A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation, by Jeremy Ben-Ami (Palgrave Macmillan, 242 pp., $26)
You have to give Jeremy Ben-Ami his due. In 2008, the liberal activist and former Clinton administration official founded J Street as a left-wing alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the lobbying group for Israel in the United States. A new organization was needed, Ben-Ami writes at the beginning of his book—part memoir, part political tract—because the “arc of conflict involving Israel in the Middle East, though long, was ultimately bent toward peace.” Unfortunately, Ben-Ami adds, because of the Netanyahu government, “the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict [might] slip through our fingers. As that happens, the dream of the Jewish people to be a free people in their own land also slowly disappears.” To keep this dream alive, the peace process needs a jolt from progressive American Jews in the form of more criticism of the Israeli government’s intransigence on negotiations with the Palestinians.
Ben-Ami has been fairly successful in marketing J Street as uniquely “pro-Israel and pro-peace,” even though his group has actually taken positions that undermined Israel’s security interests. J Street put its weight behind Richard Goldstone, author of the notorious UN report (since repudiated by Goldstone himself) condemning Israel for human rights violations during the 2009 Gaza War; it has embraced far-left groups urging a boycott of Israel; it urged the Obama administration to allow passage of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for its “illegal” settlements on the West Bank. On the other hand, J Street makes little effort to pressure Palestinian leaders to drop their demand for the “right of return” of the refugees from the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, though this is a deal-breaker for any peaceful resolution of the conflict. Nor has J Street done much to combat the international campaign to delegitimize Israel, including the transformation of the UN Human Rights Council into an anti-Israel hate group.
Ben-Ami seeks further to bolster the J Street brand by capitalizing on his own family roots in Israel. Those who previously knew the 50-year-old Ben-Ami only as an Upper West Side Democratic Party activist, former Clintonista, organizer of both Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign and Mark Green’s 2001 race for Mayor of New York, will discover that he is descended from Israel’s Mayflower generation. He has nice things to say about Zeev Jabotinsky, the leader of the right-wing Zionist Revisionist faction and the Irgun Tzvai Leumi, the pre-state underground his father joined in the 1930s and that carried out terrorist attacks against the British military and Palestinian Arabs in order to establish a Jewish state on both banks of the Jordan River. Ben-Ami’s purpose in recounting his family’s history is to wrap J Street’s naïve policy recommendations for solving the Israel-Palestine conflict in the banner of old school, Zionist patriotism.
Knowing something about Jabotinsky and the Irgun, I marveled at the author’s audacity. Ben-Ami’s great grandparents immigrated to Palestine from Russia in the 1880s. His paternal grandparents were among the 55 Jewish families who bought plots on the barren sand dunes north of Jaffa in 1909 and founded Tel Aviv as the “first Hebrew city.” Jeremy’s father, Yitzhak (Mike) Ben-Ami, was an idealistic young man who started out in the 1930s as a socialist Zionist, but then defected to the right-wing Irgun. Rejecting the labor Zionist policy of restraint, the Jewish underground group engaged in armed resistance against the British Mandatory Authority and retaliated with great violence after Arab assaults against Jews, sometimes by throwing bombs into Arab markets. By the late 1930s, Yitzhak Ben-Ami was assigned to work with Irgun’s titular leader, Jabotinsky, in Europe organizing illegal Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Just before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Ben-Ami accompanied Jabotinsky to New York. After Jabotinsky’s death in 1940, Ben-Ami and five other young Irgunists found themselves stranded in America for the duration of the war. Known as the Bergson Group (after their leader, Peter Bergson) they created several broadly based lobbying organizations that pressed the Roosevelt administration to rescue European Jews under threat of annihilation. Instead of working together with the Bergsonites to put maximum pressure on Roosevelt for an American rescue effort, the Jewish establishment turned on the Irgun dissidents, trying to undermine their organization and block their influence. One of the leaders of this campaign (which included trying to get the government to deport the Irgunists) was the de facto leader of the American Jewish community, liberal New York Rabbi Stephen Wise—also a loyal friend of FDR.
