For years, liberal American Jews who have chafed under the taboo against criticizing Israel have dreamed of starting a political organization that would speak for them. Now, with the launch of J Street, that dream has become a reality.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the group’s founder, says that the incident that drove him over the edge took place when he was working as policy director for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign. Dean said the U.S. should take an “evenhanded” approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, Ben-Ami recalled. He was immediately, and predictably, savaged as anti-Israeli and a coddler of terrorists. “All hell broke loose,” Ben-Ami said. “And this from a man who’s married to a Jewish woman, who’s raising kids in the Jewish faith, and is extremely pro-Israel in everything he’d ever said and done. But to use that one word, and then to have that cascade into a torrent, was just amazing to me. And it’s certainly been repeated and magnified with the attacks on Obama and some of his aides, some of them crossing any line that any of us should have about civil discourse.”
There are few political relationships more fraught than that between American Jews and Israel. As the national emblem of Jewish identity, Israel is seen by many Jews as sacrosanct. Some Jews passionately identify with Israel and its policies and angrily reject any criticism of it, often attacking critics as anti-Semites or self-hating Jews. But even those Jews who privately harbor misgivings about Israel’s policies often keep their opinions to themselves because the subject is simply too charged. Anyone, Jewish or not, who dares to say or write anything critical about Israel quickly learns that they have poked a hornet’s nest.