It’s not your standard, bland, everyone-can-understand-it sports metaphor: It’s not “We struck out” or “We scored a touchdown” or “It came down to the final buzzer.” Instead, Jeremy Ben-Ami prefers to think of J Street, his “pro-Israel, pro-peace” organization that Allison Hoffman profiles today, as a very specific player in specific situations during a football game: “Our No. 1 agenda item is to do whatever we can in Congress to act as the president’s blocking back,” he told James Traub of The New York Times Magazine last year. If Ben-Ami knows the term—which not everyone who sits on a couch on a Sunday afternoon does—it’s safe to presume he knows what it means. What does it reveal about what he wants for J Street?
On rushing plays, the job of the blocking back—typically the fullback—is to lead the tailback, who has the ball, through the holes created by the offensive line in order to set that one final block that will enable the tailback to pick up significant yardage. The difference between a bad blocking-back play and a good one, in other words, isn’t the difference between, say, a zero-yard gain and a three-yard gain, but between a three-yard gain and an eight-yard gain: Your lineman still have to create the initial hole. The implication of the metaphor is that J Street sees itself, rather humbly (I mean that as a compliment), as merely one cog in a much larger process, which can’t do the job by itself but can help the job get done. And, of course, the glory goes not to him but to the runner—to Obama.
Asked by Allison about the metaphor over a year later, however, Ben-Ami said something slightly different, which among other things does confirm his facility with football. “As long as the quarterback is aiming the ball at the end zone, I’m really glad to be the blocking back,” he says. “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.” The metaphor sort of breaks down toward the end there, but it is interesting that Ben-Ami is now defining “blocking back” in the one other way the term is defined: As the one running back, whether a beefy fullback or a slimmer tailback, who stays near the quarterback during passing situations (say, third-and-long) in order to make that last crucial block on the one guy on the defense who got past the offensive line. This is a yet humbler self-perception: This sort of blocking back, in an ideal world, isn’t even necessary; he is a last-ditch saver of a play. And he still does not guarantee that the quarterback throws a good pass or that the receiver catches it.
What binds the metaphors together—the best way to understand what it means to be a blocking back, in both senses of the term—is that when the blocking back does his job well, only the well-trained football eye notices him. On a rush, the casual fan will merely praise the running back, with the ball, who picked up eight yards and a first down; on a passing play, the casual fan will merely praise the quarterback and receiver for hooking up for six points. However, when the blocking back fails—misses the block on the linebacker coming after the rusher, misses the block on the blitzer who has gone around the offensive line—then everyone knows he is the one to blame. Ben-Ami seems to be okay with leaving Obama the bulk of the credit should his preferred polices be enacted. But he also seems likely to understand that the blocking back’s job is to stay out of the news, and that when he doesn’t—when he misses a block, say, or obfuscates about his funding sources—he is likely to receive an outsize share of the blame.