J Street, Zionism and BDS

Jeremy Ben-Ami
on September 3, 2022

It’s a couple of hours before Shabbat and a long holiday weekend in the US. I’ve just seen reporting of comments by a student active in J Street U that critiques J Street’s principles and our stances in the debates over Israel in the American Jewish community and in our national politics.

When I lived in Israel, Friday afternoon in Jerusalem was my favorite time of the week. As the sun began to set, I generally found myself on the promenade looking at the Old City from the south. As the city gradually slowed down, I would relax with a friend or two, having an afternoon beer and listening to music.   

We looked out at thousands of years of history and centuries of conflict and often debated the best approach to achieving peace and justice for the people who call the land home – both Jews and Palestinians.

Tonight, I’m almost 6,000 miles from there, collecting my thoughts as the sun sets in Washington DC. Shabbat is as good a time as any to reflect, discuss and exchange ideas, and I’d like to do so tonight.

The term Zionism may be controversial for some, but I have no hesitation in saying that I am a Zionist – viewing the term to mean recognition of the collective right of the Jewish people to national self-determination in the land of Israel, no more and no less.  

J Street is a Zionist organization. We are engaged in an ongoing debate – that’s been alive for over a century over what the state of the Jewish people should look like and what it actually means to be a Zionist.

I happen to believe that the vision of Zionism – that the Jewish people should be a free people in their own land – will only be fulfilled when the Palestinian people too have fulfilled their right to national self-determination in a state of their own, next to Israel.  

I believe in a Zionism grounded in the values of our people – justice, peace, equality and liberation – as well as in the principles of democracy.  Frankly, for those who know Zionist debates well, I pull on both Ben Gurion and Jabotinsky to define my approach.

I personally, and J Street organizationally, work day in and day out in American politics and policy to advance our values, recognizing how far today’s Israel is from realizing our vision of Zionism.

In my very first address to a J Street conference, I said that J Street’s work would include defining what it means to be “pro-Israel” to include support for Palestinian rights and freedom and to ensure that being pro-Israel is not defined as being “anti” anyone else – Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, etc.  

Over the past fourteen years, we’ve also had to define a position on the Global Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS). A movement that is named after a tactic rather than its goals is not easily defined, especially since a host of individual tactical campaigns have found a home underneath the BDS banner — some of which have engaged in blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, or denied the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish homeland.

To the extent that the BDS Movement globally, or individual campaigns tactically, do not recognize the right of the Jewish people to national self-determination – they can count J Street as an opponent.

We recognize that economic activism in the form of boycotts and divestment is a valuable and effective tool in bringing about political change. And importantly we respect the First Amendment’s protection of political speech that includes economic action. We engage with those who participate in boycotts and reject that somehow participation in those movements is per se antisemitic.

So there you have it. J Street is a Zionist, pro-Israel and anti-BDS organization.

I recognize some of these terms strike the ears of different generations in different ways. We’re going to have debates and conversations within J Street and within our communities over definitions and terms for years and decades to come.  

People of all generations, political stripes, religious affiliations and activist philosophies are welcome to be part of J Street, but they have to be comfortable with our core values and that includes support for the right of the Jewish people to a state they can call home in the land of Israel.

Core to J Street’s work, in particular J Street U, is creating space for younger generations of Jewish Americans to find solidarity, safety and support as they develop their vision of what it means to be pro-Israel and, yes, Zionist, in a way that squares with stongly-held and laudable values of justice, equality and peace.

I’m sure that the views of J Street U’s activists will evolve over time — some will move closer to J Street’s views and some away. I look forward to engaging with them all.

And I look forward to many future Shabbats in Jerusalem, marveling at the successes of the country, agonizing over its flaws and planning how to build a better future.

That is my Zionism.