At the opening session last night of the first Washington conference hosted by J Street, the upstart liberal Israel-focused lobbying group, the group’s major players all took turns at the podium to welcome the whooping crowd—except one. Jim Gerstein, a prominent player in Democratic and progressive political circles whose polling firm handles the organization’s opinion research, was supposed to be onstage, but he was bumped from the lineup to make more time for an audience-participation exercise. He wound up standing at the back of the ballroom watching the proceedings with a copy of his speech folded in his hands.
The move could be seen as no big deal, given that things were running late, but it was symbolic, nonetheless—a perfect illustration of Gerstein’s role as the consummate behind-the-scenes adviser. In the 18 months since J Street launched, it has attracted an enormous amount of attention—including a long, generous New York Times Magazine profile, the Hope Diamond of publicity—most of which has focused on founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, who birthed the organization from a loose coalition of longtime Jewish peace activists and philanthropists. (Some of the spotlight has been shared with his core staff, including chief of staff Rachel Lerner, political director Daniel Kohl, campaigns director Isaac Luria, and the newest addition, Hadar Susskind, a political hand who also boasts IDF service.) But no small amount of the credit for J Street’s rapid ascent into the political consciousness of American Jewry belongs to Gerstein, a veteran of campaigns in both the U.S. and Israel who has spent more than a decade figuring out how to sell voters in both countries on peace.
Over the past two decades, Gerstein has stood, Zelig-like, in the wings of key political moments in Israeli, and Jewish, politics, starting with the iconic 1993 Rose Garden handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat. Two years later, he was in Tel Aviv at the rally where Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist, and he was close enough to hear the shots. In 1999, he acted as a translator for the American “dream team”—James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Bob Shrum—that orchestrated Ehud Barak’s victorious Labor campaign in Israel. But he is also a native Chicagoan, part of a generation of Democrats who grew up under Reagan but came of age with Clinton. His first campaign, as a new college graduate, was Carol Moseley-Braun’s historic 1992 race to become the first black woman in the Senate—winning the seat that would later be occupied by Barack Obama.
His chief role at J Street, according to Ben-Ami, has been to push the group to think of its core constituency—Jewish voters—as Democrats who care about Israel, rather than as “Israel voters” who tend to be Democrats. “The central idea that Jim brings to the table and continues to remind us of in every conversation is that the people whose voices dominate on Israel in the American Jewish community are not representative of most of the community,” Ben-Ami said. “In order to understand the real dynamics that affect politics in the American Jewish community, you’ve got to pull the lens back and not focus on Israel.” Which explains why J Street resembles, in many ways, a particularly focused political organization more than a parochially Jewish one—the Jewish wing of the progressive movement rather than the progressive voice of the Jewish community.
“As an American, you have a say in what your country is trying to do, and can try to affect its policy,” said Gerstein, in one of several wide-ranging interviews with Tablet Magazine ahead of the conference. “How do you get the people who are typical American Jews, who care about political causes and went out and volunteered for Obama, to engage on this issue? The question is how to translate the support Jewish individuals have for progressive issues in America and put that together with their views on peace.”
Gerstein—who is “a quintessential secular American Jew,” in the words of Sara Ehrman, a doyenne of Democratic Jewish politics—started thinking about peace when he was in his teens. As a kid growing up in a middle-class family in Highland Park, Illinois, a heavily Jewish Chicago suburb, he was more interested in watching Bears games than in going to Hebrew school at his Reform synagogue. His parents, a tax attorney and a stay-at-home mother who wrote for the local paper, sent Gerstein and his younger brother with their other Jewish friends to Camp Nabagemon, a boys’ wilderness camp in Wisconsin, rather than to Jewish summer camps. He made his first trip to Israel at 16, when his younger brother was bar mitzvahed at Masada as part of a mission organized by the Chicago-based Jewish United Fund. That first trip to Israel, Gerstein said, “was one of those trips that change your life.”
In 1991, as a student at Colgate University, Gerstein decided to spend his junior semester abroad in Tel Aviv—just in time for the Gulf War. “Three quarters of the program turned around and went right back home,” said Gerstein, who stayed despite his parents’ entreaties, partly because the Israeli-born parents of his American classmates told their children to stay. “They knew this wasn’t the annihilation of the State of Israel,” he remembers.
After graduating with a degree in political philosophy, Gerstein returned home to Chicago. His father sent him to meet the local volunteer coordinator for Moseley-Braun’s campaign, and within weeks, Gerstein was working for Heather Booth, a veteran civil rights activist who was running the field operation—one of the most sophisticated in the country. When the campaign was over, Gerstein went to Washington, where Booth introduced him to Ehrman, who was working at the Democratic National Committee handling Jewish outreach. “Some things are just meant to be, or bashert,” said Booth, now the executive director of Americans for Financial Reform, a group working on banking regulation. Ehrman hired Gerstein to work with her canvassing support for Clinton’s domestic agenda among Jewish groups like the American Jewish Committee, the Religious Action Center, the American Jewish Congress, and the three primary denominations. “These groups wanted to engage with the new administration,” Gerstein remembered. “They were really excited after 12 years of Republicans.” In September 1993, just a year out of college, he found himself helping choreograph the iconic Rabin-Arafat handshake—“the great event” of his early career.
