J Street and the legacy of 9/11

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on September 14, 2021
Full Width Photo

Recent days have been filled with personal remembrances of September 11, 2001.

Like so many of you, clear blue September skies have transported me back to that Tuesday, when I stood in shock in Greenwich Village, staring at an airplane-sized wound in the city’s tallest building.

Those of us who lost friends or family that day hold a personal grief inextricably bound up with a national trauma. A pain that is both collective and deeply personal.

That morning, I couldn’t know how that moment would shape the rest of my life. Or how the genesis of the J Street movement would tie back to that day of trauma.

The events of that day — and the decisions made by both the Bush and subsequent administrations — brought us a new political lexicon: The Patriot Act. Extraordinary rendition. Troop surges. Drone strikes. Enemy combatants. Enhanced interrogation. ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Alternative facts.

Many of these terms reflect trade-offs America made of core values in the name of security. And they reflect actions and decisions grounded in a short-term reactive calculus without adequate consideration of long-term ramifications.

Those who warned us at the time with clarity and foresight of the risk of sacrificing our values, or the long-term costs of our actions, were too often derided as soft, naive and even un-American.

Today, with 20 years of hindsight, there are clear lessons to be drawn — not only for America’s leaders but also for those thinking about how Israel can reconcile a desire for security with the vision of a just, peaceful and democratic homeland for the Jewish people.

We cannot fix political problems with military solutions.

We cannot defend democracy if we allow our values to become collateral damage in the process.

We must be wary of those who denounce cartoon villains, offer simple solutions and promise easy victories — but instead end up delivering endless conflict, violence and injustice.

Those lessons remain core to J Street’s strategic thinking today.

By early 2003, I had become deeply disheartened by the lack of dissent among elected officials around the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.

The nation’s understandable desire to answer the horror of September 11 had been hijacked by ideologues with a longstanding agenda of their own — regime change in Iraq and beyond.

I joined the presidential campaign of Howard Dean, the sole candidate willing to buck his party’s leadership and speak out against the war.

He brought a skeptical eye not only to claims of weapons of mass destruction and the concept of preventive war, but to the harmful conventional wisdom around Israeli-Palestinian policy. But for calling out the dangers of settlement expansion or suggesting the US should be an even-handed broker for peace, he was vehemently attacked as a radical, anti-Israel and worse.

I came to see this as part of a pattern: A political culture that deterred leaders from supporting pragmatic policies — including those they supported behind closed doors — because they feared that nobody would stand with them if they stood up for the truth.

It’s this dynamic which, save for a few brave champions, muzzled debate over the Iraq war and our goals in Afghanistan and led to catastrophic post-9/11 policy failures. It pushed our leaders to do what felt politically safe and expected, rather than what’s wise, right and just.

On the question of Israel, it has pushed our leaders to enable and reinforce a cycle of endless occupation and conflict — against the interests of the US and Israel itself — rather than take the steps required to help Israel fulfill its promise as a just, democratic homeland for the Jewish people. A beacon of light among nations.

If there were ever a contrast which summed up this problem, it’s that George Bush’s catastrophic decision to invade Iraq was somehow less controversial than Barack Obama’s efforts to avoid war and prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons through a negotiated agreement.

That’s why we founded J Street: To give our leaders the space and political support to do what’s just, right and in our long-term best interests. To pursue policies and principles embraced by the overwhelming majority of voters, both inside and outside our community.

It’s why we push back so hard against the destructive voices on the right who have dominated the policy debate for far too long. Why we stand up for a foreign policy that, by embracing diplomacy and democratic values, ultimately makes us safer and stronger.

20 years on, the debate continues between those of us who champion diplomacy, multilateralism and human rights and those very same people who led us into devastating, fruitless wars over the past two decades.

With boundless self-assurance, hard-liners and neocons insist the only way to deal with Iran is through ‘maximum pressure,’ military force and regime change. Or that on Israel-Palestine, security considerations leave no choice but permanent occupation.

We’re determined to make sure these voices don’t win out yet again.

J Street will continue to stand for values-driven leadership that measures strength not solely in military might, but in our ability to solve real global problems, our capacity for international leadership, and our power to advance a vision for peace, justice, security and progress.

Twenty years since that crystal clear morning in downtown Manhattan, it is meaningful to me that this year’s anniversary falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a moment in which we learn from mistakes of the past, show resolve in the present, and commit to progress in the future.

In this moment, I feel energized for the year ahead. We are in the process of transforming our politics, creating real space for bold leadership, and advancing our shared values of justice, self-determination and peace. If you are able, please join us in that mission.

Join our values driven movement for peace, justice and diplomacy