J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami
On a dreary, rainy evening in late November my friend Pat Carmeli and I were driving to Syracuse to hear Jeremy Ben-Ami speak. I smiled when Pat turned to me and said, “I’m going to ask him a question about human rights and the Palestinians.” I responded enthusiastically: “All right! That should brighten things up.”
I am no fan of Ben-Ami and went along mainly to see Pat and some Syracuse Israel/Palestine activists I knew would be there. Yet from the moment Jeremy started to address us, I had the feeling this would be an interesting evening. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, the self-described “political home for pro-peace, pro-Israel Americans” came to town in order to convince about 100 mostly elderly Jewish suburbanites that Israel should pursue a negotiated two-state resolution with the Palestinians. He was also there to promote a new local chapter of his organization and to promote his book, A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation. The event, which was held at the Jewish Community Center (JCC), was tightly secured by two burly armed uniformed city policemen who were working privately, as is the custom at most Jewish events in and around this medium-sized city in the center of New York State. (I have previously written about my surprised reaction to the very visible police presence and a bit about Jeremy’s presentation here.)
Jeremy Ben-Ami is an experienced Democratic political hand, who worked for the Clinton administration. He is a fluent and knowledgeable speaker with an earnest and friendly manner. The J Street president and head cheerleader sports an adopted surname (I assume inherited from his father, once a member of the Irgun) which is quintessentially Zionist, translating as “son of my people.” This fact alone would have set my late mother’s heart all atwitter. Reinforcing his appeal to this pro-Israel crowd, Jeremy was decked out in an expensive Washington blue power suit, while wielding an impressive resume that recently expanded to include three years living in Jerusalem. Peppering his remarks with the common Hebrew phrase, “kol hakavod” (trans. all right, way to go; literally, all the respect), Ben-Ami cut quite an impressive figure which kind of contradicted his otherwise strikingly nerdy physical appearance.
J Street Jeremy and his organization are highly controversial topics among American Palestine/Israel activists. Some of the progressive supporters of J Street think that whatever this group can do to soften mainstream Jewish opinion is helpful to the cause of obtaining a lasting peace in the Middle East. Although Pat Carmeli has some serious criticism of J Street policy and ideology, she subscribes to this view. Others, like me, think J Street is not helpful because, among other reasons, it espouses a “solution” that will only perpetuate the occupation by creating a Palestinian entity having limited sovereignty that would be an independent state in name only. For Ben-Ami, the current Israeli opposition leader and Operation Cast Lead booster and Likud princess, Tzipi Livni, is the Israeli politician who would best support the J Street vision of peace. Enough said.
At the Syracuse JCC, Ben-Ami’s remarks were much less liberal than even I had expected, much less progressive than his organization’s web pages and his public pronouncements. He praised AIPAC for delivering huge amounts of U.S. military aid to Israel. Ben-Ami boasted that Tzipi Livni comes from “good Likud stock like me,” i.e., revisionist, terrorist and racist. Then the topper for activists: he declared in all seriousness: “There is no Palestinian peace movement” other than Salam Fayyad!
These remarks were apparently crafted to curry favor with the many security hawks in the audience, and also those whose vacations in Israel must include a solidarity visit to the Cave of the Patriarchs and the Jewish ultra-settlement of Tel Rumeida. Considering the crowd, it was hardly surprising that when Pat Carmeli, the inimitable local activist, asked her question, Jeremy, the usually very slick pro-Israel advocate, who restricts his appearances to Jewish venues, was caught off-guard. When reading the transcript below, notice that in his response to Pat, Ben-Ami did not recover his composure enough to answer the question he wanted to answer (not the one asked) until the second paragraph, when he returned to his recurrent theme of enthusiastic support for funding the Palestinian Authority.
The real meaning of Carmeli’s question, as opposed to the words as understood literally, was “Will you, Jeremy Ben-Ami, speak out against the Israeli violations of the human rights of the Palestinian people?” Ben-Ami’s answer was a clear and unequivocal, No! His response was punctuated by his ironic use of the Hebrew phrase, “kol hakavod” and the audible nervous laughter of Pat and the audience which followed.
