Ruth Laibson is a member of the J Street-Philadelphia Executive Committee. A professional pianist and musician, Ruth previously served as executive director of the Interfaith Council on the Holocaust of Greater Philadelphia and as president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia. In addition to her work with the J Street Executive Committee, Ruth is a member of the New Israel Fund Regional Council and, since 2002, has served on the board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.
On page two of the introduction to Jeremy Ben-Ami’s insightful treatise A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), he states:
“If things don’t change pretty soon, chances are that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will slip through our fingers. As that happens, the dream of the Jewish people to be a free people in their own land also slowly disappears.”
These words, written in 2011, are even more urgent today. They are the foundational premise of this book and the clarion call of J Street, America’s pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy lobby.
Ben-Ami, the founder and president of J Street, is the great-grandson of émigrés from Eastern Europe who arrived in Palestine in the 1880s and 90s with dreams of establishing “a society that was more just and more equitable than any other.” In the 1930s, Ben-Ami’s father, Isaac, aligned himself with the Revisionist Zionists, whose essential goal was the establishment of an independent state for the Jewish people. Isaac eventually settled in the United States and raised his children in New York City. The survival of Israel, however, was paramount to the family.
Jeremy Ben-Ami grew up with an abiding but inconsistent interest in Israel. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 was the defining moment that, as Ben-Ami describes it, “jolted me out of my complacency.” Over the next two decades, Ben-Ami clarified his understanding of what was wrong with the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel, and whose voices were carrying the most weight on behalf of that community in the halls of Congress. Out of those understandings grew the genesis for creating “a new voice on Israel, coming from the center-left mainstream of the Jewish community, that could advocate a two-state solution, lobby policy makers and raise and distribute political money – and in the process rewrite the rules of American Jewish politics.” That collective voice is J Street.
Throughout A New Voice for Israel, Ben-Ami stresses the importance for American Jews to not be intimidated or fearful of openly expressing their concerns about Israel. Rather, the American Jewish community must be willing to “wrestle with difficult issues the country faces and with their own evolving relationship with the homeland of our people.” He is especially wary of growing political alliances between evangelical Christian leaders and the American Jewish establishment “simply to build a broader base of unquestioning support for Israel.”
For Ben-Ami, the most significant challenge to Israel’s future and security moving forward is the resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which he believes can be solved through “rational compromise.” And he strengthens his belief with a stern admonition: “failure to speak out and act on behalf of freedom and dignity for …. the Palestinians will put the United States on the wrong side of history.”
Ben-Ami concludes by acknowledging “the present path that the state of Israel is on is unsustainable.” A New Voice for Israel concisely indicts that path and articulates clear directives for the American Jewish community to follow in “rewrite[ing] the rulebook on Israel.” Although seven years have passed since publication of A New Voice for Israel, it remains relevant as a valuable dissection of the relationship between the American Jewish community and the state of Israel, and as a worthwhile tutorial for everyone in the J Street community!