Ben-Ami’s account of his family’s involvement in the building of Israel is interesting and largely accurate. He includes a moving description of the Tel Aviv centennial in 2009, in which he and his children participated in a commemoration ceremony in the exact spot on the beach where his grandparents received their plot in a lottery 100 years earlier. Ben-Ami is certainly entitled to flaunt his pride over his father’s courageous efforts in the 1930s and 1940s to save endangered European Jews. What the author is not entitled to do—at least not if he feels himself bound by facts and logic—is use his father’s struggles with the American Jewish establishment to justify J Street’s current political activism and its sometimes dangerous positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ben-Ami’s case is based on a false historical analogy. In the 1940s, Ben-Ami writes, the Zionist establishment “flatly denied that all the work that my father and the Irgun. . . had been doing for several years to save Jews by the thousands had actually taken place. And they barred the door to American support for the work that could have saved thousands or more, with a smear campaign driven by a political agenda blind to the larger interests at stake.”
Flash forward 70 years and, according to Ben-Ami, the Jewish establishment (this time represented by AIPAC) is still trying to censor and undermine the new dissidents (this time J Street, led by the son of Yitzhak Ben-Ami). And once again, Ben-Ami claims, the attempt to suppress dissent and avoid open debate within the Jewish community will result in greater harm to endangered Jews. In the 1940s, the Jews of Europe facing the Nazi murder machine paid the price for the shortsightedness of leaders like Rabbi Wise. In the twenty-first century, it is the Jews of Israel who will ultimately pay the price for the American Jewish establishment’s lockstep support of failed Israeli government policies that needlessly perpetuate the conflict with the Palestinians.
It’s true that the Jewish establishment tried to suppress Yitzhak Ben-Ami and his colleagues in the 1940s and true that AIPAC and other mainstream Jewish advocacy groups have strongly criticized, perhaps even demonized, Jeremy Ben-Ami’s organization. But that’s the only part that’s true about this specious historical analogy. For starters, Ben-Ami ignores the fact that in the 1940s the two major Jewish-owned newspapers, the New York Times and the Washington Post, supported the Jewish establishment’s efforts to anathematize the Bergson Group. Today, those two papers and much of the rest of the mainstream media support J Street’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict and reject AIPAC’s support of the Netanyahu government.
Then there is the matter of the two dissident groups’ relationship, then and now, to the president of the United States. In the 1940s, the Bergson Group and its followers courageously took on the U.S. president in the middle of a war, refusing to accept Roosevelt’s argument that the only way to save Jews was to “win the war.” These days, the J Street dissidents are carrying water for the Obama administration in the Jewish community, while it’s the mainstream AIPAC that is willing to lock horns with the president over his wrong-headed policies toward Israel.
American Jews have actually learned the correct lessons from those dreadful days when Jewish leaders were so fearful of opposing a wartime president that they muted their criticism over the Allies’ abandonment of European Jews. Much more secure about their status in the American mosaic, most Jews today are willing to abandon their traditional political loyalties to the Democratic Party when they see their party’s leader undermining the security of Israel and thus endangering the 5 million Jews who live there. This was made abundantly clear in the recent special election in New York’s Ninth Congressional district, when Jews abandoned the Democratic candidate to send a message to the president. What Ben-Ami can’t abide is that AIPAC basically speaks for those American Jews in their opposition to the Obama administration’s Middle East policies.
Instead of honestly conceding that his view on how to settle the Israel-Palestinian conflict reflects a minority position among American Jews (and indeed, among Americans in general), Ben-Ami concocts a conspiracy theory to explain AIPAC’s success. According to Ben-Ami’s calculation, AIPAC actually represents the views of only 8 percent of American Jews (the “hardliners” who support Netanyahu) but is able to maintain its clout in Congress through big money and McCarthyite tactics to thwart the real peace-seekers in J Street. If this were true, the political pros in the White House would now be breathing a lot easier, instead of panicking about the president’s ability to hold on to the Jewish vote in 2012.
Ben-Ami writes often about the need to maintain open debate in the American Jewish community on the difficult challenges Israel faces in trying to find a lasting peace. Certainly he is right on that score. But Ben-Ami doesn’t help the cause of rational debate when he keeps insisting that he and his small minority of American Jews know exactly what’s good for Israel, no matter that the majority of Israelis strongly disagree with him.
“The truest act of friendship today is to ask our Israeli friends and relatives to open their eyes to the critical choices ahead and to the consequences of failing to take those choices seriously,” Ben-Ami writes. “This is Zionism in the 21st century.” But to assume that the brave people of Israel have their eyes closed and that they need a wake-up call from the likes of J Street is extraordinarily arrogant. And, contrary to Ben-Ami, there is nothing “Zionist” about left-wing American Jews from the bucolic Upper West Side hectoring Israelis about the “risks” they have to take for peace in the nasty neighborhood in which they live.