Hours before President Obama declared that he saw no hope on the horizon of a “meaningful framework” for establishing a Palestinian state, Jeremy Ben-Ami was in Sen. Timothy M. Kaine’s office lobbying on behalf of such a framework.
The president of J Street — a liberal Jewish group that has often been described as Obama’s “blocking back” on issues pertaining to Israel — had stormed the Hill with hundreds of members to lobby legislators for their annual conference’s advocacy day. The timing couldn’t have been better: Between the Israeli election, a looming nuclear deal with Iran and the 2016 campaign kicking off, the group had no trouble being heard. But Ben-Ami still seemed excited just to be in the room.
“Did you say the podiatrist group had to sit at the small table?” he asked his communications director about the lobbying contingent that had followed them, relegated to a meeting with staffers while J Street got face time with a Democratic senator from Virginia. “And the people with the Bibles, they had to pray with a legislative assistant?”
It wasn’t that long ago that J Street was stuck at the small table, if it could get into the office at all. Ben-Ami started the organization in 2008 to promote a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and let the world know that being pro-Israel didn’t necessarily mean supporting every policy promoted by the Israeli government. The group was met with a fair share of skepticism on the Hill. It didn’t help when leaked IRS documents revealed that left-wing billionaire George Soros — a Jewish critic of Zionism — had donated $245,000 in J Street’s first year.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett recalled a time, barely five years ago, when members of Congress were pressured to remove their names from the J Street gala’s honorary host committee. “But I don’t view criticizing [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu as being any more anti-Israel as criticizing Dick Cheney is anti-America,” said the Texas Democrat, who traveled to Israel with the group last year. “J Street has given us an ability to discuss this in an organized way.”
It’s still a demoralizing time for progressive Jews. Netanyahu won reelection this month using tactics that Ben-Ami called “racist” fear-mongering; in two years, J Street will have to find its way without its staunch allies in the Obama administration. A two-state solution feels further away than ever. But bad news can be good for a growing organization.
“Netanyahu is J Street’s best friend,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.). “His behavior and his words are such that more space has been created to be critical of him and his government, without being seen as critical of Israel.”
Since 2008, J Street has grown from a four-person shop to 60 employees, with a budget of $8 million. Membership has grown to 180,000 supporters, and 3,000 people attended its conference this week. During the midterms, its PAC spent more than $2.4 million on 95 endorsed candidates — candidates who were glad to be endorsed by J Street. This week, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough took the stage at the J Street conference to call for an end of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and to chastise Netanyahu for his “troubling” comments before the election. He called J Street “our partner.”
“AIPAC is still the dominant force,” said Rep. John Yarmuth, referring to the hawkish pro-Israel lobbying group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “But people aren’t afraid of being associated with or accepting donations from J Street anymore.” (The Kentucky Democrat acknowledged that he has been accused of anti-Semitism for his stance on Israel. “I was bar mitzvahed,” he said. “I don’t think I’m anti-Semitic.”)
While both groups call themselves bipartisan, AIPAC has won support from an overwhelming majority of Republican Jews, while J Street is presenting itself as an alternative for Democrats who have grown uncomfortable with both Netanyahu’s policies and the conservatives’ flocking to AIPAC.
J Street did get James A. Baker III, who served as secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush, to speak at its conference — which led presidential hopeful Jeb Bush to issue a distancing statement chiding J Street for supposedly “undermin[ing] Israel’s efforts to defend itself.” AIPAC declined to comment for this article.
Plenty of pols were willing to stop and gab with Ben-Ami during his group’s Hill blitz Tuesday. A short man in wiry glasses and a boxy suit with a slightly nasal voice, Ben-Ami, 52, looked up whenever someone called his name, smiling like a kid posing for a picture. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) grabbed him to praise his speech from the night before (“No, Mr. Prime Minister, you do not speak for us,” Ben-Ami had said in a particularly bold moment). He schmoozed Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.), and joked around with Rep. Connolly about Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, a former Netanyahu aide.
“If he gets recalled, maybe we can banish him to Florida,” Connolly said.
“We don’t want him there,” Ben-Ami said.
“No, no, he needs to be sent to the Negev,” Connolly said with a laugh, referring to the desert region in southern Israel. “So he can meditate and atone.”
Like any good Jewish tale, the story of J Street starts with kvetching.
