J Street Chief: Yeah, We'd Support Obama if He Cut Aid to Israel
BY Michael Goldfarb
December 10, 2009 5:36 PM
Before J Street's inaugural conference, the group's director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, gave an interview to Jeffrey Goldberg in which he stated flatly that U.S. aid to Israel should not be used as leverage in peace negotiations. "Military aid should not be on the table -- this is an absolutely essential aspect of Israel's security, and it's an essential aspect of the U.S.-Israel relationship," Ben-Ami told Goldberg...
...Last month, a letter to the editor appeared in the Bay Area Jewish newspaper j. The author, Larry Goldberg, explained:
Recently I attended a small J Street meeting in San Francisco with Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street, as the main speaker. As a 50-year supporter of AIPAC, I was interested in how Ben-Ami described his organization and his policies to an otherwise sympathetic audience.
The two elements that he emphasized over and over were that the group had been formed to support the Obama policies affecting Israel and that J Street was an integral part of the progressive movement.
The stress on their being part of the Obama support team was so strong, that my direct question to Ben-Ami in the Q&A was whether J Street would follow Obama if he decided to either cut or eliminate foreign-aid funds to Israel. His answer was yes.
...Goldberg now lives in San Francisco with his "progressive" wife, who gets invited to a lot of events. "I tag along sometimes," Goldberg told me.
At this particular event, Goldberg said there were just "19 people in a conference room at a law firm" in San Francisco. Goldberg seated himself "directly across from Jeremy," he said, "I had my hearing aid in so everything was set." Ben-Ami pitched J Street as "part of the Obama team," Goldberg said, and when the question and answer portion of the event came around, Goldberg asked Ben-Ami an obvious question: "If Obama wants to put pressure on Israel by cutting aid, would you support him?" According to Goldberg, "the first answer was vague," so he pressed Ben-Ami, "If Obama asked J Street to support it, would you?" According to Goldberg, Ben-Ami answered directly: "yes."
After Goldberg wrote the letter to the editor above, Ben-Ami called him to discuss the matter. Goldberg says that Ben-Ami "didn't call me a liar or say that I misheard him -- it was a 20 to 25 minute conversation and he never said I was lying." Neither did Ben-Ami accuse Goldberg of lying when he wrote his own letter to the editor of J Weekly. responding to Goldberg:
Larry Goldberg gets my positions and those of J Street completely wrong in his letter ("J Street on wrong road," Nov. 13).
First, J Street would never automatically support any decision - either by President Obama or by any elected official or politician - vis a vis Israel. We will support policies and decisions that advance the long-term security and health of Israel as a Jewish democracy, the interests of the United States, and a two-state solution and regional comprehensive peace. We are not a rubber stamp for any administration or president.
Second, let me be clear: J Street is unequivocally opposed to the U.S. cutting military aid to Israel. We believe that it is neither necessary nor productive to put such aid at risk, and that the mere threat of doing so would likely undermine any hope of achieving a two-state solution.
Goldberg has no reason to lie, and Ben-Ami never suggests that he has lied -- but for the very public forum of a Jewish newspaper in Northern California, Ben-Ami has opted to restate J Street's public position as he laid it out for Jeffrey Goldberg back in October. It seems obvious, though, that J Street is saying different things to different audiences, just as his communications adviser Matt Dorf has counseled him. The question, then, is where does J Street really stand on the question of aid to Israel?
Larry again repeated the essence of his meeting the Ben-Ami in an e-mail I received:
...My wife was invited to a breakfast meeting of major donors to J Street and I went along because of my obvious interest. She had registered my name and I was also there as a guest. The meeting was held in a conference room of a law firm and I counted 19 people around the conference table. I sat directly opposite Jeremy and I could, therefore, hear what he said very clearly.
He emphasized the fact that J Street had been organized to support the policy of the Obama administration affecting Israel and he stated that they were part of the "Obama Team". He also emphasized their strong connection with the Progressive movement.
My question to him was whether J Street would go along if the Obama administration decided to either eliminate or cut foreign aid to Israel as a way of pressuring Israel and his initial response was that it was very unlikely to happen. I then pressed him to respond in the circumstance where the effort was made by the Obama people and his answer was simply "yes".
Although the meeting occurred around September 14th, I waited until November in order to find the right timing for my letter which was printed by the J Weekly (our community newspaper) on November 13 of last year and is attached.
On the following Wednesday Jeremy called me at my office and we had an extended but courteous conversation. I listened carefully as to whether he would accuse me of lying or mistaking his words but he never said anything like that. He told me that I misunderstood the policy of J Street and I listened to his explanation. He asked me why he would say something ,as I had reported, because it was contrary to published J Street policy. I responded that the audience was familiar with J Street policy and wanted to hear "inside information" as to Jeremy's thinking. He also said it would be " devastating " in Israel if the J Street position was as I had reported it.
On November 20th the J Weekly published Jeremy's letter which is also attached and you will notice that he never accuses me of lying or misspeaking but repeats what he said in his phone conversation about my not understanding J Street policy.
It would have been very simple for Jeremy to reach out to one of his supporters who were also in the room to testify that he had not responded as he did but nothing like that has been ever forthcoming. The irony of this account is that I believe he spoke the truth when he answered my question in the affirmative because that response is consistent with everything else that he said that morning.
I would be happy to repeat my account in any venue...
And he continues to do so:
From: Lawrence Y. Goldberg
Date: Mon, Aug 9, 2010 at 3:01 PM
Subject: Revelation from J Street Executive Director
...I found the admission by Jeremy Ben Ami very surprising because I had not seen it publicly but it does fit with the rest of the remarks that he made in that same meeting. It was very much a group of insiders here in the Bay Area and Mike Goldfarb agreed that it was significant enough to form the basis of a posting which I have also attached to this e-mail.
For some unknown reason the item was not picked up by other media but I believe that it is as important today as when I heard Jeremy Ben Ami speak. Recently J Street has advocated a diplomatic initiative by the administration to "persuade" Israel in the current discussion about peace negotiations. One of the strongest pressure points against Israel would be a threat to cut or eliminate the three billion dollars of yearly foreign aid funds. It seems to me that Ben Ami's remarks should be considered as part of that context.
Perhaps you or your friends have some way of getting further visibility for my statement which I stand by unequivocally. If I can help in any way to accomplish this, please let me know.
Best regards, Larry