Upstart Lobbying Group Stirs Up Jewish Community

A bold new Jewish lobbying group called "J Street" held its debut convention in Washington, D.C., this past week, and it's raising eyebrows in the American Jewish community. J Street was founded to secure peace for Israel, but also to provide a counterweight to the more dominant American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. Guest host Jacki Lyden talks to J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami about the new organization.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

A bold new Jewish lobbying group called J Street held its debut conference in Washington this past week and it's raising heckles in the American Jewish establishment. J Street plays on K Street, the sometimes infamous street where many Washington lobbying firms are located.

J Street was founded to, among other things, secure peace for Israel, but also provide a counterweight to the more dominant American Israel Public Affairs Committee known as AIPAC. AIPAC has long had a huge role in determining America's relationship with Israel. By many accounts, it sees J Street as its new rival.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and executive director of J Street. Welcome to the program.

Mr. JEREMY BEN-AMI (Founder, Executive Director, J Street): Good morning. Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: So, by the way, Washington does not actually have a J Street.

Mr. BEN-AMI: That's exactly right. And we are filling a gap in the political map of Washington.

LYDEN: Well, let me ask what's going on. You've been called a fifth column, Stalinists, the surrender lobby, terrorist sympathizers and I could actually go on. You had 1,500 people at this conference. Where is the criticism coming from?

Mr. BEN-AMI: Well, I think that the voice of moderate, mainstream Jewish Americans who recognize that peace in the Middle East is essential to Israel's survival has been missing for a very long time. A small minority has controlled the debate and spoken for the entirety of the community. And now that a new voice is coming forward, there's a sense of fear and threat and they're pulling out all the stops to try to delegitimize and silence our voices and it's not going to work.

LYDEN: But these appellations, why do you think people are so freaked out?

Mr. BEN-AMI: I think that the predominant emotion in the American Jewish community when it comes to considering conflicts with one's enemies is fear. And I think that's a pretty reasonable and understandable emotion for a lot of this to be based in. And so I think we're talking about some very, very profound and serious issues that tap into a collective consciousness and soul over centuries by, in which a people has been persecuted and killed in mass numbers.

And I think folks don't want to be involved in something that might be counter to the community's interests. So, this is a difficult conversation, but I think it's a really important one to have. And I think we've got to help people get beyond the fear. And, you know, I do believe that an organization, a movement based on hope is going to trump movement in organizations that base themselves on fear.

LYDEN: What is your own connection to Israel? Your family is from there.

Mr. BEN-AMI: Right. I have a very deep personal connection. My great-grandparents actually were part of what's called the First Aliyah. They moved from what's today Belarus to Israel in 1882 and established one of the very, very first towns, first Jewish new settlements - when settlement was a good word. And that was 127 years ago.

And my father was in the Irgun, the right-wing terrorist movement that helped fight for independence for Israel. So, I'm deeply personally connected to Israel and to the issue.

LYDEN: So, Jeremy Ben-Ami, do you think that they can deliver? AIPAC has tens of millions of dollars and is very influential with a lot of Congress people, several of whom backed out of their invitations after saying they were going to come to your conference. You have just several million. Do you think you can deliver?

Mr. BEN-AMI: Well, I don't put us, you know, in any way in opposition to any other organization. I do think that we have done incredibly well for 18 months. We started out in my basement with no budget and no staff and 400 people on my personal e-mail list. And here we are 18 months later, we have - next year we'll have a $4 million budget. We have nearly 30 staff. And we have 115,000 people on our e-mail list. And so I think that there is an appetite in the community and an appetite in Washington for this new voice.

LYDEN: Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and executive director of the new pro-Israel lobby J Street. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. BEN-AMI: Thank you.

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