Statehood achieved, his family migrated to New York before Ben-Ami was born. Now 57, he spent three years living in Israel in the 1990s. Like his father, he was a dedicated supporter of the state of Israel. Unlike his father, he was a liberal with a willingness to criticize the government and its treatment of Palestinians. Yet when he tried to participate in debates in the U.S. over the future of Israel, he found that his utterly reasonable views — support for a two-state solution, opposition to an endless military occupation — were considered out of bounds.
To change the political dynamic in the U.S., he theorized, a new group in Washington needed to be formed, one that was pro-Jewish, pro-Israel, and pro-peace, organized and run by Jews supportive of the state of Israel. “It falls to the Jewish people of today to complete the work, to bring the dreams of our grandparents and great-grandparents to fruition,” Ben-Ami writes in his 2011 memoir, “A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of a Jewish Nation.”
“This generation must make the decisions and compromises necessary to ensure the future of the Jewish homeland that my great-grandparents envisioned when they arrived by boat in the historic port of Jaffa 130 years ago in the second year of the First Aliyah.”
The group officially launched as J Street in April 2008. Ben-Ami told early staffers that he wanted to make quick work of the conflict, as there were other big issues that needed attention. “I want to try this theory of change,” he would say, according to multiple people who heard his refrain at the time, “and if it doesn’t work, I’ll close down the shop and we’ll work on climate change.”
“I want to try this theory of change and if it doesn’t work, I’ll close down the shop and we’ll work on climate change.”
The group chose “J Street” as its name because there is no J Street in the city, and this new group aimed to be something new under the Washington sun. The joke inside J Street is that the “J” now stands for “Jeremy.”
Ben-Ami recognizes that J Street is a ways away from achieving its initial goal. “We have not resolved the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that is true,” he said. “But the creation of a lobby in the United States on these issues, in and of itself, is only one factor in getting to an end of conflict and an end of occupation and to peace.” In addition, “you also need on top of that actual leadership in the region. You need an Israeli prime minister that is actually interested in doing this. You need a Palestinian leader who’s capable of doing it. An American president who’s willing to take some risks and to lead.”
The political reality in the U.S. and in Israel could not be further from the conditions that Ben-Ami described. In the meantime, Ben-Ami’s ambition for rapid change has been taken down a notch. “I perhaps may have been too flip in stating many times that an agreement and an end to the conflict actually was within reach,” he said. “But if you read my book and if you read the things that I wrote, this effort was to set up an institution, not a short-term campaign.” In that, J Street has succeeded.
In the past few years, J Street has solidified into a Washington institution, the kind with a splashy gala and annual conference with powerful keynote speakers. This year’s unfolded at the end of October, featuring remarks by five Democratic presidential candidates, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Progressive Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal — all gathered to celebrate the liberal counterpoint to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Today, Ben-Ami cites the heady optimism of the early Obama days to account for his high expectations. “He did win the Nobel Peace Prize on spec,” he said of Barack Obama’s 2009 award. “I think we all perhaps overstated our optimism, and I definitely glibly commented, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to sort of get this done and move on to other issues?’”
Borders, Not Boycotts
“If I learned anything in that moment, it was that folks are going to have to be brought along to this position, to really take a serious look at some of the claims Israel makes about its security, which are not always right. That security is going to have to be balanced with the necessity of a long-term vision about peace-building, humanitarian concerns, etc.” said Isaac Luria, a founding member of J Street’s staff who helped draft its 2008 statement condemning Israel’s actions. “I think that spooked us, and I know it spooked leadership — that when we took that bold position, it was a hard position to hold.” (Luria now works at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, which was one of the first funders of J Street and recently resumed funding the organization.)
“I believe that the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should focus on borders, not boycotts, as it is a recognized border that will save Israel’s democratic and Jewish character.”
One clear example of that contraction, according to several former staffers, came in March 2012, when Peter Beinart published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for a boycott against goods produced by Israeli settlers. Beinart was scheduled to speak at J Street’s annual national conference a few days later. Beinart’s position was hugely controversial in the Jewish community, and Ben-Ami quickly released a statement distancing himself from it.
After noting that J Street would still welcome Beinart to speak at the conference, Ben-Ami stated that a boycott would be ineffectual because the ideologues driving the settlement enterprise would never change their views. “I believe that the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement should focus on borders, not boycotts, as it is a recognized border that will save Israel’s democratic and Jewish character,” Ben-Ami wrote.
