Israel support is a threat to the American Jewish community — Ben-Ami warns

The American Jewish establishment’s support for Israel as it violates Palestinian human rights is undermining “Jewish values” and causing “large swaths” of Jews to abandon the community, Jeremy Ben-Ami, the CEO of the liberal Zionist group J Street, warned in a speech to that organization on Saturday night (video here).

Ben-Ami announced a major pivot in his group’s advocacy: for restricting U.S. aid to Israel over its human rights abuses, and away from emphasizing the two-state solution.

Maybe it’s time for some serious oversight and accountability for how our aid to Israel is actually being used.

He likened Palestine to Ukraine under Russian invasion and said we have to ensure that in our “tax dollars aren’t being used to abet settlement construction, home demolitions or other actions that deepen occupation.”

He said such accountability is key to the survival of the U.S. Jewish community:

We believe our community for its own sake even more than for Israel’s sake must root its identity in a commitment not to a flag or a piece of land but to a set of principles and values. My friends, if we don’t do this, we will see large swaths of our community walk away. Not only will they walk away from engagement with Israel– that’s already happening. They’ll walk away from the Jewish community itself.”

Ben-Ami said blind support for Israel by AIPAC and other old-line Jewish organizations poses a “fundamental crisis” for Jewish life in America because it contradicts traditional liberal Jewish values.

AIPAC has already responded: J Street stands against Israel, it says; and Secretary of State Tony Blinken is committed to unrestricted aid to Israel.

The new Israeli government gave Ben-Ami the opening. Israel’s next government “seems likely to take more actions that run counter to the values that American Jews teach our children are the essence of Jewish identity,” Ben-Ami said, including support for civil rights, the labor movement, women’s movement, and LGBTQ freedoms.

“How can we explain to our children and our grandchildren let alone to ourselves that these values are the core of the Jewish identity, but the state of the Jewish people is denying another people their rights and equality and undercutting the rule of international law. This is a fundamental crisis that looms over our community in the coming years. Those in the establishment of our community who insist that Jewish America must stand united and unquestioningly loyal to Israel no matter what are doing a deep, deep, disservice to the health of the Jewish community.

Ben-Ami’s pivot follows the path of other Israel supporters. 12 years ago Peter Beinart, then a liberal Zionist, said that the organized community’s support for Israel had generated a crisis in Jewish life. The young leftwing Jewish group IfNotNow rose against the Israeli slaughter of 2014 and has forcefully decried Israeli apartheid and AIPAC since that time. Outspoken journalists Jeffrey Goldberg and Tom Friedman have seemed to abandon their pro-Israel assignment as Israel stays on its rightwing course.

Ben-Ami’s comments resonate with statements by Tony Klug and Sylvain Cypel that Israeli human rights violations now undermine Jewish life in the west, because the requirement to support Israel is giving Jews a bad name. They are supporting a “thug nation,” in Cypel’s words.

I have long pushed J Street to acknowledge that Israel is practicing apartheid and the destruction of Palestinian rights and humanity are violations of international law. Ben-Ami came close to those points when he said “the state of the Jewish people is denying another people their rights and equality and undercutting the rules of international law,” and imposing “collective punishment on Palestinians, enforcing two systems of law on neighbors based on their ethnicity.” 

But Ben-Ami remains a fervent Zionist (who approves Jabotinsky, and invoked his parents who fought for Israel, including his father in the terrorist militia, Irgun). He did not endorse the Palestinian call for BDS, or boycotts against Israel for its human rights abuses. J Street has crushed support for BDS within its university branch. And while saluting Israel’s “security” needs, Ben-Ami never acknowledged the 200 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces this year let alone the repeated slaughter of Palestinians inside Gaza.

J Street began as a two-state organization 15 years ago. But at that time the American president supported two states and so did his secretary of state — George Bush and Condoleezza Rice. Ben-Ami still wants a two-state solution to preserve the Jewish state, but acknowledged that the possibility of two states is “slim” in the context of an undemocratic “one state reality,” in which Israel seeks “to cement permanent and undemocratic control of millions of Palestinians.”

Many liberal Zionists are now “throwing up their hands in despair, wondering if it’s time to walk away,” he said.

But he vowed to lead a fight inside the organized American Jewish community over who represents the “majority” of the American Jewish community. When AIPAC endorses Trumpist election-deniers like Jim Jordan and Scott Perry because they are pro-Israel– “they do not represent us, this is not the political voice of the American Jewish community,” Ben-Ami said.

Our political support will not go to those who do not stand up for justice, who do not stand up for diplomacy do not stand up for democracy here in Israel and globally.

This is an important speech, as it signals open warfare inside the Israel lobby and the wider Jewish community. A large segment of the young Jewish community is anti-Zionist, unacknowledged in Ben-Ami’s speech; and they will also have a say about Who represents us.

h/t James North.

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