An Indispensable Force: J Street in the 2020s

Jeremy Ben-Ami, President
on December 3, 2022

Address to J Street’s 2022 National Conference.

Fifteen years ago, a group of Americans who cared deeply about the state of Israel and shared real concern about how Israel advocacy was carried out in American politics came together to start J Street.

Many of us were children and grandchildren of those who built the state and fought for its survival.

Many of us also shared a legacy as children and grandchildren of those who survived – or in some cases not – the horrors of the Holocaust or of the persecution of Jews globally.

Our definition of pro-Israel advocacy included a commitment to Israel’s security, its democratic values and its Jewish character.

It also could encompass support for the rights of Palestinians as well, recognizing that Israel could only remain secure, democratic and Jewish in nature for the long run with a state of Palestine alongside it and full and equal rights for Palestinians within.

So, In our earliest days, we became associated with one simple idea: the two-state solution.

And, in 2008, we were fortunate.

The Israeli Prime Minister – Ehud Olmert – supported two states.  In fact, four of the five most recent Prime Ministers had supported territorial compromise and recognized that Israel’s future depended on it.

Negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians were actually ongoing as J Street launched, mediated by an American Secretary of State – Condoleeza Rice – with the strong backing of the Republican American President, George W. Bush.

Yet, sadly, here we are today, 15 years later, further from two states than when we launched.

This coming week, Israel will seat the most right-wing government in its history, committed to policies that will likely aim to cement permanent, undemocratic control of millions of Palestinians, challenge Israel’s democracy to its core and erode the rights of many who live there from women, to the LGBTQ community to human rights and progressive activists.

Many who share J Street’s core values and who believed deeply in what Israel aimed to be and the principles on which it was founded are throwing up their hands in despair, wondering if it’s time to walk away.

So let’s be honest:

The work of J Street in the 2020s is fundamentally different than the work we set out to do nearly a generation ago.

Given that prospects for conflict resolution in the near term are slim, we need to keep our eye on the specific questions J Street can realistically address and the difference we can make.

They are questions about America – its policy and its politics – and specifically about the millions of Jews who today live here in the United States.

After all, J Street is an American organization and our work is here – in this country. 

The first question for us as an American lobby is what US policy should be in light of the emerging one-state reality.

The loudest voices in the Jewish community and on the political right will insist that the US support Israel right or wrong, no matter what it does.

These voices – led by AIPAC and other legacy organizations – say that the US should provide billions in aid without restrictions or oversight and should protect Israel from any accountability for its behavior. They label critics of Israeli policy “anti-Israel” or “antisemitic” in an effort to stifle debate and dissent.

J Street views things differently.

We believe the United States must unequivocally oppose any efforts by Israel to deepen its control over occupied territory and the Palestinians who live there and to take the land and resources permanently for itself.

Let me be clear: We do not question Israel’s right to or need for security.

But expanding settlements, imposing collective punishment on Palestinians, enforcing two systems of law on neighbors based on their ethnicity – these things don’t enhance Israel’s security, they undercut it.  And that’s not just the view of liberal Americans, that’s the view of the overwhelming bulk of retired commanders of Israel’s security services.

Just this week, the former head of the IDF Gadi Eisenkot said if the new government harms Israel’s democracy, its education or the IDF, a million people should take to the streets.

He is right, and the US too should oppose such moves.

It must oppose annexation, de facto or de jure.

It must oppose Israeli moves to legalize settlements its own laws have considered “illegal” for decades.

It must stand against any move to change the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram a-Sharif.

And we have to ensure that our tax dollars aren’t being used to abet settlement construction, home demolitions or other actions that deepen occupation.

Laws that restrict aid to the Palestinians and to other countries are routinely enforced. We’re even looking closely at how Ukraine is using the equipment we send to defend itself from invasion.

Maybe it’s time for some serious oversight and accountability for how our aid to Israel is actually being used.

Even without a path in sight to two states, US policy can still make a very concrete difference in people’s lives – protecting rights and preventing abuses – while keeping a path open to eventual conflict resolution.