“It was considered a problem to be solved that Peter Beinart had come out ahead on this issue,” said Luck, who left J Street later that year and is now a consultant and political organizer. “That was a moment where I was like, ‘Oh, J Street is not on the leading edge of this issue.’”
The tensions between where J Street was as an institution and where its members — particularly, but not exclusively, the members of its student division, J Street U — wanted it to be came to a head in the summer of 2014, when Israel once again invaded the Gaza strip. J Street issued a statement that mourned everyone from the “dozens of Israeli soldiers and civilians to the more than a thousand Gaza residents dead,” but asserted Israel’s right to defend itself against rocket attacks from the Palestinian militant group Hamas. The “And statement” — as it became known by its critics — was a catalyst for those within or formerly affiliated with J Street who firmly believed that Israel’s violent behavior must be met with boycotts or cuts to U.S. aid and that J Street’s positions were too moderate. The dissent led to the creation of IfNotNow, co-founded by Luck in 2014, and a growth in the membership of Jewish Voice for Peace, both to the left of J Street.
It may have been that J Street’s theory of change was only wrong when applied to peace talks with the Palestinians. But when applied to the politics of the region more broadly, the idea did indeed bear out. The top geopolitical priority of Obama’s second term was the negotiation of a nuclear deal between the U.S., Iran, and five other nations — a deal to which leaders in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates were stridently opposed, advocating for isolation and confrontation of Iran instead.
In December 2013, as the talks were gaining momentum, AIPAC launched its counterattack. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois circulated draft sanctions legislation that both the White House and Iran said would end the nuclear talks if passed. HuffPost framed the move — accurately — as an effort to sabotage the Iran talks in a push for war (one of the authors of that story is a co-author of this one). It was swiftly denounced as anti-Semitic by the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the American Jewish Committee. The ADL put out a statement that read, in part:
The initial [front-page] headline, “Saboteur Sen. Launching War Push,” by itself was outrageous and inappropriate. While legitimate arguments can be made in support of and against the legislation, your headline impugned Senator Menendez’s loyalty, insinuating that he is not acting in the best interest of the United States as he sees it. Running a photo of Sen. Robert Menendez speaking at the podium of an AIPAC event further implies that he was trying to “sabotage” the administration’s efforts on Iran for reasons related to Israel under pressure from American Jews. We are shocked that a version of the anti-Semitic theme that “Jews manipulate the U.S. Government” was boldly featured on your site.
The attack was a genuine threat to HuffPost, which was rallying for the deal. J Street came to the rescue, a concrete demonstration of the organization’s ability to create space for criticism of Israel or AIPAC by defusing weaponized charges of anti-Semitism. In a column published by HuffPost, Ben-Ami allowed that “the headline was perhaps misguided and poorly worded — but it hardly amounts to a major anti-Semitic outrage.” He continued:
I fail to see how showing Sen. Menendez with the AIPAC logo in the background is inappropriate. After all, AIPAC does support the Menendez sanctions bill and is actively lobbying for it — as are the American Jewish Committee and most of the organized Jewish community with the prominent exception of J Street. To consciously edit out AIPAC’s part in this story would actually be journalistic malpractice.
Over the next few years, J Street threw its weight behind the push for the Iran deal, and its presence on the Washington scene undoubtedly did exactly what it was intended to do — give cover to Democrats to buck Israel in pursuit of a policy objective. The political sway Israel wields in Congress, it turned out, was much stronger when it came to deepening its occupation of Palestinian territory than in supporting its interest in isolating Iran. To combat the deal, Israel linked up with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the two other most effective D.C. lobbying operations arrayed against the deal. J Street acted as a major counterbalance.
“J Street was one of the most effective organizations that supported the Iran deal because they had a large grassroots network and growing clout on the Hill,” Ben Rhodes, the White House official in charge of shepherding the deal, told The Intercept. “In addition to their advocacy, their membership also stepped up to help several members of Congress who lost AIPAC support because of the deal.” In October, Rhodes was a moderator on stage at J Street’s annual convention, pressing presidential candidates on the conditioning of aid to Israel.
Ben-Ami was quick to credit others in the coalition, which had been funded and organized by the group Ploughshares, but said that he was proud of the legislative work J Street did to cement the deal. “Our piece of that was the advocacy, and to this day, J Street continues to chair advocacy meetings on Iran-related issues,” Ben-Ami said. “When it came time in 2015 for the actual campaign around the vote, we implemented a very, very intense and sophisticated communications effort and speaking and bringing validators from Israel and doing local organizing with a lot of partners.”
The deal was eventually signed in July 2015. To mollify the deal’s regional opponents, the Obama administration had given Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE running room on their neighborhood priorities. For Saudi Arabia and the UAE, that meant fueling a war in Yemen against Iranian allies. For Israel, that meant rapidly expanding settlements and tightly locking down the populations in Palestinian territories, putting a two-state solution — one of J Street’s founding principles — further from reach. The Obama administration, fearful of scuttling negotiations over the nuclear deal, also eased its pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who, with the help of Iranian militias, had been overseeing the mass murder of Syrian civilians. After taking office, President Donald Trump ripped up the Iran deal.
Aversion to Risk
Early this year, members of J Street U’s board, past and present, presented a letter to Ben-Ami and the J Street board, calling on the organization to take “bold action … that responds appropriately to this political moment” by “imposing actual, tangible costs” for Israel’s occupation policies. “Only when confronted with possible cuts of aid or diplomatic support will the Israeli far-right leadership accept the end of occupation, as recent events show.” The letter came as the Israeli government was moving farther to the right, emboldened in part by the Trump administration, and expanding settlements. The letter’s authors pointed to Israeli authorities’ threat to destroy the Palestinian village of Khan al-Ahmar, despite condemnations by more than 80 House and Senate Democrats.
The letter, signed by 35 people who served on the J Street U board from 2013 to 2019, proposed “that J Street develop a strategy that moves the organization toward an agenda of selective aid reduction, i.e. every shekel the Israeli government spends on settlements and home demolitions results in a proportional reduction of American military aid.”
The signatories tied their asks to the leftward reorientation on Israel-Palestine within the Democratic Party, making the case that J Street could afford to take a harder line against Israel without losing support from within its base. “Recently documented shifts in the base of the Democratic Party and the successful campaigns of Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, candidates to J Street’s left who are widely supported by young people in particular, demonstrate that there could be widespread support among the Democratic base for a strategic yet sharper-edged posture toward Israel’s occupation — and that J Street must activate this base, at least partially, in order to be in tune with the politics of our generation,” reads the letter, which was drafted and circulated last November.
Ben-Ami declined to answer specific questions about the board meeting, but he said that internal debate is a part of any “healthy organization.” “I think a healthy organization has real, meaningful discussions about issues with different points of view presented, and that takes place at J Street,” he said. “I think that there are people within J Street who, if you lay them out on a spectrum, there are people whose views are a tick to the right of where J Street stands on some things, and there are people within J Street who may stand a tick or two to the left of where J Street may fall ultimately in its deliberation.”
“Only when confronted with possible cuts of aid or diplomatic support will the Israeli far-right leadership accept the end of occupation, as recent events show.”
When the policy was debated internally earlier this year, it appeared that Ben-Ami and, as a result, the board, were ready to get behind it, but sources with knowledge of the debate say that objections from the group’s Israel office derailed it. Specifically, Yael Patir, J Street’s Tel Aviv-based Israel director, warned that if it endorsed conditioning aid, J Street would lose any influence it had in the Knesset or Israeli politics generally. That influence, countered backers of the policy, was already at zero, so it shouldn’t be a hold-up. But the argument carried the day.
Ben-Ami declined to comment on J Street’s “sausage-making process,” noting that “it’s unfortunate, as always, in these situations when you want to have freedom to have conversations, and some folks decide to talk about them outside the room.”
He referred The Intercept to comments he made months later, in April, after Netanyahu promised to annex Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank. “What I said is that Israel going down the road of annexation puts all aspects of the U.S.-Israel relationship on the table and opens up a really serious discussion about what should happen,” Ben-Ami said in an interview. “That includes the question of to what purposes is the aid that the United States provides to the state of Israel put, and that is a really important conversation.”
The topic of conditioning U.S. aid to Israel — what many view as the bare minimum of what the U.S. could do to address Israel’s occupation against the Palestinian people and expansion of settlements — took center stage at J Street’s October confab, where Ben-Ami told the crowd, “Our aid is not intended to be a blank check.”
He later told +972 Magazine that the U.S. should reconsider its funding activities, like Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes and settlement expansion, that make a two-state solution impossible. The five Democratic presidential candidates who appeared at the conference were asked about the issue, and all seemed to be taking positions further to the left than J Street. The elephant in the room at J Street’s conference had become J Street.
