view counter
Jeremy Ben-Ami: Surely We Can Talk
Tue, 12/17/2013 - 19:00
Jeremy Ben-Ami
Jeremy Ben-Ami

It’s a sad day when three opinion leaders of the American Jewish community cannot hold a civilized debate on “what it means to be pro-Israel” without one of them storming off the podium. Yet that’s what happened when I sat down with David Harris of the American Jewish Committee and John Podhoretz, who edits Commentary magazine, this week at the 92nd St Y.

Mr. Podhoretz was apparently so outraged when I criticized the Israeli government’s policy of building more and more settlements in the occupied West Bank – and the audience’s reaction to his position – that he felt compelled to walk out in a huff.

We might regard this as a temper tantrum by a man who himself said later that he had a “bad night” at the end of a “long day.” But it is indicative of a much deeper problem within the American-Jewish community. We are losing to ability to listen to the views of people who disagree with us – and that goes not just for Podhoretz who left the stage but also for those who agreed with me but booed and hissed at him.

Within today’s American Jewish community, there is actually an incredible level of consensus. Almost all American Jews firmly support Israel and 80 percent of them, according to polls conducted by my organization and others, want to see Israel make peace with the Palestinians based on a two-state solution.

But beyond these crucial basic points of agreement rages an important debate, not so much on the issues themselves but on how much we are allowed to disagree, on what kind of disagreements we are allowed to have and what views are deemed as acceptable for a supporter of Israel to hold.

There is a school of thought within our community, apparently shared by some of our communal and spiritual leaders, that the only appropriate stance for a supporter of Israel is to back every single position that the Israeli government takes. To the extent that some of us may have qualms about things like the 46-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank or the constant expansion of Israeli settlements in the territories, we are advised to keep them to ourselves – for fear of fracturing the veneer of communal unity behind the Israeli government.

For those who believe that any dissent from Israel is dangerous, the foundation of J Street five years ago must have come as a rude shock. Suddenly, they had to deal with an organization that encourages debate and dissent, that believes in true dialogue between Israel and our community, which urges students and young people to listen to a wide variety of views about Israel and figure out for themselves what they believe.

The tremendous growth of our organization, especially in college campuses, bears witness to the success of this approach which is rooted in thousands of years of Jewish history and tradition. The Talmud is replete with debate which is at the very heart of rabbinic reasoning. The wise rabbis who codified the laws of Judaism believed that when worthy debaters engage each other with respect, they create space for the emergence of new ideas. In that sense, to debate is an act of creation and is almost holy.

Sadly, many in our community today, including some of the leaders we look up to and the donors on which we depend, want to stifle debate rather than encourage it. Instead of engaging with those with whom them disagree, they seek to silence them. Or if that doesn’t work, they walk out of the room. In doing so, ironically they copy the tactics of some enemies of Israel who seek to isolate it through a campaign of boycotts, sanctions and disinvestment.

Such a response suggest deep insecurity and weakness – hardly qualities that will serve Israel or our community well going forward because the simple fact is, you can’t win a debate by walking out. You can only lose.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the president of J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby advocating for US leadership to reach a two-state solution.

92nd street y, American Jewish Committee, Commentary, David Harris, Jeremy Ben-Ami, John Podhoeretz

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


What comes as a shock to this Jew is that the author of this op-ed piece is so arrogant that he feels he knows better than 75% of Israelis what is best for them. What comes as a shock to this Jew is that the author of this op-ed piece claims to be for peace but does not shomer shabat. He must know that our tradition states that if the Jewish people would observe 2 Shabatot Hashem would bring peace. What comes as a shock to me is that he and is organization give Obama and Kerry the Jewish support they need to coerce Israel into releasing prisoners who have brutally murdered innocent Jews. He must rejoice in the pain of the terrorist victims survivors. Ah, but its all worth it to have your name in the paper and be praised and courted by the powers that be.

Mr. Ben-Ami does not understand basic thing and displays profound ignorance. The conflict between Israel and the Arabs is a theological dispute and not political. Is Mr. Ben Ami bothered יןhimself to read the Hamas Charter? Is Mr. Ben Ami bothered to listen to hateful speeches in the PA TV? Did Mr. Ben Ami bothered to look at the new textbooks in the education system of the Palestinian Authority for sixth and seventh grades?The State of Israel is erased from the maps. It does not exist. The texts are full of hate. This is the way children are educated Palestinian Authority. Abu Mazen has the support of less than 40% of the Palestinians. Hamas's power is increasing. You are completely disconnected from reality. And most importantly, you cause enormous damage to Israel. ON the Existential level. You Want a reality check? All you have to do is take a look at Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and Gaza.

