J Street boss calls Israels building plan a wakeup call

J Street founder and executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami called Israel’s decision to build 1,600 new homes in east Jerusalem “a wakeup call” during a talk last week at the JCC of San Francisco.

“We are not going to get a [peace] agreement, let alone get to the talks, with business as usual,” Ben-Ami said at the March 11 talk, which was attended by about 100 people.

Ben-Ami also told the audience that U.S. officials need to offer concrete proposals in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “not just be a messenger, a carrier between the two parties.”

Four days later, J Street backed up that sentiment by sending a petition with 18,000 signatures to the White House that called on the Obama administration to “provide a clear time frame for talks.” The petition also said the administration must “commit to propose solutions when the parties can’t close gaps, be willing to state publicly when the parties are not living up to their responsibilities and be ready to demonstrate real seriousness of purpose to reach a two-state endgame.”

The talk in San Francisco, sponsored by the J Street Education Fund, was designed in part to help J Street dispel perceived myths about itself. Ben-Ami answered questions from the audience and from two local J Street organizers who served as moderators.

There was a chance that things could have become heated had ardent anti–J Street forces tried to take Ben-Ami to task, but the nighttime event was civil and non-confrontational, and Ben-Ami was able to spend time addressing what J Street considers misperceptions.

Such as: J Street is not fully and truly supportive of Israel. “We are trying to change the rule book on what it means to be pro-Israel,” he said. “We can talk about the Palestinian people. We can talk about the need for a Palestinian state — not just because it is right, but because it is in America’s interest and is in Israel’s interest.”

Moderators Eva Seligman-Kennard (left) and Susie Coliver listen to Jeremy Ben-Ami at the JCCSF. photo/joseph amster

Much of Ben-Ami’s focus during the event was on Israel’s March 8 disclosure of plans to build housing units in east Jerusalem, an announcement that coincided with Vice President Joseph Biden’s recent visit to Israel.

“It is an absolutely fascinating day in the history of this conflict that the vice president of the United States could make probably his only visit of his first term in office to Israel,” Ben-Ami said, “and that the government of Israel on that day would choose to make this announcement. It’s really mind-boggling.”

He called it “beyond a slap in the face to the vice president; this is really a wakeup call to all of us.” (Israel subsequently apologized for the timing of the announcement.)

J Street’s stated mission is to “advocate for urgent American diplomatic leadership to achieve a two-state solution and a broader regional, comprehensive peace and to ensure a broad debate on Israel and the Middle East in national politics and the American Jewish community.” Although J Street is viewed by some as an alternative to AIPAC, Ben-Ami praised that organization’s work. “I have deep respect for AIPAC,” he said.

“Without their lobbying and support, the State of Israel might not be there today. J Street was not created to be ‘anti’ any organization. Our reason for being is that we believe there is a peaceful resolution to this conflict, and that diplomacy and the creation of a two-state solution” is the way to guarantee Israel’s survival and future security.

Ben-Ami said there is “a very important concept to the nature of J Street,” namely, “we are trying to change the nature of being ‘pro’ something from requiring that there be an ‘anti.’” Someone can be pro-Israel and believe in the State of Israel without being  anti-Palestinian, he said.

“In fact, in order to be secure and to have a future, the State of Israel, in our opinion, needs a Palestinian state.”

JTA contributed to this report.