J Street president to speak at Shaare Emeth program

Jeremy Ben-Ami

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, will speak on the topic, “How to be Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace in the 21st Century,” at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, March 21, at Congregation Shaare Emeth. He will be joined in the discussion by Rabbi Jim Bennett of Shaare Emeth, and there will be a post-talk discussion followed by refreshments.

Ben-Ami, 55, lives in Washington, D. C. with his wife and two children. He received a law degree from New York University and is a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Relations at Princeton University.

Ben-Ami is proud of his family ties to Israel that go back 130 years to the first aliyah when his grandparents were one of the founding families of Tel Aviv.  His father was an activist and leader in the Irgun, working for Israel’s independence and on the rescue of European Jews before and during World War II.

The Light caught up with Ben-Ami for an interview in anticipation of his St. Louis visit. 

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Will this be your first visit to St. Louis?

I was in St. Louis soon after J Street’s launch, but we’re only now beginning to explore organizing locally.​

Currently, how many members of J Street are there nationally and in St. Louis?

J Street now has 200,000 supporters nationally.  In the greater St. Louis area, we have over 2,500 supporters. 

David Friedman, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, issued a statement criticizing your slogan, “Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace,” saying it implies that there are pro-Israel people who are anti-peace.  How would you answer that criticism?

There is more than one way to express one’s support for the State of Israel.  Some people who are “pro-Israel” believe that there is no distinction between supporting the policies of the government of Israel and supporting the state itself.  Some of us who constitute the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement believe that the present government of Israel is actually leading the country away from peace through a policy of creeping annexation of the West Bank, unlimited settlement expansion and unending occupation of millions of Palestinians.  We do believe that the present government’s policies are perpetuating conflict rather than leading toward its resolution.

At last week’s AIPAC national conference, its leaders reached out to the progressive community and strongly endorsed a two-state solution.  Do these moves reduce the differences between J Street and AIPAC?

It is important for the Jewish establishment to recognize that support for Israel is eroding among young people and progressives. Reaching out to those constituencies to engage in dialogue is critical, and I support it.  But what’s driving those groups away from Israel is not a lack of outreach, it’s Israeli government policy and specifically the perpetuation of the occupation of the West Bank. Efforts to rebuild support among these target groups will not succeed until the actual policies of the government of Israel change.​

Is J Street doing a similar outreach to the more conservative parts of the pro-Israel community? 

​J Street hopes to attract support from anyone who agrees with the policy positions and values that we hold: support for Israel and a two-state solution; a belief that one can be pro-Israel and be critical of the Israeli government’s policies; a belief that the Jewish community should have an open ​conversation about Israel; and a belief that our values require that we not treat other people the way we wouldn’t want to be treated ourselves.

Does the existence of both AIPAC and J Street create confusion among pro-Israel people, or is it  advantageous to offer alternative paths to being pro-Israel and pro-peace?

It’s absolutely advantageous because it ensures a place in the pro-Israel camp for a far larger group of people. There is a wide range of opinion in the Jewish community on issues related to Israel and how best to support Israel.  I think it does a disservice to the community and to Israel to ask everyone to hold only one opinion. An approach that says you can only be in the pro-Israel camp if you agree with the Netanyahu government dramatically limits the number of people who will remain in the pro-Israel camp.

Does J Street support President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem? 

J Street absolutely believes that Israel’s capital is in Jerusalem. We also believe that in order to end the conflict with the Palestinians, there will need to be a Palestinian state and that state’s capital will need to be in the Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem. The entire world is waiting to formally recognize the capital and to relocate its embassy pending an agreement along these lines between the parties. We believe that the way that President Trump is handling this actually works against his own goal of achieving the “ultimate deal.” By weighing in on Israel’s side on this sensitive issue, the U.S. has alienated the Palestinians, incited violence, undercut its credibility as a mediator as well as its international standing.​

Since the Trump administration made the embassy announcement, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said Palestinians will not consider a U.S. peace plan. Is Abbas still a viable partner for peace?

​President Abbas gave a very detailed speech a couple of weeks ago at the Security Council explicitly laying out his proposal for a two-state solution and a process for negotiations to achieve that goal. President Abbas is the only one of the three leaders who publicly supports a two-state solution at this point. President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu actively refuse to support a two-state solution and are implementing policies that make peaceful resolution of the conflict more difficult.

Even if Abbas comes back to the peace table, what role would Hamas play in a final statehood deal?

Hamas needs to recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and agree to abide by the political agreements that the PLO has made.  If it does that it can be part of the political process.  If it refuses to meet these conditions, it can have no place at the table.​

Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for a two-state solution?

For me, it’s not a question of optimism or pessimism, it’s a matter of necessity that there be two states for two peoples. We have to actively shape the future that we want to see, not passively express optimism or pessimism.​

What would you like people to take away from your talk in St. Louis?

​I hope that people will understand what it looks like to be pro-Israel, pro-peace — and that those who agree with us will join us; and those who don’t will have some of their most significant questions and criticisms addressed.