Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: A New Voice for Israel by Jeremy Ben-Ami

Sunday, from 2:00 pm to 4:00 pm, I will be hosting firedoglake's Sunday Book Salon.  This is the introductory article I have written for them:

I.  In midsummer 2006, while my wife and kids were on our yearly trip down to Seattle, to be with our extended Norwegian-Jewish-Cambodian-Icelandic-Swedish-Texan family, the so-called Israel-Hezbollah War was in full rage.  My brother-in-law and I were watching Wolf Blitzer on CNN, as he interviewed one pro-Israel talking head expert after another, describing the war not just from the Israeli point of view, but from a right-wing Israeli standpoint.

After the program, he lamented that the voice for Israel in the American media, in public affairs and in politics is almost always from a perspective much further from the right than it should be to reflect the views of the average Israeli, or those of the American Jewish community.  He longed for a new organization, based from the positions of moderates, to counter the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other hawkish pro-Israel groups.

"But," Lee lamented, "that'll never happen."

Some say it has now happened.  From what I've learned by reading Jeremy Ben-Ami's recently published book, A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for Survival of the Jewish Nation, I'm inclined to have hope that it has.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the prime guiding force behind the creation of J Street, which many cite as being exactly what Lee had hoped might come into action in the American political and public information arenas.  Ben-Ami, like Lee was frustrated that one public affairs advocacy group, often expressing the polarizing and militant views of a small minority of American Jews, was seen as the sole voice in a struggle that is very nuanced, and contains many diverse viewpoints, suggestions, narratives and hopes.  Judging from some of the positive reactions to J Street on the left and right, and from negative ones on right and left, one might suspect that J Street is doing its job of changing the nature of the game in Washington DC's political battles for influence rather well.

II.  A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for Survival of the Jewish Nation is structured to tell Ben-Ami's personal story, and to give that compelling journey a context which reinforces the reasons he wrote the book.  He wants to give the background for "a new definition of victory for pro-Israel advocacy."  He divides the book into three parts:  Four Generations of Zionists, The Rulebook and Fulfilling the Dream.

Four Generations of Zionists tells the story of his family and how that is important to the depth of his personal makeup.  He introduces these fascinating people with "My great-grandfather was a bootlegger, my grandfather was a card shark and my father was a terrorist."  He then goes on to describe his family's oddysies from the Czarist Pale to Ottoman Palestine in the late 19th century.  His ancestors lived in Jerusalem, on agricultural settlements, and were among the founders of Tel Aviv.

Ben-Ami's father - the "terrorist" - came from Israel to the U.S. as part of the Bergson Group's efforts toward "bringing the Irgun's message to the United States."  In 1940, he fought the mainstream American Jewish establishment's efforts of "supporting the notion that only 'selected' [Jewish] immigrants 'trained in Europe for productive purposes' be allowed to enter Palestine [from Europe]."  Ben-Ami's dad and colleagues were followed and bugged by J. Edgar Hoover, as they were harassed by the Jewish establishment.

His dad didn't just have run-ins with the Jewish establishment in America. When his dad, after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, tried to bring a former American LST, renamed the Altalena, ashore in Palestine/Israel in the summer of 1948, 16 members of the crew, some close friends of his father, were killed by rival members of the Haganah on the beach or in skirmishes.

Jeremy Ben-Ami was born in the USA, and has since identified more as an American than as his grandparents might have enjoyed.  The first section of his book not only describes his family's fascinating history in Russia, the Ottoman Empire and the Palestinian Mandate,  it gives a living pulse to what it might have been like to be there, and describes in detail the intricacies of Zionism in the making, and of conflicts in his coming of age about what that term means.

The Rulebook may be the best description yet in book form of the rules American politicians are required to play by, regarding Israel, if they want to succeed and survive in the national arena.  He opens with a detailed description of a series of events I have long wanted to find out more about - the way Gov. Howard Dean's 2003-2004 presidential campaign went from being a huge growth phenomenon, rapidly gaining a momentum that gave Dean political rock star status, to one in its slow death spiral.

On September 3, 2003, at a campaign meetup in Santa Fe, Dean stated, when asked what the U.S. role should be in mediating the disputes between Israel and Palestine, "It's not our place to take sides."  Needless to say, this was a big screw-up, and there was no way Dean could walk it back.

Ben-Ami's story on how this unfolded, along with his following explanation of "The Rule Book," might be worth printing as a separate volume sometime.  Many readers here are quite familiar with individual stories of politicians brought to heel or to retirement by the ways the rule book works; and we're familiar with the way each politician's speech to each Israel advocacy group has to contain the same shopworn lines of fealty; and we're familiar with how boiler-plate House and Senate resolutions, churned out in the offices of AIPAC or JINSA get 99 to zero votes, or 435-3 votes.  But nowhere before, from such an insider's viewpoint, has all this been out together.

Fulfilling the Dream is Ben-Ami's story of how his quest for a reasonable advocacy and lobbying voice in DC for the majority of American Jews has become J Street.  It is an ongoing story, and the book benefits from the way a volume like this can take advantage of incorporating the latest events (the story goes up to late June,2011) into a book's conclusions. (On the other hand, this is not a quickie book.)

He describes initial frustrations as he and his colleagues found difficulty in getting influential people in the progressive American Jewish community from being supportive to the point of letting anyone know of such support.  Aspects of this theme come in throughout the book.  One thing AIPAC and allied groups are immensely successful at is instilling fear in the heart of anyone who contemplates coming out against one of its policies, no matter how ill-advised or just plain stupid that policy might actually be.  Fulfilling the Dream is a must read for anyone who might consider creating an effective advocacy agency that is destined to run up against the most powerful special interests afoot.

III.  One message Jeremy Ben-Ami reiterates as a mantra throughout A New Voice for Israel is his belief in a two-state solution that not only contains security for Israel, but justice and viability for the resultant Palestinian entity.  Although he criticizes Israeli governments and their American supporters for not being able to show a map of what those two states' borders would be, Ben-Ami, too, is vague, perhaps purposefully, on just what that map might look like.  His description of a future Jerusalem also seems to lack something that one might draw on a piece of paper.

Ben-Ami writes in the book, in a section on President Obama caving regarding the renewal of West Bank settlement expansion in early 2011, "settlements are a symptom of the underlying disease - the lack of a defined border between Israel and the state-to-be of Palestine."  He also regards Israeli treatment of Palestinians as morally repugnant, and the attitudes of American Jews who either support those policies or ignore the immorality of that as diminishing what Judaism is in the eyes of the world.

Recently, Ben-Ami's and J Street's commitment to eventual Israeli evacuation of the West Bank have been called into question.  It would be helpful if J Street would clarify what might be done with large settlements such as Efrat and others that the Israelis certainly intend to keep, when the value of these blocs represent far more than what anyone thinks the Israelis will cede in return.

Friday, Philip Weiss wrote about his concern by the recent statement from J Street representative, Steven Krubiner, at a recent event in Massachusetts.  Weiss:
Krubiner is a liberal, surely thinks of himself as a liberal, but his messaging was very conservative. As I noted earlier here, he never talked about the occupation and didn’t mention settlements until the Q-and-A. Settlements isn’t J Street’s agenda. There was a lot of unpleasant demographic talk. If we make a 6 percent land swap, the state of Israel will go to 86 percent Jewish (yes, and what about the Palestinians dealt out of Israel into a Palestinian state, on ethnic transfer terms, will they dig that?). Or: If you put a GPS device on everyone in Jerusalem and made the Palestinian dots green and the Israeli ones blue, you would find that it’s very “clean,” Jews move around in West Jerusalem and Palestinians stay in East Jerusalem.

Mr. Clean! Not for me!

Krubiner said, "Ideally, especially for American and Israeli Jews they would want... all of the land... of Israel," from the river to the sea. But they can’t have that without either sacrificing democracy or giving up the idea of a Jewish state. And therefore because J Street is “unconditionally” for a Jewish state in Israel, we must give up the land so that the inevitable Palestinian majority will have a place to go.

The revelation in these statements is that Krubiner is doing outreach to a very conservative community. You can talk all you like about secular Jews, but American Jews believe in a way that can only be called religious (because most have never seen the West Bank) in their right to the “Land of Israel.” And so when asked about settlements, Krubiner was somewhat apologetic about J Street’s backbone moment of February, when it criticized Obama for voting against the U.N. Security Council’s resolution opposing Israeli settlements. Yes, our position didn’t play very well in the Jewish community, Krubiner said. I.e., this community is behind the times, and it is driving policy.
In the past, Weiss has voiced both his respect for Jeremy Ben-Ami's astuteness in being able to build J Street from scratch, and his understanding that J Street has to be able to defend itself against incredibly hostile attacks from the right.  Weiss has yet to review this important book.  I'm sure he will.  Hopefully, that evaluation will take into account Ben-Ami's convincing exposition of his moral commitment on Palestinian rights, which I find to be similar to those of Weiss in most areas.

Since publication of A New Voice for Israel, just a short few weeks ago, J Street has issued statements on two important events:  The passage in the Knesset of the stifling, anti-democratic Anti-BDS bill in mid-July was promptly condemned.  And on July 21st, J Street countered articles appearing then that had questioned American Jewish support for Obama, with its own polling, which was thorough, and showed a better result for the president.

J Street hasn't yet changed" the rules of the game" on how DC politicians and American Jewish voters perceive the playing field to be structured.  They have the best, most creative shot at that I've ever witnessed, though.  Jeremy Ben-Ami's book not only comes at a key time in J Street's growth history, it clearly shows the reasoned writing of the man who is most often their voice on the radio, their face on television.  There's no cognitive dissonance here.  Ben-Ami has long struck me as not only a commentator and expert who is patient and reasonable on TV, but quite often as the most mature voice in the room.

No comments: