recognizing that the “Nakba” happened, that the Palestinians suffered, and nothing else, ignoring the bill’s revisionist history that deliberately erases the Jewish connection to the Holy Land and the demonizing narrative of Israel’s creation which delegitimizes its creation in 1948. No wonder Bowman also withdrew his support for the Abraham Accords, which was also pointed out to Ben-Ami who also saw no problem with this action – the text of the accords is more accepting of Israel than the “Nakba” bill.[x] Ben-Ami further whitewashed Bowman’s support for anti-Israel bills, claiming that on a J Street sponsored trip Bowman came back “with an understanding of Israel’s security needs” and the “importance of America’s support for Israel’s security.” Ben-Ami further noted that Bowman is an opponent of BDS and traveled to Israel despite calls for him not to visit. Ben-Ami concluded that he “sees no problem continuing to support Jamaal Bowman.”
Ben-Ami was asked as a follow-up if there anything that a politician could say or do that would lead J Street to deny funding because of clear stances that were not pro-Israel. Ben-Ami answered that this depends on how one defines pro-Israel, that if “you believe in the right of the Jewish people to a state, the baseline definition of Zionism… if you believe in two-states, you’re opposed to the BDS movement… those are the standards to get J Street’s support.” Ben-Ami claimed that Jamaal Bowman meets these standards despite his support for a bill that demanded the “right of return” which is effectively a call for a one-state solution which Ben-Ami agreed was the “end of Zionism.”
One of Ben-Ami’s and J Street’s most problematic blind spots, which was revealed several times over the course of the evening, is a refusal to acknowledge Palestinian rejectionism as a key factor in why a two-state solution has not been achieved. Ben-Ami consistently presented Palestinians as innocent bystanders who have been waiting patiently for decades for Israel to allow them to have state, but Israel refuses to do so. Ben-Ami incorrectly claimed that over the decades, “Israel does not support a two-state solution and the PLO does,” adding that we “understand who’s the obstacle and who’s not coming to the table and who does not want to compromise, every year when Mahmoud Abbas goes to the general assembly he reiterates the support for the Palestine Liberation Organization’s support for a two-state solution.” Ben-Ami added that it was “disingenuous and unfair to argue that somehow the Palestinians are the obstacle at this point to moving towards a resolution to the conflict,” noting that the current government of Israel was not supportive of a two-state solution and that “[The Palestinians] of the two parties still support a two-state solution” and Israel does not. While it is clear that the current Israeli government is hardly moving towards a two-state solution, Ben-Ami ignored and misrepresented multiple offers for statehood rejected by Palestinians, many Israeli leaders who have supported two-states (including Yair Lapid this past September[xi]), clear evidence that the Palestinians most certainly have not and do not support two-states with one of them being the Jewish one, the fact that these rejections are one reason why recent Israeli governments have not moved to restart two-state talks, and the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza which only led to the Hamas takeover and the use of Gaza as a terrorist base. While Ben-Ami called often for the “end of the occupation” he had no answer for how this could be done without the West Bank turning into another Gaza – he could only say that at least Israel should not “deepen” the occupation, not “dig the hole” of occupation any further.
Ben-Ami mischaracterized Abbas’s statements at the UN and in other forums where instead of talk of a historic reconciliation of two states for two peoples he regularly unleashes a tirade of libelous charges and historic grievances against Israel and denies a Jewish connection to the region (e.g. referring only to “Christian and Islamic” holy sites in Jerusalem). In his 2022 UN speech Abbas said: “Since its inception, Israel has committed brutal crimes against our people, when it destroyed 529 Palestinian villages, expelled their residents from them during and after the 1948 war, and expelled 950,000 Palestinian”; “committed more than fifty massacres since 1948 to this day, which claimed the lives of tens of thousands of children, women, the elderly and innocent people”; called for the “right of return of Palestinian refugees”; cited the “ominous Balfour Declaration and Mandate Instrument” – hardly a call for mutual recognition of nationhood and the right for Jews to a permanent state that he demands for Palestinians.[xii] In an August 2022 meeting in Germany Abbas refused to condemn the 1972 Palestinians terrorist attack on Israeli Olympic athletes and instead accused Israel of committing “50 Holocausts” against Palestinians, drawing sharp rebuke from the German Chancellor.[xiii]
In fact, Palestinian actions for many decades has been contrary to the notion of a peaceful two-state solution: continued rejection by Palestinians of all Jewish history and rights in the region which is noted continually by Palestinian leaders, including Abbas who called Israel’s creation a “disgrace to humanity”;[xiv] clear refusal to accept the notion of a Jewish state in any borders;[xv] no movement from maximalist demands for the “right of return” which would effectively end Israel as a Jewish state;[xvi] continuous support for terrorism, notably with “pay-to-slay” policies and glorification of terrorists such as by naming schools after them;[xvii] and rejection of peace offers by Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert in 2000 and 2008 (the latter by Abbas himself). In addition, there are no prominent voices in Palestinian civil society or state media which talk of reconciliation with the Jewish state or a peaceful two-state solution. This glaring lack of Palestinian support for a true two-state solution was pointed out to Ben-Ami, who again deflected the question and asked what Israel and the Jewish community should be doing. Ben-Ami gave a complete free pass to the Palestinians with a healthy dose of revisionist and selective history, thereby placing all the blame on Israel. Instead of addressing and acknowledging Abbas’ problematic statements and actions when specifically asked about them, Ben-Ami two times responded by saying he “found it tough to be a spokesman for the Palestinian authority” despite having no problem only minutes earlier confidently claiming that Abbas made statements supposedly supporting a two-state solution.
Ben-Ami also misrepresented the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative put forth by the Saudis claiming that it offered “full and complete integration of Israel into the entire region, not just two little emirates, the entire Arab world, if a basic two-state solution is reached between Israel and the PLO.” The implication once again was that Israel is at fault for rejecting peace even when Arabs extend their hands towards peace. In fact, the Arab Peace Initiative was presented as a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, specifically required Israel to accept the “right of return,” and mandated without any negotiation that Israel must hand over all territory captured in 1967 to a Palestinian state including historically Jewish areas of East Jerusalem. This viewpoint was confirmed when in 2007 Ehud Olmert actually expressed a desire to explore the proposal and sought a meeting with Arab leaders to discuss it. As reported in the Times of Israel, “Surprised by Olmert’s enthusiasm, the Arab League refused an encounter lest it be seen as engaging in ‘normalization’ with the Zionist regime.”[xviii] If the Saudis and Arab League were serious about the initiative how could they then refuse to even meet with Israel to discuss it? Ben-Ami again incorrectly placed the full blame on lack of peace on Israel.
Ben-Ami was asked how J Street could support politicians that used the word “apartheid” to describe Israel and Ben-Ami once again deflected simply saying the J Street “does not use the A word,” ignored the question and continued with general statements that the state of Israel needs to “uphold the best of our values” and that the policies of the state of Israel does not meet these standards given the Jewish experience as oppressed people. In perhaps the most disturbing statements of the evening, which was the crux of his response on the labeling of Israel as “apartheid,” Ben-Ami stated:
“That the way that the state of Israel as a matter of policy treats the people who live under military occupation there does not meet the standards we teach our kids of what it means to be Jewish, the core of our morality. The core of our values is to not treat other people the way that we would not want to be treated ourselves, we lived for centuries as oppressed people in the lands of others and we forged a moral code, and it’s at the core of Judaism, the moral code of our people is violated by the way we are treating another people at this moment in history.”
In other words, Israeli policies and practices are evil, violating the standards of Jewish morality, and it therefore does really not matter what label you use, such as apartheid, to describe Israeli wrongdoing. Ben-Ami falsely and grossly compared the oppression faced by the Jewish people for centuries to Israeli treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza – no matter the rejection of partition and the fact that the Palestinian leader at the time (Haj Amin al-Husseini) collaborated with Hitler, decades of Arab initiated wars and rejectionism against Israel, deeply antisemitic statements by Palestinian officials that continue to this day on state media, several Israeli offers to the Palestinians for full statehood that would end all occupation, complete withdrawal from Gaza, and decades of relentless terrorism perpetrated, glorified and compensated for by the Palestinians which forces upon Israel many of the actions it takes in the territories. Ben-Ami can only see equivalency in what Jews are doing to Palestinians to what others did to Jews in foreign lands for centuries. No wonder Ben-Ami sees no problem in congressional bills that demonize Israel as an evil country that unjustly treats Palestinian children and is solely responsible for the ills that befell the Palestinians in 1948.
It also fits that the most that J Street can muster on the topic of libeling Israel as apartheid is the wishy-washy “we don’t use the A word” (found on its website as well). A pro-Israel organization should actively combat the use of the demonizing word, not simply stay neutral. Ben-Ami again made clear that he did not see a role for J Street in combatting the growing demonization of the Jewish state, simply hiding behind his explanation that the “words that other people use is not the issue, the issue for the Jewish community is how is the state of our people behave and how is it treating other people.”
Not only does J Street refuse to combat the demonization and delegitimization of Israel in the media and by various NGOs, UN, etc., but they also provide active support and cover for some of the worst anti-Zionist voices. J Street’s strong support for Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the incredible contradictions which undermines the organization’s claim of being pro-Israel. In an earlier part of the conversation when HRW came up, Ben-Ami claimed that “Human Rights Watch has a balanced track record, they have gone after hundreds of regimes, scores of states all over the world, in a balanced manner, so at times they have also been critical of Israel, and I know that leads to perceptions in the Jewish community that HRW is not necessarily a best source… but I think that’s a fair source.” Incredibly, Ben-Ami considers HRW’s labeling of Israel as the only apartheid state on the planet as “balanced” and fair criticism. HRW attacking Israel for its definition as a Jewish state is seen as fair by Ben-Ami, when HRW has never criticized any Muslim or Christian nation for its constitutional identification with these religions.