During the evening there was much talk about recognition. If Hamas recognizes the right of Israel to exist, if the Palestinian Authority should recognize Israel as a Jewish State, if the United Nations should recognize Palestine as a member state, all were discussed during the evening. From my point of view, the only important recognition is the recognition that the Palestinians are human beings who have too long suffered serious and tragic human rights abuses at the hands of the Israelis. As long as Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street and the Jewish community refuse to recognize this fact they will never be effective agents for change.
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I recorded the question Pat asked and Jeremy’s response. The sound file is here. (I apologize for the breathing sounds at the end of the recording. They were caused by my holding the microphone of my recorder too close to my nose and my agitated reaction to what I was hearing.)
Transcript of the Carmeli/Ben-Ami exchange, November 29, 2011 at the Jewish Community Center of Syracuse.
Pat: You compared the Palestinians and the Israelis [to a couple] to like a couple that are going through a divorce and they shouldn’t be in a room together. So you suggest …
Jeremy: Alone. [Audience laughter]
Pat: Alone. So you suggested that the United States would be the mediator. However, past and current… our politicians will say we support Israel regardless of anything that Israel does. Usually, the mediator should be …
Jeremy: More evenhanded.
Pat: On both sides. So AIPAC really has our government officials pretty much in their pockets and they steer them in a certain way toward Israel. I support J Street to an extent, but you want to sway our government officials to be pro-Israel in another way. But who is going to advocate for the human rights of the Palestinians? I’m speaking as an Israeli citizen, I lived there, but I’m speaking to you now as an American and I am speaking about our supposed values. And who is going to advocate for my values? We are currently giving Israel 8 million dollars a day. OK. And we don’t do anything really to help the Palestinians. Who is going to advocate? Who is going to be that person? Who would you suggest? Because it is really about human rights and fairness. Who is going to advocate, seeing that the Palestinians and Jews are people both deserving equally of human rights and fair play and justice?
Jeremy: Those are important sentiments and I come at this from a pro-Israel point of view. [Inaudible] I care about all the people in the world. I care about global warming, I care about hunger and there’s a lot of things I care about in the world. The reason I work on this issue is I wanted to be in Israel, it’s the national homeland of the Jewish people… [inaudible]… and I’m proud of and my children and my grandchildren will be proud to be a part of. That’s why I’m in this …. I’m going to advocate for that. And I hope that human rights groups and Palestinian rights groups and others will advocate for the human rights of the Palestinians people.
In fact what J Street does is that we do advocate for aid to the Palestinian Authority, right now. That’s one of our main things. Because it’s so critical to Israel that there be a Palestinian Authority and the ability of the Palestinian Authority to pay its salaries and to assume their function is right now in question and as soon as that collapses, I think that the two-state solution is on life support. So I would, we advocate for aid to the Palestinians. The aid that they get through UNRWA, the UN Refugee Works Administration, we advocate for that. Because if you don’t [inaudible] you have to get the money from Hamas. So what a silly idea for us, if we’re trying to weaken the extremists, we’re going to take away the money from the group that’s providing the schools that teach democracy and human rights, we’re going to take the money away from the UN. So Iran can make up the difference and ….. to have madrasahs … To teach the young kids their brand of fighting. This is not what we should be doing.
So we advocate for those people and we do it from a pro-Israel perspective. The organization was founded on the principle that we are fighting for the future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people are where we come from. Yes, someone has to do human rights work. I totally agree. Again, kol hakavod. You know, good luck. [nervous laughter] I’m really supportive, but it’s not for me to answer, that is for other people to do.
IRA GLUNTS is a secular American Jew who opposes the Israeli occupation and oppression of the Palestinian people. He lives in Madison, NY; and with his wife owns and operates a used and rare book business. Mr. Glunts first lived in Israel in 1972-3, where he taught English and physical education in a small rural school in the Negev.
An earlier version of this article appeared at Mondoweiss.com.