J Street and the New Zionism

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show,Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street and JStreetPAC and the author of A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation, argues supporting Israel means supporting a two-state solution.

Pro-Israel advocacy in the United States has been dominated by the Jewish right. Ben-Ami says this thinking does not represent the thinking of all American Jews on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He’s now out with a new book A New Voice for Israel.

Ben-Ami described J Street as a new voice in American-Israel politics.

[It] is designed to provide a home for pro-Israel but pro-peace and pro-justice and pro-democracy Jewish Americans who care deeply about Israel but are really concerned about the future of the state and whether or not it’s actually going to make it as a Jewish home and democracy.

J Street advocates a two-state solution, but unlike the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), J Street is very critical of the current government of Israel. While the goal of a strong and safe Israel is shared by both groups, they differ in their methods. Ben-Ami said AIPAC and many other organizations tend to follow the governments lead.

So those organizations perhaps didn’t provide full support to Yitzak Rabin when he was pushing for peace, didn’t provide support when Israel pulled out of Gaza, didn’t provide support for Ehud Barak and his efforts to achieve these kinds of two-state solutions.

He pointed to the direction that President Obama laid out as a vision for a solution that his group supports. While some claim the president is failing to support Israel, J Street feels otherwise.

We actually think the president is unbelievably pro-Israel and he’s actually pointing out the path to help save the future of Israel.

 While more conservative Jewish groups claim that J Street is simply advocating for the Palestinians, Ben-Ami explained that their position is completely pro-Israel.

 To favor a Palestinian state and the creation of it on those lines is a fundamentally pro-Israel position, because Israel isn’t going to make it as a Jewish home and as a democracy if we don’t give up part of the land.

The question is under what circumstances Israel can allow that to happen in a way that they feel is safe and dignified. Security is primary for both Israel and America, but Ben-Ami says the current situation is indefensible and not safe. He identified Palestinian groups that mirror his progressive values, such as the American Task Force on Palestine, and the Arab American Institute.

There are plenty of Palestinian American and Arab American voices, who are trying to press for a reasonable, rational, moderate compromise and that really is the only way forward, because otherwise these two peoples are doomed to continue to fight and continue to suffer.

J Street has been criticized for their embrace of left-wing politics in the U.S. by those who feel that the left doesn't respect Israel's right to exist. Ben-Ami said their support of a two-state solution stems from a desire for a safe sustainable Israel.

What we’re trying to do is to articulate a middle ground, and to say you can be pro-Israel and support its right to exist, recognize that the path it’s on is unsustainable, that wee can’t have the Israel that we want if there isn’t a two-state solution, and we need the political space in this country to have that conversation without crossing that line into calling anybody who’s critical of policies anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

Clearly the situation is much exacerbated by religious extremism on both sides.

If you think that God gave you the land, then it’s going to be very hard for you to compromise. But if you’re a nationalist, and you want to create a homeland for your people, then you can figure out a way to draw a line that allows you to get along with your neighbors, and that’s how you get peace and security for the long term.

Current demographics provide clues to the political future. A higher percentage of younger Jews identify as Orthodox, an identity linked to very conservative views.

Orthodox Jews, just by definition… have more kids, so you are going to have more young people that are orthodox than who are not. And there is a vast difference in politics, there’s a vast difference in world view, there’s a vast difference in the views when it comes to Israel between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox.