From My Basement to the White House: J Street’s First 15 Years

Jeremy Ben-Ami, President of J Street
on April 14, 2023

It was 2009, J Street was one year old, and I was seated in the Roosevelt Room in the White House next to the leaders of almost every major Jewish group in America.

I still remember the looks I got in that room. J Street was the new kid on the block and, according to the New York Times, several of the leaders of right-leaning establishment groups sitting next to me had “vehemently protested” President Obama’s decision to invite us.

While they weren’t happy to see me there personally, they were even less happy with what President Obama was about to say.

One leader told the president there should be no daylight between the US and Israel, and never any public criticism of the Israeli government. The president replied candidly: “I disagree.”

No daylight between the US and Israel had helped ensure no progress in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, Obama explained, making clear that he intended to publicly push back on harmful policies, including settlement expansion.

In that meeting, President Obama shattered political orthodoxy. He showed foresight and understanding of the long-term risks Prime Minister Netanyahu and the settlement movement posed to Israel’s democratic future.

That day, J Street began the critical work of shattering conservative groups’ long-standing, harmful monopoly on speaking for the pro-Israel community in Washington.

Even then, these groups were beginning to align themselves with right-wing Republicans and evangelicals – and failing to represent the overwhelming majority of liberal, pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy American Jews.

This week marks J Street’s 15th birthday.

I remember our first formal day of work in 2008 — in my basement! — as we set off on an ambitious journey to provide a proud, confident political voice to those who care passionately about Israel’s security, its democratic values, its place among nations, and its long-term future.

After that first meeting with President Obama, the New York Times said J Street “will not lack for acreage to till.”

Boy were they right.

After wondering whether our movement would ever outgrow my basement, we held our first conference in that fall and had crowds so large we had people sitting on the floor in the hallways for overflow.

J Street was named after a missing street in DC’s grid, and there was a hunger for that missing voice. Together, we’ve experienced tremendous highs and painful lows.

  • We led the charge to support pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy leadership from the White House and Congress – balancing robust support for Israel’s security with clear pushback against settlements and annexation.
  • We stood on the front lines of the bitter brawl to help secure President Obama’s Iran deal, defeating the “maximum pressure” hawks to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon, install 24/7 monitoring in their facilities and force Iran to ship out their entire supply of high-enriched uranium.
  • As the first major Jewish group to denounce President Trump’s candidacy for president, we watched in disbelief as right-wing pro-Israel groups normalized or supported him, and then in horror as battleground states were called for Trump in November 2016.
  • We saw Trump directly assault and undermine our democracy and our core values. Turning refugees into a political punching bag, shredding the Iran deal in favor of military threats, and gifting the extreme-right Israeli settlement movement a “peace” plan that was actually a smokescreen for outright annexation

We worked to push back where we could, to rally a movement in our communities and in Congress, and to transform the politics on Israel and foreign policy within the Democratic party. Together, we raised over $16 million across 2018 and 2020 to help defeat Trump and his supporters in Congress.

We’ve made tremendous progress over the past 15 years, and it can be easy to forget how much public discourse has shifted.

I remember being told — after saying the US shouldn’t provide Netanyahu with carte blanche immunity for settlements and annexation at the UN — that we were “so open minded, your brains must have fallen out.”

Today, I still see shock written on the faces of Members of Congress when we take them on nuanced, balanced tours of Israel and the West Bank as they come to grips with the painful reality on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians, versus what they’ve been told by other groups 6,000 miles away.

Today, over half the Democratic caucus in the House and Senate are J Street endorsees. We speak for the overwhelming majority of pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy Americans.

We speak for those who support the pro-democracy protesters on the streets across Israel. Who know there’s no excuse for funding election-denying extremists here at home. Who want to see the United States pursue tough, effective, even-handed diplomacy to secure a peaceful and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We speak for those who are proud to stand up for their values. Who champion Israel’s future as a truly just, truly democratic, truly peaceful homeland for the Jewish people.

None of our work would be possible without the support of so many folks who believed in our mission from the outset, and who joined us along the way. We owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who’s been a part of this journey so far.

To the work ahead!

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