J Street director talks urgency at Berkeley JCC

J Street president and founder Jeremy Ben-Ami has faced harsh criticism since the news broke last month that his dovish Israel lobby had accepted $750,000 from liberal financier George Soros, despite years of flat denials.

But that didn’t appear to be an issue for a mostly friendly, cheering crowd at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley, where Ben-Ami outlined his positions on Mideast peace in an Oct. 18 talk.

J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami speaks Oct. 18 at the JCC of the East Bay.

Those positions largely entail more stick than carrot when it comes to Israel.

“The most urgent threat to Israel is failure to solve the conflict,” Ben-Ami said in his talk, which was titled “The Urgency of Two States: The American Jewish Community’s Role” and was free to attend. “Israel needs not the unquestioning hand of love, but a firm hand.”

In front of a packed auditorium of some 200 people, Ben-Ami started with a short review of his Israel bona fides. His great-grandparents took part in the First Aliyah in the 1880s. His father fought in the Irgun, pre-state Israel’s guerrilla force.

He said he enthusiastically supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish democratic state, as well as the right to defend itself against terror. “I am not a pacifist,” Ben-Ami said. “I am a firm believer in a qualitative military edge for Israel.”

He also criticized the United Nations and the Human Rights Campaign as biased bodies, and he urged Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to return to the negotiating table. But otherwise he kept the heat on Israel for failing to seal a peace deal. “We [J Street] are taking on the pro-Israel gospel,” he said.

A Q&A period followed, with a J Street official choosing from questions submitted by audience members. When Ben-Ami was asked about the Soros controversy, he simply restated his apology. When asked about Judge Richard Goldstone, author of a U.N. report on the Gaza War of 2009 that many in the Jewish community saw as biased against Israel, he lamented the ad hominem attacks on Goldstone, including threats on his life.

After his speech, Ben-Ami chats with Rabbi David Cooper (center), of Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont. photos/dan pine

Ben-Ami criticized Israel’s new demand that the P.A. officially recognize Israel as a Jewish state, something Abbas has refused to do. “This has never been a negotiating demand until now,” he said. He also stressed that the two-state solution is the only answer to the conflict and that a deal needs to conclude in less than a year. Otherwise, he said, “we’re looking at a very bleak next step.”

Though he drew cheers, Ben-Ami had detractors in the audience. “I was pretty appalled at the way the question session was handled,” pro-Israel activist Dan Spitzer of Oakland told j. “The J Street moderator chose some of the easiest questions, tossed them to Ben-Ami, who then easily hit them out of the park. I asked some sharply critical questions, as did others, but — surprise — they were not addressed.”

But others were duly impressed with Ben-Ami. “I’ve heard him speak twice and I find he is pitch-perfect,” said Mike Bank of Berkeley. “I’m amazed to find someone I have not disagreed with on a single position.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.