Heads Up

J Street chief Jeremy Ben-Ami calls the plays for the first self-confident alternative Jewish establishment

By Allison Hoffman|October 28, 2010 7:00 AM


The headquarters of J Street, the dovish Israel lobby, is all open floorplans and glass dividers, a far hipper aesthetic than most Washington outfits would usually tolerate. From the street, passersby can look up and see the group’s founder, Jeremy Ben-Ami, in his cramped corner box, tapping away at his ThinkPad under a framed, signed group portrait of Bill Clinton and his West Wing staff. In the bullpen outside Ben-Ami’s office, J Street’s junior staffers sit clustered around gray cubicles littered with stickers and maps of the Middle East—though, after next week’s midterms, they’ll be getting more space. In a year of record campaign spending, J Street has managed, despite a string of controversies, to out-raise other, better-established Israel-focused PACs like NorPAC [1] and the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs [2]. (AIPAC, whose members give individually, and generously, to political candidates, is not itself a registered political action committee.)

In the two-and-a-half years since J Street launched, under the banner of “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” two competing narratives have emerged about the group. One is that by channeling the energy of the anti-war, anti-Bush Jewish left into the cause of Middle East peace, using grassroots organizing tactics borrowed from the playbook developed by MoveOn.org and put to good use by the Obama campaign, Ben-Ami and company have given voice to the inchoate frustration of many American Jews with the impasse between the Israelis and the Palestinians and their frustration with hawkish pro-Israel organizations, namely AIPAC, which was so famously expressed earlier this year in an essay [3] by Peter Beinart of the New America Foundation. The opposing view is that J Street is a front for Democratic political operatives aligned with Obama, and potentially to his left on foreign policy, who hope to exploit the naive sympathies of liberal Jews for the political purpose of undermining the existing Washington consensus on Israel, thereby weakening AIPAC and other Jewish groups whose power depends in part on the perception that they speak on behalf of American Jewry.

Both versions are, to a greater or lesser degree, true. Last month, using an unredacted tax return that appeared on a public website, the Washington Times reported [4] that J Street receives funding from the billionaire investor and social activist George Soros, a longtime critic [5] of Israel, Zionism, and the American Jewish establishment. Though insiders had already assumed as much, the controversial revelation showed that Soros and his family gave J Street $245,000 in fiscal year 2008 as the first installment of a three-year, $750,000 commitment. Critics pounced [6] on Ben-Ami, accusing him of repeatedly lying in interviews about Soros’ involvement, and intentionally obfuscating on the group’s website, which in a section [7] titled “Myths and Facts about J Street” denies claims that Soros was a founder or “primary funder” of the group. “J Street’s Executive Director has stated many times that he would in fact be very pleased to have funding from Mr. Soros and the offer remains open to him to be a funder should he wish to support the effort,” the website said. In an update posted after the scandal erupted, the organization reiterated that Soros did not found J Street—though his senior Washington adviser, Morton Halperin, a senior State Department official in the Clinton Administration and a longtime critic of Israeli policy, was deeply involved in J Street’s inception and continues to serve as one of three members of the lobby’s executive committee.

Yet it remains the case that Ben-Ami has managed, in a remarkably short time, to build something unprecedented in the decades-long history of leftwing American Jewish activism: an organization with the capacity to raise millions of dollars to win political support for ideas about Israel and the peace process that are frequently at odds with the positions articulated by organs of the Jewish establishment. Whatever one thinks of J Street’s policies—which, among other things, include support for East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state and firm opposition to new construction in the settlements until negotiations are complete—the group has succeeded in provoking a tremendous amount of debate about the political and emotional relationships of American Jews to Israel. “They have built up this thing, which is just this side of miraculous,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

Ben-Ami and the other progenitors of J Street stepped into the political vacuum left by the perennial inability of established leftwing groups—Americans for Peace Now, the Israel Policy Forum, Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, Ameinu, and a long list of long-defunct predecessors—to transcend policy disagreements, clashing egos, tiny budgets, and, according to many veteran activists, a general unwillingness to pick public fights with other Jewish groups. “I tried over the years to get the left to coalesce, and you’d be better off herding cats,” said Charney Bromberg, the former director of Meretz USA, the American branch of the leftwing movement also represented by an Israeli political party of the same name. “We were being totally outgunned by the right, and we consoled ourselves with the idea that we were in the right.” Now, Bromberg went on, “J Street has totally eclipsed the other organizations combined.”