The next year, he returned to Israel, with Ehrman’s urging, for a graduate degree in Middle East history at Tel Aviv University. It was a choice that, coincidentally, took him far away from the his party’s resounding defeat in the 1994 midterm elections at the hands of Newt Gingrich and the Contract with America. “Other people probably knew where the politics were going, but I didn’t see it,” Gerstein said. In Israel, by contrast, the mood in the fall of 1994 remained buoyant post-Oslo. “Peace was on the rise, and there were a lot of Americans living over there, along with Canadians and South Africans, who were just loving it,” Gerstein recalled. But that heady time came to an abrupt end the next year, with Rabin’s assassination. “It was just like any Israeli rally, with singers and performers, and after it ended we were walking home, and he was coming down the stairs—and we heard the shots,” Gerstein remembered. “It was just devastating.”
Watching the campaign that followed, between Rabin’s successor, Shimon Peres, and Benjamin Netanyahu, was devastating on a professional level. “Watching this as someone who had one campaign under his belt, and understood campaigns at least at a basic level, it was so obvious [Peres] was going to lose,” said Gerstein, who spent Election Day working for the BBC. “It was just a bad, bad day, but it was one of the factors that contributed to my thinking about what I wanted to do.” When he was offered the chance to run the Clinton reelection campaign’s operation in Chicago, he decided to return home. But, as it turned out, the road would lead right back to Tel Aviv. Ehrman recruited Gerstein to be the executive director of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation (founded by Slim-Fast billionaire and Democratic donor Daniel Abraham), and he wound up traveling frequently to Israel to work with the student peace movement there.
By late 1998, it was clear that elections were on the horizon in Israel. Ehrman encouraged Greenberg to hire Gerstein to be a liaison—and translator—between the American crew and Barak’s people. “At the time, I was thinking about it in terms of the unfinished business of Rabin,” Gerstein said. “There was really a commitment to thinking this was truly going to change the world, and change Israel for the better.” But, however optimistic he felt, he knew the trick was to tap into that sunny sense of hope without repeating the same naive errors that had plagued the Peres campaign. Barak went on to win a landslide victory over Benjamin Netanyahu not by selling his vision for peace, but by following his American advisers’ strategy of going after the swing voters’ pocket books.
“Peace was the main reason to vote for Labor, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough,” Stanley Greenberg recalled. “We pretty quickly found that wasn’t the driving issue that would allow Labor to win over the people it needed—the central issue was the role of the ultra-Orthodox and the settlers and the need for unity.” The message the team settled on was a classic “change” message. “It was the Israeli version of ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’” Gerstein said. “The myth is that it was about peace.”
The collapse of Barak’s coalition prompted Gerstein to return to Washington, where his Democratic colleagues were beginning to organize for their time in the political wilderness. Rather than signing on with a Jewish or Israel-focused cause, Gerstein became executive director of Democracy Corps, a nonprofit public-opinion research operation Greenberg and Carville founded to provide polling data to unions and other progressive organizations. At home, though, Israel was never far from Gerstein’s mind—largely due to the influence of his new wife, Aliza, the Israeli-born daughter of Iraqi and Moroccan Jews who agreed to join him in America only a few months after they met. (They now have two young sons.) “When you’re married to it, it’s a permanent part of your life,” Gerstein said. “So I always had this tug of Israel in one direction and progressive causes in the other.”
Sometimes, he’s been able to combine the two, as with the polling he does for J Street. (Earlier this summer, conservative bloggers questioned the validity of these numbers, given his involvement with the group; but most political groups use friendly pollsters, and Gerstein, who released his polling methodology and questions, told Tablet the attack was “preposterous.”) After the 2004 election, Gerstein and his predecessor at Democracy Corps, Karl Agne, founded their own polling firm, which does work for a number of prominent progressive groups, including the Center for American Progress—work that lately has focused heavily on canvassing public opinion about healthcare policy. But Gerstein also helped establish a special project at CAP focused on the Middle East, called Middle East Progress, and continues to do polling on Israel for groups other than J Street.
Still, according to Agne—who isn’t Jewish—J Street occupies a special place in his partner’s heart. “He spends a disproportionate amount of time thinking about it—when I go home at night, it’s not J Street that’s at the top of my mind,” Agne said. “When he goes home, it is central.”
For the next couple of days, though, Gerstein will be spending his time closely watching J Street’s most enthusiastic backers—the seed of what he, and Ben-Ami, hope can grow into a grassroots network that can be mobilized both to pressure the Obama administration to hasten a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and to express American Jewish support for such a deal. “What I’m doing now is much more at the strategic message level, rather than at the grassroots level, but all these things are important to building a movement,” Gerstein said. Standing at the back of the ballroom, Gerstein joked that he didn’t need to do a formal poll to know where this particular crowd stands.