j street - Haaretz - June 28 0211
A New Voice for Israel, the new book by J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami. Photo by Haaretz
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Natasha Mozgovaya
Trent Franks Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya
Manda Zand Ervin Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya
Natasha Mozgovaya
Sarah Stern Photo by Natasha Mozgovaya

It probably won't take long before the critics of the leftist pro-Israel lobby J Street dig their teeth into Jeremy Ben-Ami's new book.

That might be one of the reasons that the J Street founder uses so many pages to clarify his family's Zionist credentials and connections to Israel, listing the grandparents who were among the first settlers in Tel Aviv; his father, who was a member of Irgun and later a founder of the American Friends for a Jewish Palestine; relatives living there, and his own two years in Israel, that included traumatic experience of witnessing a suicide bomb attack at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem that left 16 dead and 178 wounded.

The Ben-Ami family story is fascinating, stretching from Don Isaac Abrabanel in the 15th century to Jeremy's great-grandmother's personal encounter with a blood libel in czarist Russia, through the fight for Jewish Palestine and up to Ben-Ami himself, an Upper East Side Manhattan kid.

However, I am quite sure his critics won't memorize these parts of his journey, but will rather highlight paragraphs of his dealing with the boycott, divestment, sanctions campaign against Israel; conservative pro-Israel organizations, and his pledge that "We want nothing less than to rewrite the rules of American politics," by turning criticism of Israeli government policies into a legitimate part of the discourse on the Middle East.

The book, "A new voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation," tries to make a case for including reasonable critics of Israel within the discourse, for the sake of Israel and U.S. interests. It exposes, perhaps inadvertently, the author's psychological struggle over whether he is a part of the discourse.

In the introduction, for example, while speaking of Rabin's peace efforts, he writes "we almost did it" - but at other moments notes his choice to live in the U.S. over Israel, taking a chilling distance from today's Israel.

Ben-Ami calls for "a new definition of victory for pro-Israel advocacy," claiming that 21st-century Zionism is about telling Israel the truth and admitting that there is a moral dimension of the conflict.

Ben-Ami's diagnoses - "Israel's very existence is threatened by terminal illness," "without defining its borders and ending the occupation, Israel is living on borrowed land and time" - and a hint that the country might not be there for his grandchildren to celebrate its bicentennial, runs contrary to the usual prognosis by American supporters of Israel.

His analysis of AIPAC and other groups' influence on the U.S. foreign policy is milder than the criticism that appears in Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer's book on pro-Israel lobbying ("it's oversimplification", he says ), but then he goes on the offensive against politicians who won't voice their real positions on Israel, fearing losing the Jewish vote and financial and popular support.

"They know that what they are being asked to support is one sided or over the top, but few members of Congress are willing to say no," he writes.

Some of Ben-Ami's warnings, related to the young generation of U.S. Jews, were already extensively presented by Peter Beinart, who shills for the tome on the back cover, along with Bernard Avishai and others.

He writes about the campaign "to silence dissent" within the Jewish community, including threats from organizations to withdraw funding, concerns over hosting critics of Israel on panels, and more.

Ben-Ami brings some examples of the prices J Street activists pay for their positions - with vicious attacks by the pro-Israel activists against them - such as a story of J Street activist Abby Backer, daughter of a rabbi, who was approached by a woman yelling "I should spit on you! You must be a Palestinian."

When he speaks before Jewish communities, Ben-Ami says, critics always ask him predictable questions - while the supporters prefer to quietly shake his hand after the session is over.

"These people have been driven from the room over the years by invective and intimidation", he concludes.

Ben-Ami believes that "not every "pro" requires an "anti" and that being pro-Israel doesn't mean being anti-Palestinian.

There are arguments that will make many Israelis uncomfortable - such as a call to make distinction between different BDS activists - basically, those who support Israel's right to exist and those who don't.

There is a long list of vocal Israel's supporters mentioned in the book who will probably let their thoughts be known rather soon - from Prof. Alan Dershowitz, mentioned more than once, to the Emergency Committee for Israel, to Christians United for Israel, tagged in the book as "a group with whom we have little in common."

The Jewish organizations leaders probably won't like paragraphs such as "by arguing that a decorated and respected general like David Petraeus is wrong for drawing a simple and logical connection between the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict and American interests in the region for which he is responsible, American Jewish leaders risk appearing to put their own interests and those of the State of Israel ahead of the interests of the United States."

'The Arab hurricane'

At a fundraiser held by the pro-Israel Washington think tank Endowment for Middle East Truth last week, Republican Congressman Trent Franks announced that "there is no stronger supporter of Israel on the Hill than the evangelical Christians, when I traveled to Israel I felt you are in the middle of my soul; either we go forward hand in hand with Israel, or we perish." Franks lambasted the Obama administration for making a bigger deal of "Israel building in Jerusalem than Iran pursuing nuclear bomb. It's important that we tell this administration to stand by our most important ally."

Sarah Stern, the founder of the think tank, which is also called EMET, reported to the gathering that "we've been since the emergence of the Arab spring that I prefer to call 'hurricane,' on the Hill, trying to convince to stop the military aid and shipments to Egypt and financial aid to the Palestinian Authority - Hamas is a terrorist organization and we demand American tax dollars stop going to the PA."

Ben-Ami claims there is a basic flaw in trying to prevent dialogue between the Muslims and the Jews, including dealing with their criticism of Israel. "How can groups in conflict make progress at explaining themselves to each other if they are prevented from talking?" he writes, referring to the pressure applied on rabbis not to partner with the Islamic Society of North America.

The EMET event showed that many only support dialogue with "the right Muslims," who warn of the dangers of the radical Islam.

One of EMET's "Speaker of the Truth" award went this year to the Somali-born former Dutch MP and author Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a well known critic of radical Islam, who spoke at the dinner via video-conference about young Muslims who are sent to madrasas and "might become foot soldiers for Al-Qaeda or Lashkar E-Taiba."

Another went to Manda Zand Ervin, a political refugee from Iran and activist for women's and human rights, who called for the U.S. to more actively support Iran's protesters.

"We are afraid to do it so we won't be called imperialists - but Iran is now the biggest imperialist, interfering in Syria, creating all those enemies surrounding Israel," she said. "Iranian people screamed: 'Obama, are you with us or with them?' When people asked me: 'There is an Arab Spring, but where are the Iranians?' and I said: 'They saw that they could stand up and get massacred, and no one would care!' There are more lobbyists for Iran than there are Washingtonians. I ask you tonight for support for the Iranian people - because the Iranian regime is our common enemy."