“I would get home and complain to my wife all the time about how my views on Israel weren’t being represented,” Ben-Ami said over a salami-ham-and-cheese sandwich (he doesn’t keep kosher) in the Longworth cafeteria on the Hill. “Eventually she got sick of it and told me to do something about it.”
So he quit his job as a vice president at a communications firm and started a shoe-string operation in his basement. The calling felt like destiny. Ben-Ami’s great-grandparents were among the first Jewish settlers to move to the Holy Land in 1882; his grandparents participated in the legendary “Seashell Lottery” of 1909, pulling a shell from a hat to win a plot of land in what would eventually be known as Israel. Ben-Ami worked in the Clinton White House and for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, but a stint living in Israel between those two gigs persuaded him to make his familial homeland his life’s work.
“It was kind of like jumping off a bridge without a rope and hoping that you hit water,” Ben-Ami said about leaving his job. “And hoping that you know how to swim.” His late father was right-wing and much more nationalistic than Ben-Ami, which made the jump trickier: Many friends and family members viewed his move as an attack on Zionism.
“I made the decision to just not have those people in my life,” Ben-Ami said.
He quickly found a sympathetic audience of rich Democratic Jews. Deborah Sagner, at the time a board member for the progressive Democracy Alliance, and Davidi Gilo, an Israeli American businessman, provided early seed money. Soros, although not a founder, donated soon after.
In the summer of 2008, J Street’s PAC raised $580,000 in support of 41 congressional candidates. The fact that the number of candidates the group has endorsed has more than doubled is testament not just to its fundraising prowess, but also to the new willingness of members of Congress to be associated with it.
“We’re going to endorse Senator Patrick Leahy for the first time,” Ben-Ami said. “And it’s not because we just started liking him now.”
But the group can still court controversy. This year’s conference featured Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat, who compared Netanyahu to the leader of the Islamic State.
“It was very courageous of them to invite me, and I reciprocated the courage by showing up,” said Erekat, whose résumé describes him as “born to achieve the two-state solution.” Haaretz reported that Erekat’s presence was the impetus for Hillel International, the world’s largest Jewish collegiate organization, to drop out of the conference.
“I have to speak carefully when I talk about them, because even though I’m mostly with them, I have a lot of clients who aren’t, so it’s awkward for me,” said public relations executive and Democratic Jewish activist Steve Rabinowitz. “But whatever you think of them, there’s no doubt they’ve gotten themselves to the table.”
But it’s a fair question what getting to the table has achieved. AIPAC, with its $72 million budget, dwarfs J Street in size and influence, and it is likely that the next president will be to the right of Obama on Israel. If Hillary Rodham Clinton runs, too close an association with the likes of J Street could hinder her connection with traditional big Jewish donors.
“If there’s a problem, it’s that sometimes it feels like the organization is too much Jeremy,” said Rabinowitz, who used to do PR work for J Street. It’s a common joke, and critique, that the “J” stands for Jeremy. “He’s built up the organization and is influencing the debate, but the group doesn’t have that deep a bench.”
Ben-Ami admitted that he can be a bit of a control freak. But this is his baby. And even if the goal can feel quixotic, fighting for it can itself be a form of therapy.
“It keeps me from getting too angry or sad,” he said. “I can feel great about the work we’re doing and try to deal with what’s in my control. If you start to worry about things beyond your control, it will drive you nuts.”
Even with the number of lawmakers now opening their doors to it, a skittishness about J Street lingers.
Over the course of his advocacy day, Ben-Ami met with a slew of Democratic lawmakers and staffers: Kaine, then aides from the office of Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), followed by Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). When asked how he felt about J Street, Van Hollen gave a politic answer: “I think it’s important to have many voices at the table.”
Next, Ben-Ami headed to the office of Rep. Donna Edwards, an early J Street ally, who will face off against Van Hollen in Maryland’s Democratic primary race for the U.S. Senate next year. With a Washington Post reporter in tow, J Street’s communications director discreetly asked an Edwards staffer whether the meeting could be acknowledged on the record. She had asked this question at each office, knowing that even now not everyone likes to trumpet an affiliation with the group.
Shouldn’t be a problem, said Edwards’s press guy, “but let me check.”
He circled back to ask that the meeting not be reported, citing office protocol.
It was only later, after learning that Van Hollen was okay with his J Street meeting going on record, that the Edwards staff relented. There’s still no such thing as too safe when it comes to Israel.