The result is that Ben-Ami is now the de facto leader of the American Jewish left, and his counterparts at other organizations working on peace-related issues feel compelled to support him. “J Street has to succeed, and it has to grow,” said one member of the “peace camp” in Washington. “Now that it exists, we can’t afford to let it fail, because that would be seen as the failure of the left.”

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J Street’s supporters are quick to point out that despite its meteoric rise, which was helped along by a generous 2009 profile [8] in the New York Times Magazine, its budget is still just a fraction of the $60 million AIPAC attracted in the fiscal year 2008, the most recent for which documents are available—about $5 million this year across all operations, according to Ben-Ami, including a $500,000 grant from Jeff Skoll, a former eBay executive, who has partnered [9] with Soros on recent initiatives in the Middle East. It’s harder for J Street to claim the role of scrappy David to AIPAC’s financial Goliath in light of Soros’ financial commitment, anchored by Halperin’s active role in the group. “He’s not in the office every day, poring over stuff,” Ben-Ami told me last week, in the last of a series of conversations this summer and fall, of his relationship with Halperin. “Basically we email, definitely every day.”

Indeed, according to Ben-Ami, the germ of the J Street idea sprouted in discussions with Halperin during the 2004 presidential election, when both men worked on Howard Dean’s campaign. “From day one I’d been talking to him,” Ben-Ami said. “He was almost the first person I talked to about this.” The vision that emerged from those conversations, and in other conversations with the marketing strategist David Fenton, the former Rolling Stone PR man and social activist for whose firm Ben-Ami worked after the campaign, bore obvious hallmarks of lessons learned from Dean’s run. The most important was the decision to abandon the humble fundraising attitudes of the left. “It’s a self-defeating world outlook that says, ‘We’re some poor minority backwater that will never raise money,’ ” Ben-Ami told me earlier this year. “We said, $10, $20, $30 million. You’ve got to have ambition.”

Ben-Ami set out asking for $1 million from initial donors—at around the same time that Benjamin Netanyahu was trolling the ranks of wealthy American Jews for contributions to his 2007 election campaign for the Likud leadership. Netanyahu’s target list [10], published last week by the Israeli paper Yedioth Ahronoth, included pillars of established Jewish groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents: Sheldon Adelson, Haim Saban, Ronald Lauder, Ira Rennert, James Tisch, Leslie Wexner, and Mortimer Zuckerman. The hidden contributors revealed on J Street’s tax return show that Ben-Ami tapped instead into a parallel establishment with a great deal of influence both in Democratic politics and Jewish life. J Street received $25,000 from S. Daniel Abraham [11], the billionaire founder of Slim-Fast who is a longtime Clinton supporter and advocate for Middle East peace; $75,000 from Alan Sagner, a real-estate developer and former head of New York’s Port Authority whose daughter, Deborah, herself a progressive political activist, is on J Street’s board; and $25,000 from Robert Arnow, a major contributor to New York’s Federation who also helped found the Jewish Week. “I’ve been a radical all my life, somewhat, and I was imbued with the idea of another organization challenging the policies,” Arnow, now 86, explained in a phone interview. “I still have faith—I’ll give them a year or two and then we’ll see.”

J Street’s tax filing also included a $25,000 donation from Martin Bunzl, a Rutgers philosophy professor with long involvement in the political side of the peace movement, and $10,000 from Alan Solomont, a former Democratic National Committee finance chair who was a board member of the Israel Policy Forum during the Clinton years and is now the U.S. ambassador to Spain. There was also a $5,000 contribution from Hollywood heavyweights Phil Rosenthal, the producer of Everybody Loves Raymond, and his wife, Monica. And there was Elaine Attias, a feisty 86-year-old Democratic activist from Beverly Hills whose parents, Edward and Anna Mitchell, were such active and early donors to Israel that they became, according to the Los Angeles Times, the first Americans to have a square named in their honor in Jerusalem. “I’ve been involved with the Israeli situation for a long time,” Attias explained to me. “J Street was an opportunity to voice our concerns and express our support for the kind of Israel we want it to be.”

Continue reading [12]: Breira, Clinton, and the J in J Street. Or view as a single page [13].
The last donor listed on the tax return was Consolacion Esdicul, a woman in Hong Kong with no obvious interest in the future of Israel or Palestine, who gave the lobby more than $800,000—half its $1.6 million revenue for that year. J Street explained [14] that Esdicul was an associate of one of its supporters, a Pittsburgh medical-transcription entrepreneur named William Benter. (Benter did not immediately respond to phone and email messages left seeking comment.)

