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My conversation with J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami

StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein and J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, who recently debated in Los Angeles. Credit: StandWithUs and J Street.
StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein and J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami, who recently debated in Los Angeles. Credit: StandWithUs and J Street.

On Monday evening, March 11, I had a public discussion with Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of J Street, at Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles. The topics included how American Jews should approach pro-Israel advocacy, whether peace is currently attainable between Israel and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, and what American Jews can do to help the two sides reach an agreement.

We agreed that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is dangerous and harmful to Israel. We agreed that the Palestinian teaching of hate, incitement, and terrorism is an impediment to peace, and we both professed a desire for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

We strongly disagreed, however, on some critical issues. J Street argued that American Jews should lobby the U.S. government to pressure Israel into changing some of its policies. Referring to a statement from J Street’s website, I read aloud that, “J Street was formed to change the conversation on Israel and to give voice to American Jews who believe that they have a responsibility to vocally oppose Israeli government policies that threaten Israel’s future.” While Mr. Ben-Ami claimed he did not recognize this statement from his website, I was troubled that J Street felt it had a right to lobby the American government in order to pressure Israel—and its democratically elected government—into pursuing J Street’s agenda.

We also disagreed about whether Abbas is a reliable partner for peace. While Mr. Ben-Ami assured the audience that “this is the time, and Abbas is the man,” I noted that just two months ago, in January 2013, Abbas honored past Palestinian terrorist leaders, including the Mufti of Jerusalem who collaborated with Adolf Hitler to bring the Holocaust to the Middle East. I questioned how Mr. Ben-Ami could trust Israel’s security in the hands of Abbas, who promotes one set of values to his Arabic constituency and quite another to Western audiences.

Likewise, Mr. Ben-Ami and I differed on how he characterized certain facts. For instance:

Beitar soccer games:

Mr. Ben-Ami suggested that Israeli incitement and Palestinian incitement are similar. I expressed that I felt this was an unreasonable comparison.  For evidence, he pointed out that Israeli crowds at Jerusalem soccer matches shout, “Death to Arabs” so much that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he could no longer root for his team. In response, I noted that this is a critical point: Olmert represented the state of Israel and he condemned such views. I said that you can judge a society by the way its leadership responds when its people say or do hateful things.

Mr. Ben-Ami then implied that there was a lack of an official Israeli government response to the hateful soccer rhetoric because Olmert is now a private citizen. In fact Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu strongly condemned the racist comments of Beitar fans.

Monument for Baruch Goldstein: When I cited Baruch Goldstein as an example of how Israel denounces acts of violence by Israelis against Palestinian civilians, he stated that Israel “funded a monument [to Baruch Goldstein]. See the public memorial!” In fact, Israel never funded a monument to Baruch Goldstein. There was indeed a monument erected by some Goldstein supporters, but the Israeli army demolished it after the Knesset passed a law in 1999 forbidding memorials to terrorists. My point was that the Israeli government condemned Goldstein as a terrorist while the PA government glorifies terrorists.

Demographic threat: Mr. Ben-Ami repeated his oft-made declaration that Israel must be pressured into making peace now because demographics are such that Jews will be a minority in Israel within a generation and “will be ruling over a majority that doesn’t have rights.” I called this fear-mongering and asked Mr. Ben-Ami if he includes the Palestinian population of 1.5 million people living in Gaza in his accounting of Israeli demographic concerns. This is a critical point because Israel no longer has administrative or political control over the Gaza population. Mr. Ben-Ami admitted he includes the population of Gaza. Interestingly, if we remove Gaza from these calculations, Mr. Ben-Ami’s demographic numbers are reduced by 50 percent and no longer make the case for the demographic threat being an emergency.

Humanitarian blockade on Gaza: Mr. Ben-Ami asserted that Israel caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza in the 2008 war through its blockade and that the blockade was lifted in part because of J Street’s lobbying. I pointed out that Israel has consistently allowed food and medical supplies into Gaza, even during wars and blockades. At the time, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which provides aid to Palestinian refugees, said that the agency received 15 trucks of aid a day and had two months of stock in Gaza to aid recipients.

Mediation techniques: While I agreed with Mr. Ben-Ami’s statements that we need an active American role in facilitating Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, I disagreed with his desire to impose specific details about what the peace agreement should be. As an honest broker, I would hope that the American role would be to mediate a plan arrived at by the parties themselves, rather than pressuring the parties into preexisting expectations. President Barack Obama himself echoed this sentiment when he recently said that his role should be to listen to both sides and help them work out compromises.

Looking back at the evening’s discussion, I am saddened that Mr. Ben-Ami insists that he and J Street are helping Israel, when in reality the actions of his organization are only hurting Israel and the advancement of peace. While we all wish for a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians, J Street’s work only emboldens Palestinians to continue their history of rejectionism and incitement. J Street encourages Palestinian refusal to return to negotiations because it does not require any accountability from them and does not seek to change hateful attitudes towards Israel—both of which are prerequisites for a lasting peace.

Roz Rothstein is the CEO of StandWithUs.

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