Before the conference was over, Ben-Ami issued a statement trying to make clear that his organization was only going as far as opening up debate on the topic but that it had not endorsed the policy. “J Street believes that our tax dollars should only be used in accordance with our laws and to further our policies and interests,” he wrote. “Saying this does not amount to a call for reducing or conditioning American assistance. It does demand a serious inquiry into the uses to which aid is being put and consideration of what restrictions to its use are appropriate.”
A week later, with the question of where J Street stood on conditioning aid still uncertain, Ben-Ami authored a second statement, again distancing J Street from the policy, while sympathizing with it. “This is not a call to reduce the level of U.S. security assistance, or to ‘condition aid,’” he wrote. “It is a call to ensure that the end uses of the aid we provide, funded by U.S. tax dollars, clearly align with our interests, policies, and laws — and actually advance Israel’s security.”
If Ben-Ami does one thing well, it’s put out statements, former staffers said. “A lot of people see J Street as an organization that puts out statements, not one that is pushing current Democratic candidates or members of Congress to support conditional aid, settlement boycott, or ending the siege on Gaza,” one former J Street U staffer said.
“Equal Opportunity Boss”
“It’s no secret that J Street is not a great place to work if you’re a woman,” Luck said. “I think because it’s an organization where people really, really care about each other — like when you’re there, you really do feel like you’re in the trenches with each other — a certain office culture and a certain organizational culture was allowed to take hold, that I think if the organization started now would just be unacceptable.”
Asked about these concerns, Ben-Ami said that he’s a tough boss who has probably upset both men and women on his staff.
“I try very, very hard to be very supportive of women and men who work at J Street. I like to think of myself as a very equal opportunity boss and hopefully, a bit of a mentor and an encourager of managers,” Ben-Ami said. “I imagine that there are some men who have worked for me who are not too pleased with some of the pressure I may have put on them over performance, and I imagine there are some women who are not too pleased, who have been working for me, but I think it’s relatively equal opportunity.”
The staffers described an atmosphere that favored men over women, in which women were sometimes belittled.
The complaints about the workplace reached a tipping point in 2013, when a committee of staffers known as the “continuous improvement team” called for Ben-Ami’s behavior — characterized by outbursts at underlings — to be dealt with. He responded defensively, noting his great relationships with some women on staff but acknowledged that if he was perceived to have produced a toxic work environment for women, that was a problem in itself. J Street hired an outside consultant to lead an investigation; however, she was instructed that she could interview staff but could not write up her findings, merely issue recommendations.
“We’ve had several different consultants that we’ve worked with,” Ben-Ami said in response to a question about that investigation. “It’s a boon for consultants.”
That was the first of several attempts to address the treatment of women at J Street, including the organization’s widely panned attempt to deal with Israeli author Ari Shavit’s sexual harassment of J Street U leaders in 2014 and 2015. Following those incidents, J Street launched an initiative, led by Shaina Wasserman, the director of community and rabbinic engagement, to develop “state-of-the-art” policies to deal with such issues, Ben-Ami said. “We’ve had several different consultants in, we’ve done trainings, we’ve tried to really create the space for this conversation to take place. The message that I hope that I send is that everything we can possibly do to make J Street the best possible place to work is what we should be doing.”
Smith worked with Ben-Ami 20 years earlier at the progressive PR firm Fenton Communications, before Ben-Ami founded J Street and Smith headed toward a career on Capitol Hill. They remained friends, and she rejoined him three years ago. “He’s one of the most gifted people I know, and very compassionate. He acts a lot like a father and cares deeply about the staff, and treats the whole staff like family,” Smith said. “I am immensely proud of Jeremy and the movement that he — and countless others — have collaboratively created in such a short time. Now the majority of mainstream Jews have a real voice, which didn’t previously exist.”
“We all have our moments,” she said. “This work can be hard, and Jeremy is driven by and cares deeply about the mission. We’re 11 years into this organization; objectively we’re more mature, more professional, more systematic than you’d expect of an organization in its infancy. I think we’ve grown up across the board.”
J Street on Capitol Hill
That so many members of Congress spoke out against Israeli settlements would have been unheard of just a few years ago and was a testament to the impact J Street has had in Washington.
In recent years, the group has organized a handful of letters opposing the expansion of settlements and pushing back against Trump administration policies, working closely with some of the more progressive members of Congress. Even though she voted against last week’s two-state resolution pushed by J Street, Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., made sure to praise J Street for its work and noted that she didn’t fault it for the compromises — such as the deletion of the word “occupation” from the legislative text — she found unacceptable. When Omar was being attacked as anti-Semitic by powerful members of the House Democratic Caucus earlier this year, Ben-Ami went on television to defend her, something Omar hasn’t forgotten. She attended this year’s gala.