Our voice matters greatly in shaping that American policy.

The second question for J Street in the 2020s is who represents the Jewish community in American politics. 

The most powerful institutions in our community have embraced the idea for decades that American Jews should support any politician who supports Israel, right or wrong.

They say nothing else matters. It turns out they’ll even endorse candidates willing to overturn the results of a free and fair election.

Yet rather than focus on defeating the white nationalists and election deniers with whom most of Jewish America has nothing in common, they instead spent tens of millions to defeat liberal and progressive candidates who may – or may not – have at some point criticized Israeli policy.

Organizations that fail to call out the Ben-Gvir’s and Smotrich’s in Israel while endorsing the Jim Jordan’s, Andy Biggs’ and Scott Perry’s here in the US do not speak for us. They do not represent us.

This is not the political voice of the Jewish community. 

So, on this second question of who gets to speak for the American Jewish community in national politics – J Street’s role in the 2020s is to represent the majority of our community and say loudly and clearly that our political support will go to those who stand up for justice, for diplomacy and for democracy here, in Israel and globally.

The third question for J Street in the 2020s relates to our own Jewish community, how it functions and what its future will be.

In the coming years, Israel’s government – duly elected by its people – seems likely to take more actions that run counter to the values that American Jews teach our children are the essence of Jewish identity.

The American Jewish majority prides itself on its role in the fight for justice over the decades.  The sight of Rabbi Heschel marching with Dr. King.  The Jewish leaders who helped build the labor movement, the women’s movement, the LGBTQ+ movement and more.

It is ingrained in us that the Jewish people should not treat others as we would not want to be treated ourselves.  At seders celebrating our own people’s liberation from slavery, we recommit as well to the struggles for freedom yet to be won across the globe.

Yet how can we explain to our children and grandchildren – let alone to ourselves – that these values are the core of Jewish identity, if the state of the Jewish people is denying another people their rights and equality and undercutting the rules of international law.

This is a fundamental crisis that looms over American Jewry in the coming years.

Those in the establishment of our community who insist that Jewish America must stand united and unquestioningly loyal to Israel no matter what are doing a deep disservice to the long-term health of the Jewish community.

And so on this third question regarding the relationship of Jewish America to an Israel mired in permanent occupation and increasingly undemocratic, J Street will be a home for those who believe that our community – for itself more than even for Israel – must root its identity not in commitment to a flag or a piece of land, but to a set of principles and values.

If we do not, we will see large swathes of our community walk away not only from engagement with Israel – which is already happening – but from the Jewish community itself.

Nearly every conversation I have with a J Street supporter these days revolves around a similar theme – if the two-state solution isn’t on the agenda for the foreseeable future, what is there for J Street to do.

My answer is that our work actually increases in importance the further Israel drifts away from two states.

If we had leadership in Israel that wanted to negotiate an end to the conflict…. If we had a Palestinian leadership strong enough to lead their people toward compromise…. If we had an American leadership interested in playing a critical and leading role – this would all be easier.

Maybe, if everything were going right, we wouldn’t even need J Street!

But – precisely because we are mired in permanent occupation and the undemocratic and unjust one-state reality is upon us – the work of J Street is even more important.

So here’s what J Street has to do now:

  • Push for American policy that is unwavering in opposition to occupation, to settlement expansion and to Israeli policies that undermine American interests and values.
  • Ensure that – in American politics – the Jewish majority is heard… that candidates and elected officials understand that, for most of our community, our support for Israel is bound up with our values and we do not see support for Israel as an excuse for undercutting democracy and justice here at home.
  • Press our community’s leadership to demonstrate that the values we preach apply not just to everyone else but also to the state that is the national homeland of our people.

There is so much work to do. The stakes have never been higher. And the only winners if we give in to despair are ethnonationalists, racists and demagogues who threaten not only Israel, but also our own democracy in the US.

Thank you for all you are doing to build J Street in the 2020s and for being part of the pro-Israel, pro-peace and pro-democracy movement.