In fact, HRW under the leadership of Ken Roth issued one of the most anti-Israel and anti-Zionist documents in recent history, a 2021 report titled “A Threshold Crossed, Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” This 217-page report is a falsified and demonizing narrative which essentially accuses Israel of being the worst human rights abuser on earth. The document considers Israel’s very identity as a Jewish state an element of apartheid, ignoring that dozens of states identify as Muslim and Christian. Every Israeli leader starting with Ben-Gurion is portrayed as a racist war criminal oppressing Palestinians (which in HRW’s definition includes all Israeli-Arab citizens) at a level that rises to apartheid only because of who they are – Palestinian – and for no other reason. Every Israeli military action since the state was formed is portrayed as unjustified, driven only by pure racism towards Palestinians. The document literally does not use the word “terrorism” once to describe any Palestinian action or as a reason why Israel may take certain actions. It erases the entire experience of Arab-Israelis who hold positions in all areas of Israeli society to portray 2 million Arab citizens as victims of Israeli apartheid. The document is filled with over 300 errors, lies, misrepresentations and other flaws outlined in an 168-page rebuttal that shows the disturbing dishonesty of HRW.[xix] HRW’s report was specifically cited in a recent UN report as part of an international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state[xx] – none of this is problematic to Ben-Ami or J Street.
Recently, Ken Roth was controversially denied and then approved for a position at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Throughout the process J Street and its leadership voiced their strong support for Roth, actively endorsing his appointment at Harvard. When Roth was in the end approved for the position, J Street’s official twitter account wrote “This is the right decision”[xxi] and Ben-Ami himself endorsed Roth saying he “was very sorry to hear” that Roth was initially denied the position.[xxii] Several other leaders of J Street voiced strong support for Roth calling his reconsideration for the Harvard position “heartening.”[xxiii] It is shocking that a self-identified Zionist and leader of a self-identified pro-Israel organization would endorse a man who oversaw a virulent anti-Zionist document which explicitly calls for Israel to cease its existence as a Jewish state. I approached Ben-Ami at the end of the evening and specifically asked him why he and J Street were actively supporting Roth given the aggressively anti-Israel and anti-Zionist document he oversaw. I asked why J Street couldn’t stay silent on the issue of Roth at a bare minimum. Ben-Ami responded that he considered the matter an issue of “academic freedom” and that Roth himself was not an anti-Zionist. I pressed further that it seemed preposterous to present Roth as not anti-Zionist when the report that he oversaw and still actively promotes on Twitter[xxiv] is a virulent anti-Zionist manifesto. Ben-Ami deflected again, shook my hand and said let’s agree to disagree.
Another example of how J Street deliberately removes itself from the fight against the delegitimization of Israel is its refusal to endorse the IHRA definition of antisemitism, despite its wide acceptance by mainstream Jewish organizations and scholars on antisemitism (including Deborah Lipstadt, Biden’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism), official adoption by the U.S. government, nearly all Western nations and hundreds of universities and other organizations. When asked about IHRA Ben-Ami said “our issue with using it in law is that certain examples are put forward by that association that relate to criticizing Israel, and there is a state that people can be critical of Israel and not be antisemitic” adding that some of the examples of “criticism of Israel in the context of antisemitism to our view is too constricting.” Ben-Ami deliberately ignored the fact that IHRA specifically states: “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” When Ben-Ami was asked what kind of criticism of Israel he deemed as antisemitic, Ben-Ami said “the most significant example is when Israel is held to a standard that no other nation is held to, that is classic singling Israel out” – which is exactly the standard that IHRA adopts for legitimate criticism of Israel, but somehow Ben-Ami sees the IHRA definition as a something J Street must oppose.
On the surface, Ben-Ami and J Street’s policy positions seem reasonable and one that a large number of pro-Israel Jews endorse: support for Zionism, the right of Jews to statehood, support for a two-state solution, promoting Israeli democracy and opposing actions that move away from this, and seeking to “end the occupation” as a general statement. But right beneath these headline goals is a false, wholly one-sided and ultimately demonizing narrative espoused by J Street of Israeli intransigence and wrongdoing. Ben-Ami explicitly believes that Israel oppresses Palestinians to such an extent that it evokes the Jewish experience of oppression through the ages and goes against Jewish values. J Street won’t use the word “apartheid” but will neither combat it. The methodologies J Street employs to meets its stated goals are also problematic and incongruent with what a pro-Israel organization should do. J Street provides support for politicians that vote anti-Israel, such as Jamaal Bowman, who was one of only seven sponsors of a bill that states that Jews are not indigenous to the Holy Land and seeks to enshrine the so-called Palestinian “right to return” as official U.S. policy. J Street is disturbingly not an ally in combatting the delegitimization and demonization of Israel by the UN and prominent NGOs such as HRW – it in fact proactively endorses some of these organizations and their leadership.
Ben-Ami did nothing over 90 minutes to dispel the “myth” that J Street is not a pro-Israel organization. Despite what may be good intentions and reasonable headline statements on the part of J Street and Ben-Ami, and no matter his pronouncements of his own Zionism or that “J Street is a Zionist organization,” J Street unfortunately does not act in accordance with a pro-Israel stance and does not deserve the support of the pro-Israel community.
[xiv] https://palwatch.org/page/31840; https://palwatch.org/page/32157; https://palwatch.org/page/29795
[xx] See General Assembly Document A/77/356, “Situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.”