Founder touts J Streets new voice in Israel support

Want to raise Jewish blood pressure? Mention J Street in casual conversation and count to five. Someone is sure to get steamed, either passionately defending or passionately blasting the controversial organization.

The self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby is often criticized as being too tough on Israel. Supporters see J Street as a champion of the two-state solution and a check on what they see as Israeli intransigence.

Founder Jeremy Ben-Ami explains his motives for launching J Street in his book, “A New Voice for Israel.” Part autobiography, part polemic, the book lays out his take on Middle East peace.

Jeremy Ben-Ami

Ben-Ami will be in the Bay Area on Aug. 10 for an address at the World Affairs Council of Northern California. He spoke with j. about his book, the status of Israeli-Palestinian relations and more.

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: It’s an urgent time for Israel, for the American Jewish community. I really feel the need to sound the alarm and to say that everything we’re working toward, to have a Jewish, democratic and safe Israel, is at risk. It’s important to get out the call to action.

Q:  Why the urgency?

A: The Palestinian people are living in a situation in which they do not have their freedom or an expression of their national identity. This is not sustainable. There will be a Palestinian state. This is not a question in the long run. The question is, what will be the boundaries and the pain?

Q:  What sort of pain are you talking about?

A: The only way there can be a negotiated two-state solution is if the Palestinian people make the concession that their “return” will be to the new state of Palestine and not the state of Israel. That’s a rock-bottom position of J Street. The flip side is there has to be a recognition from the Jewish community that there will be some form of compensation for [Palestinian] refugees.

Q:  What is your take on the so-called Arab Spring?

A: The Arab Spring is a work in pro-gress, and we all have more questions than answers on the final outcome for the region and Israel. The overarching trend toward greater freedom and democracy, and against authoritarianism, is a good thing. The trend is something Jews, Americans and all interested in freedom should be rooting for.

Q: The Palestinian Authority is pushing the U.N. to declare statehood in September. What is J Street’s position?

A: We don’t think the vote is helpful in resolving the conflict. What will resolve it is a plan on the table that takes on the issues, that comes up with painful compromises, and that’s not what a U.N. declaration will do. It’s a symbolic statement that inflames feelings.

Q:  President Barack Obama drew criticism when he stressed the 1967 borders as a framework for a final settlement. What is J Street’s position on borders?

A: The security barrier has been an incredibly important element of Israel’s successful efforts to reduce terrorism coming from the West Bank. J Street supports the concept of a security barrier. The only issue for us is not the existence of a wall — it’s a good thing — but location. If it separates farmers from their fields for no security reason, that moves you in the wrong direction. You may prevent a bomber today, but it builds up resentment.

Q:  You have criticized legislation in the Knesset that you say harms Israel’s democracy, including loyalty oaths, investigations of NGOs and the law allowing civil action against those calling for boycotts of Israel.

A: The first few chips taken away from the fabric of democracy don’t quite cause public outrage, but at some point the balance tips. This is a creeping erosion of democratic rights, of the fabric of a high-quality democracy in Israel. It’s the job of those of us who follow this closely to sound the alarm.

Q: In the book you write about the S.F. Jewish Film Festival incident two years ago — the controversial screening of a documentary about Rachel Corrie that included a discussion with Corrie’s mother — and the resulting federation guidelines regarding Israel and free speech. You come down against the guidelines. Why?

A: I think it’s a bad idea to limit plays and movies based on content, even when we disagree with them. It’s better to show them, then have a panel discussion. An open policy is better than a closed policy. We got attacked for having a BDS [boycott-divestment-sanctions] activist speak at our conference, but it was in the context of a panel. We tried to show why that person’s views were wrong.

Q: One of the criticisms of J Street is that you rarely seem to say anything positive about Israel.

A: I couldn’t love this country more. It’s the land of my family. So many people [at J Street] are involved precisely because they love Israel so much. We do this out of love. But we as Jews have an obligation to hold our national homeland to account, to live up the principles and values the world should be guided by.

Jeremy Ben-Ami
will speak 6 p.m. Aug. 10 at the World Affairs Council of Northern California, 312 Sutter St., Second Floor, S.F. Tickets: $5-$15. For more information or to register, visit

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.