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Why I Founded J Street

Jeremy Ben-Ami

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

I remember the looks we got before President Obama entered. According to the New York Times, several right-leaning establishment groups seated next to me had “vehemently protested” the president’s decision to invite us.

They weren’t happy to see me. They were even less happy with what President Obama was about to say.

One leader said there should be “no daylight” between the White House and the Israeli government, and never any public criticism. The president replied candidly: “I disagree.”

Now, my great-grandparents made aliyah to Israel in the 1880s. My grandparents helped found Tel Aviv. My father fought for the country’s independence. I myself lived in Israel through some of the most horrific days of the second intifada.

I founded J Street out of a deep love for the Jewish homeland – and deep anguish over the direction things were heading. I felt nobody at that table was speaking for my values.

We could see the growing power of right-wing, antidemocratic forces in Israel. A settlement movement laying the groundwork for permanent, undemocratic control of the West Bank. Leaders seeking a narrower, more Isolated Israel, forsaking our pluralistic Jewish values, locking in endless conflict. Their answer: To do nothing.

As President Obama said, “no daylight” would ensure no progress toward peace. He articulated a balanced approach – holding fast to ironclad support for Israel’s security, but firmly pushing back on harmful policies like settlement expansion.

The past 6 months have shown the necessity of that nuanced approach more than ever.

The unspeakable sadism and depravity of Hamas on October 7 shook our entire community. Young people massacred. Hostages ripped from their homes. Unrelenting anguish for their families.

Our Israeli staff count friends among those taken hostage. Our Executive Director has spent nearly every day volunteering with hostage families.

But our community’s pain is only made worse by the unbearable suffering in Gaza. Families torn apart by grief. More than 1 million people displaced. More than 12,000 children killed. Doctors operating by flashlight, treating catastrophic injuries without anesthetics or antibiotics.

Meanwhile, we endure fringe voices on one side who’ve appallingly sought to excuse Hamas’ brutality as some sort of valid resistance. On the other, those who seem to be using the suffering of hostages and the crimes of Hamas as justification for inflicting intolerable pain on civilians in Gaza.

J Street has been clear that the Israeli government has a right to defend its citizens and remove Hamas from power – but this right carries with it the responsibility of protecting civilians, complying with international law, and facilitating humanitarian aid.

As Senator Chuck Schumer said, so many in our community are anguished by the sense that the Israeli government is falling short of our Jewish values. And as former Israeli security chiefs warn, this catastrophe will deal permanent damage to Israel’s standing and make the job of securing a post-war Gaza only harder still.

President Biden has made a real impact, brokering a humanitarian pause which freed over 100 hostages and brought an all too brief reprieve in Gaza. We’ve seen a significant increase in aid deliveries following a stern call from Biden to Netanyahu last week.

J Street is continuing to press for that pressure to go further and faster.

Strong US leadership can save lives, free hostages and end this devastation – we must use the full strength of American leverage to press for a better course. We have to live up to our values.

In the longer term, we have to ensure the horror of October 7 and the months since can never be repeated. Terror will never bring freedom to Palestinians, and military force alone will never bring true peace and safety to Israelis.

Only by offering an achievable, peaceful path toward freedom and self-determination for both Palestinians and Israelis can we disempower Hamas and defeat the hopelessness and disenfranchisement upon which terrorists feed – and only the President of the United States has the power to light the way.

Rallying our community behind our shared values and pressing for that strong pro-Israel, pro-peace, pro-democracy leadership has been the work of J Street for over a decade, and is our work now and into the future.

Unlike some other pro-Israel groups, we don’t rely on right-wing mega donors. We proudly count on Jewish and pro-Israel Americans across the country chopping in whatever they can to support our movement.

We truly owe each and every one of our staff, donors, organizers and supporters a tremendous debt of gratitude for their commitment to this mission.

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