A New Voice for Israel:
Fighting for the Survival
of the Jewish Nation
By Jeremy Ben-Ami
Palgrave Macmillan, 256 pages
When the self-dubbed “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group J Street came to the University of Chicago to help set up a campus chapter last fall, I spoke to one of the directors of the new organization’s college operation. I thought perhaps a group catering to pro-Israel progressives might serve as a salutary partner in the coalition I was trying, as a second year undergraduate, to assemble against the delegitimization of Israel on campus.
The J Street operative was, it turned out, utterly uninterested in establishing a friendly relationship with a preexisting Zionist group on campus. Instead, he voiced his befuddlement as to why I refused to join J Street. I began to explain how, as someone who came of age during the second intifada, I believed Israel faced a special peril in the international pressure upon it to trade land (something tangible) for promises (something not). In response, he cut to what he believed to be the chase: Didn’t I understand that the occupation of the Palestinian lands was a “moral catastrophe”?
I was looking to do something practical as a pro-Israel activist; the J Street operative wanted instead to simultaneously engage me and silence me on the question of Israel’s original sin—settlements, occupation, blockade, discrimination. And after reading J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami’s dreadful new book, A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation, I can see why.
Ben-Ami is not a writer of any skill or a public intellectual of any depth; he is, rather a Beltway boy, Democratic campaign veteran, and power broker manqué. A New Voice for Israel, artless and unmemorable, is primarily a memo between hard covers arguing the case for J Street’s existence and importance, and it is as exciting as that description sounds.
The contours of his argument are familiar. He argues that Israel must reach a two-state solution soon; otherwise, through force of demographic trends, it will cease to be Jewish or cease to be democratic. Israel is obstinate, he asserts, especially under the rule of Benjamin Netanyahu, and unwilling to agree to the peace terms everyone knows will eventually be in the deal that creates a Palestinian state. The American pro-Israel establishment, mostly AIPAC, is an “800-pound gorilla” in Washington and successfully deflects the tough love Israel so desperately needs from its American ally.
The same establishment, he says, has cozied up to conservatives, particularly Evangelical Christians, who are opposed to the liberal values of the Jewish community; as a result, many Jews, especially young Jews, have become alienated from Israel. Thus, in his view, there was large gap in the national discussion waiting to be filled—for Israel’s good and to satisfy the conscience of the American Jewish community—by the big blue puzzle piece that represents J Street on A New Voice for Israel’s dust jacket.
Ben-Ami prefaces this case for J Street with an account of his family history intended to demonstrate his connection to the Jewish state and the historical arc of Zionism. His great-grandparents were some of the earliest pioneers in Mandate Palestine, and his grandparents were among the founders of Tel Aviv. His father, whom he charmingly and without irony calls a “terrorist,” was a revisionist Zionist in the Irgun, the militant force led by Menachem Begin in the years before statehood. The elder Ben-Ami moved to the United States because he hated David Ben-Gurion.
Ben-Ami suggests that his own career as a social-services activist, member of Bill Clinton’s domestic policy staff, and adviser to the 2004 Democratic candidacy of the anti-war leftist Howard Dean indicates the kind of journey Zionism has taken and ought to take in the future. Just as his terrorist father’s harsh nationalism has given way to his own kind progressivism, so too must the jingoism of early-stage Israel give way to extreme territorial compromise in this generation.
Ben-Ami may think himself a man with a deep perspective informed by his Israeli background, but the book displays instead a deep ignorance of the political dynamic inside Israel. For while Ben-Ami may be right that Jews in the United States have grown more disenchanted with Jewish nationalism as they have remained statically on the left-liberal axis, the Jews of Israel are shifting rightward politically, demographically, and religiously. Ideological liberalism is a vital force in the United States, but in Israel it has largely been repudiated and holds little or no legitimacy on issues of security or economy today.
Even more telling is Ben-Ami’s refusal throughout to take the measure of the people with whom Israel is supposed to strike the deal he so passionately believes in. The history of Palestinian intransigence and broken promises is all but absent from A New Voice for Israel. Ben-Ami claims Shimon Peres would have “likely” completed Yitzhak Rabin’s peace process in the mid-90s had Peres not been defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. But even Peres would have had to take some measure of Yasir Arafat’s conscious dereliction when it came to upholding promises made to Israel regarding security in the 1993 Oslo Accords. When Ben-Ami addresses the fact that Arafat refused Ehud Barak’s offer of statehood in 2000 (Barak was, of course, a prime minister from the same party as Peres), he does not fault the dead terrorist who launched a war rather than shaking Barak’s outstretched hand. Instead, and in a fascinating and illogical stretch, he blames George W. Bush for having not pursued the supposedly still-promising negotiations—negotiations taking place while Palestinian terrorists were engaged in an open war with Israel—upon entering office in 2001.
Even more astounding, Ben-Ami makes no mention of the obstacle posed to any peace process: that Hamas rules one of the two Palestinian territories. Nor does he seem too bothered by the fact that the Palestinian Authority has not repudiated the “right of return”—the full application of which would lead to the instant destruction of Israel. Indeed, according to Ben-Ami, the two heads of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas and Salaam Fayyad, are “the best Palestinian leaders Israel is likely to have to work with for quite some time.” What reason does he give to think they are good enough? Are they willing to accept a Jewish state with Jerusalem as its capital and no right of return? If they were to agree to such terms, would they have the support of their people? On these points, Ben-Ami is silent.
He ignores the basic challenge of Israel’s dubious partner-in-peace and focuses solely on Israel’s actions and the American Jewish community. That is because (as was the case with the J Street operative at the University of Chicago) once one pronounces Israel’s present policy a “moral catastrophe,” all matters of strategy and prudence become infinitely secondary. Ben-Ami thinks the occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza “should end because they are morally wrong.” He says such actions taken by a Jewish state are a contradiction in terms because Jewish values oppose them.
To make this case, which ignores the question of Israel’s moral responsibility to protect its own children and its own existence, Ben-Ami offers textual evidence of stunning vapidity. “Charity [tzedakah], good works [gmilut Chasidim], and repairing the world [tikkun olam] are fundamental elements of Jewish identity,” he asserts, which is true in part, but they are less important than, say, the degree to which Jewish identity is dedicated to the defense and protection of Jews in a world hostile to them. He throws out glib parables like a self-satisfied uncle at a seder—e.g., Hillel said that the Torah can be summarized as “that which is hateful to you, do not unto another,” and we would not like to be Gazans, ergo, we should end the blockade.
This is not only false logic but also a false account of the Jewish moral and ethical code. A true Jewish ethics straddles Hillel’s plaintive questions: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” and “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” It holds aspirations for righteousness and peace and is moved by a universalist compassion, but it understands the need for—indeed, the divine calling to—a particularist nationalism. The conversion of an immensely complex moral, ethical, legal, and religious tradition into easy-to-read bumper stickers is an understandable impulse from a veteran political operator, but one would think that even the most cynical hack would have the modesty not to liquefy three millennia of argumentation into a left-liberal cholent.