April 5, 2013

Pro-peace lobbyist talks Israel, Palestine

Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of J Street, a Jewish-American pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby based in DC, spoke on his organization’s vision for an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the Logan Center Wednesday evening, just over two weeks after President Obama’s first visit to Israel and the Palestinian West Bank since taking office in 2009.

Ben-Ami praised Obama’s recent speech in the West Bank, in which he implicitly compared the struggles of African Americans to the hardships of life for Palestinians, which include frequent security checkpoints and a feeling of second-class citizenship. He invoked Obama’s words: “We’ve got to put ourselves in the shoes of the other side.”

In her introduction of Ben-Ami, Susan Gzesh, executive director of the human rights program, credited J Street with “opening a space for rational discussion on this issue for American Jews.” As Ben-Ami remarked in his talk, J Street aims to foster “a discussion that’s been difficult—to get beyond ‘us versus them.’”

“American politicians have heard for far too long that there is only one way to be pro-Israel: to stand by Israel right or wrong,” he said. “Well, that’s not a voice that speaks for me. J Street gives a voice to those Americans who don’t fit that one view.”

Ben-Ami also considered his views as grounded in a personal attachment to Israel, where his family was among the first wave of Jewish immigrants in the early 1900s, and where he lived for three years in the 1990s. Through his experiences in Israel, he concluded that “there were two peoples with legitimate claims to the land, that the future of Israel depended on an end to the violence.”

A lawyer by training, Ben-Ami has worked on seven U.S. presidential campaigns. He expressed the need for American involvement as a mediator in a two-state solution between Israel and the Arab world—an option, he said, that is quickly fading.

“The chances of a two-state solution diminish with each passing day…. Currently 600,000 Jews, 10 percent of Jews in Israel, live in settlements on Palestinian land captured in the 1967 war. But if we don’t act in this first year of the presidential administration, that number might be 700,000 or 900,000 in four years, and the moderate Palestinians who have been negotiating with us for 20 years will give up,” he said.

“If we don’t act in this window of a U.S. president and Secretary of State committed to peace, that window is going to close.”