Before a crowd of about 100 at Temple Oheb Shalom last week, J Street president and co-founder Jeremy Ben-Ami said that it is both healthy and necessary for Jews in the United States to voice their diverse opinions on Israel.
He called J Street both pro-Israel and pro-peace, outlining them as an organization that recognizes the right of the Jewish people to a nation-state, but that also recognizes that the creation of a Palestinian state is the only logical solution to the conflict. He reiterated several times that, in his view, being pro-Israel does not mean that one should have to support all the policies of the sitting Israeli government.
When it comes to the recent election of Donald Trump, Ben-Ami said the main question he’s been getting is a simple one with a very complicated answer: “What does it mean for Israel?”
His answer more or less boiled down to “wait and see.” There are two Trumps, he said — one who might see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the “ultimate deal” and the other who surrounds himself with people who would not, likely, promote the two-state solution or peace. His call to arms before taking questions was the hope that American Jews will speak out.
“Are we just going to sit back and let this happen? I hope not,” he said.
The audience questions ranged from deeper questions about Israeli and Middle East politics to requests for more information about J Street specifically. On the question of how J Street differs from AIPAC, Ben-Ami praised the beginnings of the other organization as a “bulwark for Israel when they really needed it” but went on to add that AIPAC has now become a supporter of everything Israeli does, no matter the ideological content or contradictions of the government’s policies.
“Being pro-Israel means standing up and saying what you believe is the right course,” he said.
When it comes to Israel, people often use the metaphorical
descriptor of the David and Goliath story. For older generations, many of whom remember the fight for statehood and other battles, big and small, for recognition, the Jewish state is entrenched as the underdog David, while younger generations have grown up in a different context, with that same state taking on a more Goliath form.
Now, that same story can apply more locally in the fight for the political will of American Jews. Relative upstart J Street (founded nine years ago), the David in this scenario, is taking on the Goliath of AIPAC in defining the United States’ approach to, and support of, Israel.
While J Street is based in Washington, D.C., it does have a presence in Baltimore. With this event, Ben-Ami is hoping to start to expand the group’s presence in Charm City. Originally, the event was to feature a discussion between New York Times columnist Roger Cohen and a J Street adviser, but Cohen had to pull out at the last minute due to pneumonia. With the new incoming administration in the U.S. and changing politics in Israel, Ben-Ami aimed to educate both about J Street’s mission and the likelihood of a two-state solution.
“The goal, really, is to spark more of a discussion about Israel,” Ben-Ami said before the event. “It’s a very interesting moment in not just Israel politics, but our own.”
The Oheb Shalom audience was mostly receptive, if somewhat questioning, to Ben-Ami’s message.
“I was very impressed by him,” said attendee Jackie Glassgold. “It was very interesting, and I’m glad I was here.”
Glassgold said she hadn’t known much about J Street and was planning to look more into their plans and goals.
Not everyone was totally swayed, however. Jacob Apelberg, who had asked Ben-Ami about Israelis of Arab descent, thought the J Street founder hadn’t addressed the complexities of Israel adequately. Apelberg lived in Israel for several years and, while he thought Ben-Ami had a good presentation, he thought the emphasis on the one solution might “close their eyes to the other side.”
“It was OK, but he automatically assumes ‘Jewish’ is a religion, but I say it is cultural as well. Many Jews or Israelis are secular,” he said. “It’s not so simple.”