J Street: Criticism of Israel does not make us the enemy
Comments come in wake of Foreign Ministry snubbing of congressional visit back by the dovish lobby.
The attitude of Israeli politicians and U.S. right-wing Jews toward anyone critical of Israel has to change, director of the left-leaning U.S. lobby J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, told Haaretz in an interview on Thursday.
According to Ben-Ami, "A part of the Jewish community in the United States and some people here are intolerant of people who disagree with them or criticize them.
"And that intolerance immediately flips to 'you are anti-Israel - you're a Muslim lover or you're Muslim,'" he told Haaretz in an interview. "These are things that they call me, and this is what some of them call the president. It has to change both in the politics here and in the right wing of the American Jewish community."
Ben-Ami's comment came as the Foreign Ministry apparently came to regret its snubbing of a U.S. congressional delegation this week and sent a senior official to smooth over the affair.
The apparent apology, however, failed to assuage the deeply insulted congressmen, whose visit was sponsored by J Street.
The Foreign Ministry sent Yaron Zeidman to meet one of the delegate members. A second meeting was held between the ministry's religious section head, Bahij Mansour, and delegation member Warren Clark, executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace. A day earlier, ministry officials had said Clark heads an anti-Israel organization.
But along with the ministry's discomfort, there was a hint of anger at what it sees as the U.S. lobby group's attempt to set the diplomatic agenda.
"The Foreign Ministry is happy to arrange meeting of this type, including with U.S congressmen in Israel at the moment, without need for intermediaries of any type," according to an official statement.
The ministry was "troubled by the diplomatically unacceptable attempt to dictate who is present at such meetings", it said.
J Street was founded about two years ago as a counterbalance to the large Pro-Israeli AIPAC lobby, which espouses a right-wing line regarding Israel and the peace process.
J Street, which has some 150,000 members, holds a more dovish position, defining itself as pro Israel and pro peace.
Recently relations between J Street and Israel seemed to be on the mend. After boycotting J Street for a long time, Israel's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren, changed tack and commended the group for its positions on the Goldstone report and Iran.
So Ben-Ami and the congressmen were taken aback when Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon gave them the cold shoulder. The ministry's convoluted explanations and excuses did nothing to assuage their hurt feelings.
"What happened this week is larger than this delegation and J Street," says Ben-Ami.
"I would expect Israeli diplomats charged with conducting diplomacy and foreign relations - and Danny Ayalon in particular - to be the most expert and understanding about how to talk to people with whom they disagree. The fact that they can't even talk to American Jews and Congress members who are friends of Israel but whom they disagree with says a lot about Israel's ability to conduct foreign policy."
Ben-Ami was born to a right-wing Zionist family. His grandfather immigrated to pre-state Israel more than a century ago. His father, a member of the Etzel pre-state underground militia under Menachem Begin, was on board the ship the Altalena when it was bombarded and scuttled by the Israel Defense Forces. His parents are buried on the Mount of Olives and he himself has lived in Israel for several years.
The negative approach to J Street stemmed from a lack of information about the organization's positions and from a slander campaign conducted by certain groups in the American Jewish community, Ben-Ami says.
Relations improved after J Street provided Israeli embassy officials with information about J Street and "what we stand for ... our deep connections to Israel and how much Israel means to us," he says.
"We are not and we never were opposed to sanctions on Iran, so to say that is simply a lie," he says. "We don't think a military attack on Iran, in the end, would be strategically beneficial. We would prefer a diplomatic resolution so we supported President Obama's approach. If that doesn't work we will try sanctions and if that doesn't work we will look at other options."
Ben-Ami says it's the same thing regarding the Goldstone report on Israel's Gaza offensive a year ago. "We are not going to endorse or support a report," he says. "The Goldstone report is an indictment and it needs to be investigated. That's what we are urging Israel to do.
"But we are not going to engage in a personal character assassination of Judge Goldstone, who is an honorable man."
According to Ben-Ami, "the long-established American Jewish organizations don't understand that they haven't been speaking for a very large number of Jewish Americans, and if they don't open up the doors for us in their organizations we are going to form our own organizations.
"Their solution is to force young people to hold their views and if they don't, then they are not welcome on campus and in their organizations. My view is - let them in."
On Thursday, Ben-Ami and the congressional delegation met former foreign minister and opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
"Even if there are disagreements, this is not the way to treat Israel's friends and well-wishers, especially at a time when so many are threatening it," Livni said.
"We can't afford to lose those who see themselves as our friends," she said.