Rounding up 100 Democrats to condemn Pompeo isn’t nothing. Yet the brutal realities of the Israeli occupation get worse by the day. J Street was presented with an opportunity to contend with the changing realities earlier this year, when Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., introduced a bill, H.R. 2407, that would bar Israel from using U.S. military aid to detain Palestinian children. McCollum’s bill invoked the Leahy Law, which prohibits the U.S. government from giving money to units of foreign security forces that are credibly believed to violate human rights. As The Intercept reported in July, J Street was skeptical about the use of the Leahy Law to bar aid to Israel because it believes that the law should be applied to only the most extreme human rights violations.
Slowly, though, J Street appeared to change tack. McCollum’s office met with Williams a few weeks later and sent a letter to Ben-Ami asking for J Street’s support. Ben-Ami’s response was muted; he said the group would consider the bill but unlike Williams, he did not say J Street would support it. And over the summer, a number of congressional offices began to repeat the same talking points that Williams had first presented, the advocate said.
In July, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told The Intercept that the invocation of the Leahy Law was giving even some progressive Democrats pause. (Khanna sponsored the 2017 version of McCollum’s bill, but he has yet to sign on to the current version.)
J Street did not take an official position on the 2017 version of the bill. The group’s positioning against the bill this year represented a “significant shift,” the advocate said. “For three years or so, we had a space where we were operating where J Street was present but not really obstructing in any way, and now I feel they’re sort of keeping people off the bill and using the people to the left of J Street to reinforce their centralness.”
“I think they want to make a contribution, but they have to change with the realities that are changing on the ground.”
Ben-Ami said that J Street supports the spirit of the McCollum legislation but not necessarily the particulars. “We will support legislation that we believe is well crafted and accurate and matches with our policy. Just because we share the concern that the bill is intended to address, which is the question of the treatment of Palestinian minors incarcerated by the army — we share that concern, we think that there should be an expression of concern from the United States and from the Congress in particular — but this legislation has some issues that we have raised with the office,” he said, declining to discuss J Street’s specific concerns.
The group has instead been focused on H.R. 326, a resolution introduced by Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., in the spring of 2019 committing the U.S. to pursuing a two-state accord, stating that the United States had long sought “an end to the occupation, including opposing settlement activity and moves toward unilateral annexation in Palestinian territory.” But even with legislation tied to its signature policy goal, J Street hit some roadblocks.
The Democratic caucus fought over the language of the resolution, as Politico reported in July. Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs committee, pushed back against a clause in the resolution that said “only” a two-state solution could bring an end to the Israel-Palestine conflict. There was pushback from another corner as well: AIPAC, which remains the most influential pro-Israel group in Washington, felt the references to “occupation” and “settlements” were too critical of the state of Israel.
AIPAC insisted that the language of the resolution be changed, according to sources with knowledge of the debate on Capitol Hill. Sure enough, in October, the bill was amended to remove the reference to “occupation.”
“My sense is that the harder AIPAC pushes, the further into the corner they get and the harder they push, the more folks at J Street are going to have to consider pushing back, and realizing that what they think is the place the debate ought to be is not where the debate ought to be,” said Jim Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, who attended one of J Street’s founding meetings and continues to work with the group. “They just need to … buck up and realize that if they stay with the positions they took five years ago, that they’re becoming less relevant. And I don’t think they want to be less relevant. I think they want to make a contribution, but they have to change with the realities that are changing on the ground.”
The denouement of the push for J Street’s two-state resolution came on December 5, with the first broadside being launched against it by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., a core voice for AIPAC within the Democratic caucus. He wanted to attach an amendment affirming that the U.S.’s commitment to aid to Israel is “ironclad” and free of any conditions. The amendment was adopted, as was one from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, stipulating that the administration should follow the law and provide aid to the Palestinians as well.
With the resolution weakened, Omar, Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez, and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., all voted no, as did the chamber’s other Palestinian American, former Republican Justin Amash. Every Jewish Democrat in Congress, though, bucked pro-Israel political forces and voted for the resolution, the first passed in congressional history that opposed “settlement expansion” and “moves toward unilateral annexation of territory.”
J Street took a beat to celebrate the victory but quickly moved on to addressing the next issue: possible use of U.S. weapons and equipment to demolish Palestinian communities in the West Bank. Soon, a letter was circulating among members of Congress.