And how many Jews do you know who display maps of Israel from coast to coast? Sadly many Palestinians do grow up on hatred of Israel, but pretending every Jew is reaching out his hand to share is disingenuous.

Mr. Ben-Ami, you are correct that it is a problem that our community lacks the ability to respectfully listen to each other even when we strongly disagree with each other. But that begs the question, what did you do at the event to fix this problem? When people started booing Mr. Podhoretz and supporting your views, did you make this appeal to the audience and come to Mr. Podhoretz's defense that he has a right to his opinion and that the audience should be respectful? Admittedly, I wasn't there so I don't know the answer. If you did, good for you. If not, then it isn't fair for you to state in your op-ed that there is this problem and absolve yourself from the responsibility of fixing it. The only way this problem will be fixed is if people like yourself stand up for the right of those they disagree with to state their opinions, even and especially in front of those that may be angered by your having done so. And if the shoe were reversed, it would be Mr. Podhoretz's responsibility to stand up for your right to voice your opinions as well.

I take Mr. Podheretz at his word if he said he had a bad night. That happens. But really, that is not the important issue. For 63 years, Israel has talked and negotiated with the Arabs to little avail. If you strip away the fluff and cosmetics, the Arabs have answered Israel, essentially, with guns and bombs, ceasefire; guns and bombs, ceasefire. Mr. Ben-Ami can advocate further discussions with the Arabs until the Messiah comes, but at what point do we conclude that more negotiation will not help? There are so many red flags flying which signify that the Arabs don't want peace, it is a wonder that Ben-Ami, Kerry, and some others, continue to argue that peace is just around the corner. Netanyahu says the Palestinians must recognize that Israel is the Jewish state. Folks, that is not hard. If the Palestinians won't do that, why does anyone believe they want peace? I don't. And I didn't walk out of the room.

It's hard to accept a proven liar like Ben Ami's take on anything. I wonder how much influence and money George Soros wields in his anti Zionist organization.

Ms Soros and his alter ego, Mr. Ben Ami are sworn enemies of the Jewish people. Perniciously, Mr. Ami contends his Jew-hatred is merely academic discussion. Mr, Ben Ami stepped over the line - again. Kudos to John Podhoretz for walking out. Shame on all who gave legitimacy to this later of Israel.

I couldn't agree more with Mr. Ben-Ami. The great rabbis all encouraged debate. We cannot be afraid to share our opinions. It is only then that we can come to a consensus.

I remember having a ferocious argument in Jerusalem with a cousin over whether to fight for peace or work for peace. A negotiated peace requires hard work through tough issues, compromise and a commitment to work, not fight, for peace.

It's even tougher than that Jeremy. Fear is king and in its absence anger covers a lot of territory. I appreciate your willingness to appear on a stage at the 92nd Street Y with David Harris and John Podhoretz. But peace as much as it is desired in the Jewish community here and for that matter in Israel is not according to the Israelis who voted once again for a highly conservative government likely to happen in the foreseeable future. I believe in peace and believe as well that you and J Street must find common ground to stand on with AJC, AIPAC and other major American Jewish organizations and must do the lions share of the hard work to build the bridges that others will not. I believe peace awaits us all on the other side of those bridges.

I have always had a complicated relationship with the question, and are still conflicted. In my youth I was a vocal opponent of Briera, believing that Israel should make these decisions, so much so that before I moved to Israel people thought I was a right winger, I was not. Over the years of living both in Israel and the US I have felt there was limits to criticism, and still believe d that it's ultimately Israelis that had to decide. I allowed myself greater latitude to criticize, having served in the IDF and having children that did and do. Today having been living once again in Israel for the past few years, I am still divided. My own political beliefs are left of center, and I voted Meretz in the last election. however my main concern with J street and US based criticism of Israeli policy, is how it plays here . My greatest concern is how to convince less Israelis to support the right, and support the parties I could vote for. Everything needs to be seen in that prism, and often criticism from us based Jewish organizations strengthens those who say the " whole world is against us" and those are the right. All of this is a long way of saying,while J Street and other often make their decisions based on American political concerns, if they want thing to change here they must make decisions there (US) taking into consideration how they will effect event here