J Street President: We Criticize Israel's Policies but Believe in Its Right to Exist

Leftist Pro-Israel lobby group J Street held its second annual conference in Washington DC; The group has sparked much controversy for opposing the U.S. veto of the UN Security Council resolution condemning the settlements

President of leftist pro-Israel lobby group J Street, Jeremy Ben Ami, was ecstatic to see the large turnout at the group's second annual conference in Washington DC, though disappointed that the Israeli Embassy did not send a representative.

"I think the sight of so many people in one place is so energizing," Ben Ami told Haaretz, "our voices are starting to be heard; it’s thrilling and exciting and motivating for the activists."

Jeremy Ben Ami
Natasha Mozgovaya

How can you view this as such a success if the Israeli Embassy did not send a representative to the conference?

"I think Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren made an enormous mistake by not attending the conference."

"I understand that J Street does not agree with the government of Israel on a number of policy matters, but to meet only with the people that you agree with is not the way you conduct diplomacy and not the way the Ambassador of the State of Israel should relate to the US Jewish community."

The U.S. administration vetoed the UN Security Council resolution that condemned settlements. You were against the veto. Do you regret this opposition in light of criticism claiming J Street is out of synch with the government's position?

"Our position was to do everything possible to avoid the UN Security Council vote altogether. That was our first call and the Obama administration tried to do it. They tried to convince the Palestinians and to find an alternative [to the vote]. They were in a very difficult position and they tried to avoid casting the veto."

"It’s not in America's interest [to veto the resolution]. I understand the Israelis, the veto is not helpful to them, but Israel has to understand what this costs America. At times there is not enough appreciation in Israel for how much America risks to protect Israel in the UN at every turn."

Still, any second thoughts about J Street's position?

"This was not an easy decision. Politically this was very problematic, and there are definitely strong arguments against it. There was a strong case to be made that there are a whole lot of ways for the US to convey to Israel just how deeply current status quo undercuts American and Israeli interests. But we stand by the decision; we understand it wasn’t popular, but we think it was the right one. As David [Saperstein] said tonight, sometimes we make decisions that are not going to be easy or popular. And we will accept the consequences, because we stand by what we believe in."

J Street emphasizes the importance of working with students. Have you done this to make up for the difficulties you have encountered in working with the Congress, largely due to AIPAC opposition?

“We are making huge progress on Capital Hill. In the 2008 elections our political action committee ended up with 29 members of Congress we had endorsed. In this Congress, although we’ve lost Gary Ackerman, we still have 44 – 50 percent more members of Congress, and I think there will be an increase in 2012."

"We will continue to grow, because this is the way of the future in the Jewish community – this is where the majority of younger liberal Jews are. And this is where the Members of Congress will be too."

Any plans for the 2012 presidential elections?

“We’ll certainly defend President Obama when he runs for reelection, because we think he is a true friend of Israel. I don’t think our political arm will endorse a presidential candidate. We will do what we did in 2008 when we had a whole website defending the future president against the lies and slurs that are so common in right wing politics. Those lies are still out there and they’ll come up again. We will be there to make sure there is correct information to counter it."

But sometimes it seems as though you need to focus your energies on protecting yourselves, especially in light of all the criticism against your policies.

“Absolutely, but in some sense it’s all the same small group of people on the far right who are making claims like 'the president is Muslim' or 'he is manipulated by Iranians or Saudis'. There has to be sunshine behind these anonymous websites. People now know who funds us – the question now is, who funds these smear campaigns. Who is putting the money, the millions of dollars, in campaigns to smear the president, and the hundreds of thousands to smear us?"

Once the secret Soros donations to J Street were exposed, did you start filtering your donations in any way?

"There is nothing wrong with anyone who funds J Street. We are very proud to receive the support of George Soros. The only impact that this exposure has had on us is that George Soros increased his funding, which is just fine with us. We actually think he represents the values that we are speaking about at the conference."

"[As far as allegations that J Street receives Iranian and Saudi funding] We don’t know any of the sources [of the allegations]. 'Makor Rishon' had a headline claiming we receive Iranian and Saudi funding. I asked them to offer even shred of evidence; there is no Iranian or Saudi funding in J Street, and I wonder how this information found its way to the front page of a newspaper…”

Some say that the Jewish community shouldn’t be too vocal in its praise of the revolutions in the Arab world, lest they later become the center of some conspiracy. What do you think?

"The world is moving towards a more democratic form of government, and it will only happen over time. It’s important that we as an American Jewish community, as well as Israelis, be in line with the hopes and the aspirations of these people. Security, good jobs, a good future for their kids; that’s what they are fighting for, that's the reason they are in the streets and it has nothing to do with us."

"If we express our support for their hopes and dreams, in the end it will be good for us and Israel and the US Jewish community."

Is it good for the peace process?

"Perhaps the more the situation in the Arab world causes people to question where things are headed in the future, it will open up people’s eyes, and this unrest will actually cause people to say: 'Let’s take this chance before it’s too late'. "

At the conference, Peter Beinart said that Israel can’t be holy in the days of Bibi, Lieberman and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Do you agree with this?

"To the extent that values of Judaism would argue for inclusive treatment of minorities, appropriate treatment of women, an end to the way in which the Palestinians are treated – yes, what is happening today is not in keeping with our Jewish values. So yes, I do believe he is correct."

There is a claim that J Street's activities cause harm to Israel. Do you think that it’s correct, even if it’s unintentional?

"That's a very general charge. In what way?"

Israel's image, for example. De-legitimization of Israel.

"It is so important to draw the line between what is criticism of policy – that’s what we do – and questioning the Israel's right to exist. There is no question J Street stands for Israel’s right to exist. This is a fundamentally Zionist, pro-Israeli organization that believes that Israel has the right to exist as the home of the Jewish people. So anything else is criticism of policy."

"We don’t contribute in the slightest to the de-legitimization of Israel. And I would argue that in the end, what will lead to greater problems in Israel, is confusing criticism of policy with true de-legitimization.”

On Tuesday, the conference participants will lobby Congress members on Capitol Hill, with one of the main themes being the preservation of foreign aid to Israel and the Palestinians.

The gathering on the hill was inspired by a letter to President Obama, initiated by the Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky, which called on the administration to prevent reductions in foreign aid 'that advance US interests in the Middle East', further calling on him 'forestall efforts to separate aid for Israel from other assistance'.