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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

J Street on South Street: Founder: time running out on two-state solution

Published: February 26, 2010
Section: Front Page

Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of the national Jewish lobbying group J Street spoke Thursday about the need for Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, emphasizing the need for an American presence.

J Street, founded as a “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying body which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, means to represent Americans who support a two-state solution: a Jewish homeland in Israel, and a sovereign Palestinian state. J Street believes that diplomacy and dialogue are better options than military action, he said. According to its website, the mission is to “promote meaningful American leadership to achieve peace and security in the Middle East and to broaden the debate on these issues nationally and in the Jewish community.”

Ben-Ami described himself and his colleagues at the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement as “deep and passionate advocates for Israel” who want to aid Israel in its quest for peace. He echoed the thoughts of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a recent security conference.

“The simple truth is, if there is one state it will have to be either binational or undemocratic,” Barak said. “If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state.”

Like Barak, Ben-Ami and J Street are calling for a two-state solution as soon as possible. “I have never felt a greater sense of urgency from everybody in the region,” said Ben-Ami of his recent visit to Israel. “The greatest threat to Israel’s security is a failure to reach a two-state solution. The time is running out.”

He said both sides feel that they have no partner in the issue, and there must be some sort of moderator in any peace talks. “At the end of the day, we’re Americans and the decisions are up to Israel,” he said, but the Obama administration should act as a mediating presence.

“If we’re going to make peace, this is the leadership to make it with,” he said, referring to both Israeli and Palestinian leaders as well as Obama.

Ben-Ami described Israeli-Palestinian relations as an “existential challenge” to the American Jewish community, and said that J Street hopes to provide a better space for conversation about Israel, which he deemed “absolutely essentially to the health, vitality and future of the American Jewish community in the 21st century,” especially college youth.

Jeremy Sherer ’10, the president of J Street U, the on-campus movement, introduced Ben-Ami. Sherer spent the summer of 2009 interning for J Street after meeting Joel Rubin ’91, who was then political director. Frustrated by the polarization of sentiment towards Israel on Brandeis’ campus, he decided to start the group as a forum for those who believed in a middle ground.

“I started J Street U to give those students a voice and open up a real discussion on this campus concerning these issues, and I think we’ve succeeded thus far,” he said.

Both J Street and J Street U have caused controversy in the pro-Israel community. Some believe that the groups do not have Israel’s best interests at heart and are too idealistic and too eager to concede to an uncompromising enemy to create lasting peace. Others, like Ben-Ami and Sherer, argue that the groups do in fact want what is best for Israel, and claim that in a dialogue some sacrifice is necessary.

“J Street believes that honest negotiations, fueled by robust American leadership, represent the only way to resolve this conflict,” Sherer wrote in a column in The Hoot lastfall. “Of course reciprocity is needed in negotiations … however, a bit of urgency from the Israeli side of the table may be equally critical.”

Although Ben-Ami is staunchly pro-Israel, what he really wants is peace, and that requires a non-polarized view of the situation. “We are consciously promoting the notion that there’s a lot of grey,” he said, arguing that favoring a two-state solution meant being anti-Israel. “We disagree with the notion that you have to choose a side.”

“I believe—and this is a belief, not a fact—I believe that it is fundamentally pro-Israel to be in favor of the creation of a Palestinian state,” Ben-Ami said in response to a question from a student, explaining that if nothing changes, Arabs will soon outnumber Jews. When that happens, the government will have to make a choice between being a democratic entity in losing the Jewish majority, or a state run by the Jews, where “the majority of people don’t have rights.”

Ben-Ami stood firm in his belief that being pro-Israel means being pro-democracy. “The most challenging thing to me is that [the Israeli right wing] don’t see a problem sacrificing democracy,” he said. “We can’t let ourselves get to that point.”