None of the donors was willing, at least in the first year, to give Ben-Ami as much as he was asking, but his decision to ask marked a turning point for veterans of the left, who remain scarred by bruising public battles that are now decades old. “We didn’t have, I think, a lot of self-confidence,” said Norman Rosenberg, who from 1990 until 2003 ran the New Israel Fund, which raises money in the United States to support civil society and social action programs in Israel. “We didn’t want to be victims of the mainstream community, and we tried to keep our heads down.”

That habit dated back to 1973, when the first Jewish peace organization, Breira, or “alternative,” was established by American Jewish radicals to provide a link between American Jews and the wave of peacenik politicians elected to Knesset after the Yom Kippur War. The group advocated talking to the PLO. Like J Street, Breira attracted support from “kosher” members of the community, including the feminist Betty Friedan, the intellectual giants I.F. Stone and Irving Howe, and Joachim Prinz, a major early leader of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, but it collapsed in 1977 under the weight of opposition from right-wing Jewish groups, who accused it of abetting terrorism. “It was a real burn for people,” Rosenberg said. “People used to say, ‘You don’t want to get Breira’d.’ That was really the watchword.”

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Ben-Ami, by contrast, is looking for a fight. “There has been a gun-shy quality to the center-left on this,” he told me. “I think we obviously haven’t shied away.” Ben-Ami volunteered for Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign as a teenager in New York, then went to college at Princeton. His father, Yitshaq, who died when Ben-Ami was 22, had bucked the Zionist establishment of his day to help Menachem Begin’s Irgun establish the state of Israel, but Ben-Ami wasn’t into Jewish activism: He went to law school at NYU, where he and John F. Kennedy Jr. successfully lobbied for better incentives for graduates going into public service, and then worked for the city of New York’s social-services bureaucracy. In 1992, he signed on with the Clinton campaign’s national staff in Little Rock. “I loved it—it’s like theater,” he told me. “There’s tight deadlines, you’re putting on a production, melding the visual with the substance, all of which serves me well in what I’m doing now.”

At the end of Clinton’s first term, Ben-Ami, then 35, decided to abandon his job in the White House as a deputy assistant to the president working on welfare and education reform to, as the Washington Post reported, “travel around the world—places like Tahiti, New Zealand and Southeast Asia.” Instead, he wound up in Israel, on an ulpan [15] in Netanya, where he had family; he started a PR firm that, among other things, helped organize Israeli Arab voters in the 1999 election contest between Ehud Barak and Netanyahu, and did work for the New Israel Fund. (He later ran the fund’s New York office for a year before he joined the Dean campaign.)

After the election, Ben-Ami decided he needed to either “get citizenship and get a wife, or go home,” he told me. He ditched Israel and returned to New York, and city politics, to work on Mark Green’s 2001 mayoral campaign. (He also got married [16] that year.) From New York, he kept an eye on what was happening in Israel in the aftermath of the collapse of the Camp David negotiations. “It was a huge thing for him,” recalled Richard Schrader, Green’s campaign manager, who was Ben-Ami’s boss. “We’d always grab an hour to work out together downstairs on the treadmills, lift some weights, and then we’d spend an hour or so talking over salads.”

When Ben-Ami convened the first, early meetings on J Street, it was envisioned as a possible merger of existing leftwing groups combined with a new political-action arm. The old hands representing the legacy organizations were ready to be convinced, especially after they succeeded, in the spring of 2006, in undercutting an AIPAC-backed bill that would have restricted funding to nonprofits working in the Palestinian territories in the aftermath of the Hamas takeover in Gaza. “There were a lot of people who were extremely grateful,” said Debra DeLee, the president of Americans for Peace Now. “We were all people who recognized a need, because for all the groups working on this issue, no one was organizing it along the lines of political money.”

The talks were abandoned in late 2006 after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported [17] that Soros was involved, setting the stage for Ben-Ami’s later decision to cover up Soros’ subsequent involvement with the group once it was founded. When J Street formally launched, in April 2008, it was as an independent organization that counted roughly half the board of Americans for Peace Now on its large, non-voting advisory committee, along with dozens of veterans of groups like the New Israel Fund and the Israel Policy Forum. The long list also included Democratic political operatives, including Gail Furman—another of the secret donors to J Street’s lobbying arm, with a $5,000 gift—who along with J Street board member Deborah Sagner was formerly on the board of the Democracy Alliance, a Soros-backed group that was instrumental in creating the progressive political networks that helped generate victories for left-of-center Democrats in 2006 and 2008.

