J Street is the organization that Jeremy Ben-Ami and other American Jewish activists set up several years ago to counteract the influence of the lobbying group AIPACon American foreign policy. In his book “A New Voice For Israel,” Ben-Ami tells the story of J Street’s uphill battle to win the support of America’s Jewish community, and he explains the need for Israel to have a new Jewish voice in Washington that can free American policy sufficiently to bring about a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine stalemate. In his view, this is the only way Israel can fulfill the Zionist dream of a Jewish democratic state. He thinks J Street has a good chance of success: Although AIPAC claims to represent the traditional Jewish voice in American politics, he says surveys reveal that only 8 percent of American Jewish voters support its political line. Recent fundraising campaigns in the Jewish community also show that AIPAC’s financial clout on the Hill can be challenged by competing Jewish sources.
Ben-Ami provides an arsenal of logistical and moral arguments stressing that not only is Israel’s occupation over another people a threat to the Zionist dream and American interests in the region, but that it also runs counter to rabbinic values — indeed, even to the very letter of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promises equality to all, regardless of race, religion or gender. In short, he tells us that Israel is on the brink of becoming an “apartheid state” and losing its status as a moral beacon to the Jewish people and the safe and democratic haven its pioneers intended it to be.
Ben-Ami argues that by taking a radically conciliatory pro-peace position today instead of the stance represented by the conservative AIPAC, the American Jewish community would serve Israel’s interests far better — paradoxically, just as the radically militant policy pursued by his father, Yitshaq (whom Ben-Ami calls a “terrorist”), in Israel’s early days was exactly what was needed in order to ensure its creation: At the time, his father’s brand of Zionism ran counter to what was considered acceptable by the Jewish community.
Ben-Ami says that today’s Jewish voice in America should clearly call for an active American intervention in the Middle East that will bring about the end of occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state. How can this be done? He suggests that the American president, backed by the international community, must present a take-it-or-leave-it political package to the two sides. The basis already exists for this in various peace initiatives that call for making the pre-1967 armistice line a border between the two states and allowing for a one-to-one exchange of territory for reasons to do with security or demography. The resulting refugee problem could be addressed in any number of ways, including compensation, family reunification schemes and resettlement. Most of these plans also call for making Jerusalem a joint capital for the two states. President Clinton proposed a formula for sharing the city by having Arab neighborhoods come under Arab sovereignty, and Jewish neighborhoods under Jewish sovereignty.
Understandably Ben-Ami presents the reader with the narrative — popular in the West — of a heroic rebirth of the Jewish nation in its divinely allocated territory, and of a continued just struggle against a backward and bellicose foe, in the form of its Arab neighbors. But the reader is left in total ignorance of the opposite narrative — popular among Arabs — of Israel as a gang of robbers bent on using terror tactics to dislodge a country’s inhabitants from their rightful abode and to replace them by new immigrants hailing from faraway lands.
But whether or not the two sides could ever overcome their different perspectives, many people today would question whether the classic version of a fair two-state solution can still be brought about, and wonder whether it is not time to start seriously considering alternative futures such as a closely linked federation, or even a one-state solution. Ben-Ami’s argument boils down to saying that the only realistic path to a two-state solution passes through the White House and Congress, and that the only way to these is through American Jewish influence, both electoral and financial. Hence his fervent plea, both in this book and as embodied in his recent political activity. But what if, given realities on the ground, including AIPAC’s actual influence in America and continued Jewish demographic expansion in Palestinian-occupied territory, such a path is totally blocked? Given the recent rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas, and the radical changes in the Arab world, there has never been a moment in the history of the conflict when the Arab side has been more ready for a settlement — and the Israelis less willing to agree to one. That is why Ben-Ami’s analysis of the American Jewish vote and his fervent plea for a new voice reads like a compelling last call.