Tuesday night, the 92nd Street Y hosted Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of aspirant AIPAC-counterweight J Street, in conversation with Peter Beinart, of Jewish institution-alarming fame. As symbols go, there may be few things more telling than the late arrival of a number of attendees (even adjusted for Jewish Standard Time), no doubt affected by traffic from the United Nations. It seems a lot of people are either late or absent to the conversation about J Street because of obstacles like the U.N., Gilad Shalit’s captivity, the building of the Iranian nuclear program, and the various terror attacks from Gaza (either from rockets or via the new-and-improved Egypt), all of which delay the conversation Ben-Ami wants to have about Israel striking peace deals with its neighbors and leaving the West Bank.
For a 92nd Street Y crowd that is known to boo and hiss, the calm was pretty steady. Ben-Ami’s positions are well-known, but even for first-time listeners, there wasn’t much by way of verbal glowering thrown his way. One tuning in to the peanut gallery on the way out of the event could hear the following muttered: “I still don’t buy it.” And: “He is Mr. But. He always says ‘I understand this, but … .’”
There were also a number of moments that elicited more than just scattered applause from the crowd. Ben-Ami spoke of the progress he believes his organization is making, citing the rising number of political candidates who took J Street’s endorsement and won office from 2008 to 2010. Following the event, young and bright-eyed J Street members bearing name tags fanned out to continue the conversation with anyone willing. The 92nd Street Y bookseller estimated that she had sold ten copies of Ben-Ami’s new book.
The only real diversion from the script came during the Q&A as Ben-Ami was describing his feelings about the Jewish attachment to religious sites in the West Bank. In the context of their importance, he also mentioned the importance of sites to Palestinians and Muslims that lie in pre-1967 Israel. It was at this moment that the conversation was interrupted by a man who shouted to ask if each side’s attachment to religious sites were equal in Ben-Ami’s view (the man’s wife quickly elbowed him in embarrassment). Beinart, not wanting to allow the breaking of the fourth wall (or the conversational security fence, if you prefer), quickly ushered the conversation away from there.
I contacted Ben-Ami to ask him the question that the man had shouted. Not because it was any more valid than all the other unanswered queries, but because this question of whether Ben-Ami (and, by extension, J Street) is more devoted to the Jewish spiritual and historical connection to the Levant than any other religious or ethnic group is a question that will continue to transcend (or even interrupt) any amount of intelligent discourse for many in the pro-Israel camp.
“Both peoples have an attachment to the land they have to share,” Ben-Ami replied. “Each is different and personal, and there is nothing to be gained by attempting to weight their relative connection. There is everything to be gained through mutual acknowledgement of and respect for the feelings of each other.”
The natural follow-up: Are you ready to buy it?
Related: The Failure of the American-Jewish Establishment [NYRB]