The announcement of J Street attracted immediate excitement—though, from the very earliest days, the group seemed to obliterate the memory of its predecessors. “Why isn’t there a liberal pro-Israel lobby, one that promotes United States involvement in achieving a two-state solution?” Gershom Gorenberg wrote [18] in the American Prospect. “As of today, the answer to that question is: There is such a lobby. It’s called J Street after the thoroughfare missing from the Washington grid—much as a liberal Israel lobby has been lacking from Washington.”

People quickly, however, pointed out the “J” in J Street could also stand for “Jeremy” —an argument made not least because of the decision to concentrate power with the executive, in the mold of powerful, established Jewish groups like Abraham Foxman’s Anti-Defamation League or Malcolm Hoenlein’s [19] Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “Organizations only do well if they have plausible megalomaniacs in charge, and Jeremy is one,” said Martin Bunzl, one of J Street’s financial backers. “If they’re not pathological, things turn out well, and Jeremy is not pathological.” Unlike many progressive groups, which cultivate large boards to attract donors, Ben-Ami’s board is small; in 2008, it was limited to Ben-Ami, Morton Halperin, Israeli venture capitalist Davidi Gilo, Democratic activist Deborah Sagner, and the Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein, whose firm regularly conducts [20] J Street’s polls. (Gerstein has since been replaced by Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of cognitive science at MIT.) “We don’t process everything to death,” said Kathleen Peratis, a New York civil-rights attorney who is on the board of J Street’s related nonprofit education fund, “which means Jeremy and the staff get to move in a lean, mean manner, and the moments don’t pass by while the board is davening.”

***

It’s not clear how J Street’s tax returns wound up being released to the general public. People involved with the organization speculate, darkly, that in an election cycle awash in money from undisclosed sources, only an intentional leak from inside the IRS could explain why J Street was the only group apparently affected. “Why only J Street? Who in the IRS did that? Were they affiliated with our adversaries? I don’t know the answers,” said Victor A. Kovner, a prominent New York attorney and longtime board member of Americans for Peace Now who is co-chair of the finance committee for J Street’s PAC. “We didn’t announce who they were because they had an expectation of confidentiality.”

But the controversy over the Soros revelation, while driven by J Street’s regular critics on the right, gained traction among even its sympathizers because it hit a nerve that had nothing to do with political litmus tests. It was instead about the kind of group J Street’s supporters wanted to imagine they were building, which is to say, the antithesis of AIPAC, which many of the left view as overly secretive. “J Street has positioned itself so that it smells and feels OK to that constituency that does not have its sole Jewish identity through Israel politics,” said Bunzl. “It is an organization that smells and feels good to people who go to shul.”

Continue reading [21]: Capitol Hill, Robert Wexler, and football diplomacy. Or view as a single page [13].
Ben-Ami’s flip soundbite to reporters about the revelation, which he repeated to me, was: “I’m not Gandhi and I’m not Rahm.” He went on to say that, since there was nothing illegal about taking money from Esdicul, the obscure woman in Hong Kong, let alone from Soros, he had no reason to apologize, not even to those of his supporters who were disappointed that he lied to them. “Should the left be the only people who make their donors reveal themselves?” Ben-Ami asked me, leaving only the briefest beat before he answered his own question. “I don’t see why we should go beyond the other team here.”

What may wind up hurting J Street even more, though, is the damage to its reputation as a savvy Washington player. As one longtime peace activist pointed out, one has to assume that everything will be leaked, whether it’s internal documents or confidential IRS filings, and Ben-Ami’s decision to explicitly publish misleading statements about Soros, however artful they may have seemed at the time, rather than just refusing to comment, amounted to an unforced political error. “To me the only problem was that we did seem to imply we didn’t have Soros money when we did,” said Peratis, the New York attorney, who told me she first learned about the contributions from the email Ben-Ami sent to his board before the Washington Times story broke. “That’s what troubled me, and Jeremy appropriately took responsibility for it.” But, she quickly added, “It wasn’t a huge mistake.” There was, however, an immediate cost: Louisiana Rep. Charles Boustany, a descendant of Lebanese-Christian immigrants and the group’s sole Republican endorsee, promptly removed himself from J Street’s list of supporters, according to Boustany’s spokesman Paul Coussan. “We were misled as to their affiliations,” Coussan said, by way of explanation, in an email to Tablet.

***

It may not be a coincidence that where J Street has had the most visible success so far isn’t on Capitol Hill, where AIPAC still reigns, but in its field operations around the country, where local chapters do things like host public events for Israelis like Yael Dayan, daughter of Gen. Moshe Dayan. Even people in deep agreement with J Street’s positions acknowledge that the general American consensus on Israel outside the Jewish community, let alone among major Jewish political donors from hawkish Democrats like Haim Saban to partisan Republicans like Sheldon Adelson, may simply be more comfortable with the positions and approach of AIPAC. Indeed, some J Street donors still send checks to AIPAC. “Obviously my sympathies are with J Street,” said Murray Galinson, chair of the Jewish Funders Network and a former member of AIPAC’s national board who has given to J Street’s PAC. “But we continue to contribute toward AIPAC, and I think they do good work.”

Episodes like the Soros flap only make it that much harder for J Street and its young lobbyists to achieve their original purpose of getting traction on the Hill; even with money to offer, it’s hard to avoid looking like a liability if you can’t quash attacks from the opposite side. As one experienced Washington lobbyist put it: “It doesn’t make them trayf, but it is one more thing to hold against them.”

In the Times Magazine profile of J Street, which appeared a year ago, after the souring of the Obama Administration’s relationship with Netanyahu and with many of its own American Jewish supporters, Ben-Ami famously said his “number one agenda item” was to “act as the president’s blocking back”—a claim backed by Ben-Ami’s ability to get himself invited, to the surprise of many, to a White House meeting with senior Jewish political leaders in July 2009.

In the 18 months since, however, that leading role has increasingly been played by former Florida Rep. Robert Wexler [22], who heads the Center for Middle East Peace—a small organization underwritten by Daniel Abraham, who revived it earlier this year, after his initial, quiet contribution to J Street. Since the 2008 campaign, Wexler has acted as Obama’s chief liaison to the Jewish community, and in the past few months he has hosted two dinners for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Jewish leaders—one earlier this summer in Washington, at which Ben-Ami was present, and one in New York during the United Nations’ General Assembly, to which Ben-Ami was not invited. A spokesman for Abraham’s center said it wasn’t a snub—the guest lists deliberately didn’t overlap—but the incident illustrated just how far the left, organized along ad hoc lines with no umbrella organizing capacity, is from matching the smooth interaction of major groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents, which move in a synchronized and disciplined way through the interlocking circles of Jewish money and power in New York and Washington.

Translating the yearning for an influential dovish Jewish voice on Capitol Hill into reality remains elusive, and it will get even harder if Republicans, as expected, retake the House of Representatives and perhaps the Senate next week. J Street’s political-action arm has currently raised more than [23] of $1.5 million to back [24] 58 candidates for the House and three for the Senate—all Democrats, 16 likely to lose, according to prognosticator Nate Silver [25]. “We have to solve this problem—I want J Street money to flow to Republicans, I want Republicans to support J Street policies,” Kovner told me. “They are there, but they are being directed not to take it.” (Boustany’s spokesman denied any party pressure in the decision to reject J Street’s endorsement.)

It isn’t clear what the consequence will be for other left-wing Jewish groups, which readily acknowledge that their success is tied to J Street’s fortunes. “We’ve seen a renaissance, and J Street is a mighty factor in that,” Daniel Sokatch, the new CEO of the New Israel Fund, told me—though he quickly distanced his group’s work, and target market, from Ben-Ami’s. “J Street and others can worry about the peace process, but we are worrying about the loyalty oath, the conversion bill,” Sokatch said. “That’s what NIF is focusing on.”

Debra DeLee, the head of Americans for Peace Now, similarly drew a distinction between the upside of J Street’s success at shifting the terms of the Washington conversation and the potential downside of its being increasingly associated with Democratic partisanship. “It’s been a very public statement about the breadth and size of those American Jews who support a two-state solution and the kinds of things that both J Steet and APN are talking about,” DeLee said. But, she added, “We have a different strategic approach.” APN has traditionally maintained its bipartisan access, both on the Hill and in the State Department, by emphasizing its role as a provider of high-quality information about the situation on the ground in the territories. DeLee said that whatever J Street’s fate, she will continue encouraging her supporters to direct their political money through J Street’s PAC. “That does not mean that only endorsed candidates should receive money,” she added. “But if they are supporting these candidates, then they should do it through this vehicle.”

For his part, Ben-Ami acknowledged that the goal line has moved from the original objective of winning a peace deal this year or next to building a durable movement. “We didn’t set J Street up simply to provide support to one president and one administration,” Ben-Ami told me. Asked if he was retracting his blocking-for-Obama vow, he paused. “As long as the quarterback is aiming the ball at the end zone, I’m really glad to be the blocking back,” Ben-Ami told me. “But if time runs out, or the quarterback decides to go home or run the wrong way, we’ll reassess. Maybe there comes a time when we have to get behind and start pushing.”

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