J Street, a new pro-peace Israel lobby in Washington, made a splash when it launched this past April, earning praise from The American Prospect's own Gershom Gorenberg and Ezra Klein, and predictable scorn from conservatives. The organization is led by director Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration and a veteran of Howard Dean's presidential campaign. In addition to his experience in American politics, Ben-Ami has been active on Israeli issues for years: He was communications director for the New Israel Fund and started an Israeli public relations firm, Ben-Or Communications.
Since its launch, J Street has been busy running campaigns against John McCain's support of John Hagee, the administration's saber-rattling toward Iran, and mainstream Jewish organizations' refusals to acknowledge the ceasefire in Gaza. It also released a list of its first eight endorsements for the November 2008 elections which contains both junior members of Congress and challengers seeking office for the first time. Last Friday, the Prospect spoke with Ben-Ami by phone.
Dylan Matthews: How much interaction has there been between J Street and the campaigns, both during the primary season and now in the general?
Jeremy Ben-Ami: We made a conscious decision that our greatest political impact in the 2008 cycle is actually going to be made in the congressional races. The amount of money that is being invested in the presidential race and the amount of forces that are at play mean that a new group like ours cannot have a very great impact in such a big pool, and so we decided to try to be a larger fish in a smaller pool.
DM: Well then let's talk about the congressional endorsements. How did you go about picking the first list, since that came out pretty recently?
JB-A: We're going to have about 30 to 40 races in which we endorse, and we're rolling them out in waves of roughly eight to 10.
Our goal in the first round was to really emphasize the message that there is a new political dynamic emerging on Israel and the Middle East, from the Jewish community and also in friends of Israel outside the Jewish community. We are part of that, [as] an outside advocacy group, but we also think that part of that [new dynamic] is having new, fresh faces on the political scene.
DM: I noticed that, of the candidates on your first list, there was only one Republican, Charles Boustany. Was there anything that made him stand out from the rest of the caucus?
JB-A: Absolutely. I mean, he's actually very interested in establishing himself as a leader on this issue in Congress, and he paired with Rep. Gary Ackerman of New York in the fall of 2007 in a bipartisan letter to Condoleezza Rice urging greater U.S. diplomatic support for the peace process that was coming out of Annapolis and also for a greater level of interest in the Palestinian movement in trying to build something positive on the West Bank. And so that kind of leadership from both sides of the aisle is what we're looking for, and we're very much interested in building on that in the future.
DM: Okay, about one of the other candidates you endorsed, Darcy Burner, in Washington. Matt Stoller had a report a couple weeks ago saying that Burner had told him that she had gotten a phone call from some people with affiliations with AIPAC, who told her, in explicit terms, to move away from J Street -- that you guys are extreme leftists who want to leave Israel for dead. How much do things like that worry you, both in that case and in going forward with J Street?
JB-A: It actually doesn't worry me at all, because, first of all, when people circulate lies and complete distortions of truth, it's not going to work. In the end, the types of things that they're saying are simply provable as wrong. If you go to our advisory council, people on our finance committee, people who signed up to support J Street in Israel, people who ran the Israel Defense Forces, the commander in chief of the Israel Defense Forces, the man who ran the occupation of the West Bank, and the former foreign minister of the state of Israel. If people are going to go around telling congressional candidates that people like that are anti-Israel or trying to undo the state and are anti-Semitic, it's just so ludicrous that I don't anticipate it would have any impact.
We will have to show that more American Jews actually agree with J Street's agenda, that our policies are actually the better policy, supported by people in Israel, and that kind of debate I'm more than happy to have. But the kind of stupidity of people calling us self-hating Jews, or anti-Israel, or leftists, and all of that, is definitely not going to work.
DM: Do you expect to endorse Senate candidates this cycle, or are you sticking with the House?
JB-A: We've said we'll probably endorse, we will endorse in one Senate race. Whether we'll do more than that, I'm not sure.
DM: There's a general theme in campaign coverage that the Republicans have more of a shot at the Jewish vote this time than they've had in the past, that Obama is a weaker candidate among Jewish voters than past Democratic nominees have been. Do you think that is accurate, or has that been an overblown theme?
J-BA: Well, it's accurate. I mean, the polling shows this. There's definitely a lower percentage of the American Jewish community that appears ready to support Obama than supported, let's say, Gore and Kerry. And that is just factually there, in the polling. It's still early, and Obama's doing a lot of work to try to reassure American Jews about Israel, about who he is, but, I mean, I don't think he's going to get less than two thirds of the Jewish vote, but he still has work to do to get up to the level, closer to 80 percent, that Kerry got, and I think Gore got about 75 percent himself. I would expect that Obama will come in at the high 60s, at the end of the day, but still a little bit lower than the other guys.
DM: As part of trying to respond to this gap with Jewish voters, it seems like Obama has made several moves to the right on Israeli policy. He severed links with Robert Malley over his meetings with Hamas, at the AIPAC conference he declared he wouldn't consider dividing Jerusalem. Especially given the role that Malley has had on the J Street advisory council and J Street's position in favor of negotiations, what do you make of that?
J-BA: We came out and said strongly at the time of the AIPAC conference that an issue like Jerusalem should not be a political football. It's inappropriate to try to use an issue like that, which is so sensitive and so important, which should be left to the parties to decide, and inject it into American politics to make a political point.
We were very disappointed by the statements made by the senator at AIPAC, and we're very disappointed that some lies about somebody like Rob Malley, who is very close to many of us personally, and who has been spoken and vouched for by former national security advisers and former secretaries of state and others, that that could be used against Rob, those types of lies, is just terrible. We would just ask these candidates to stick to the issues and not to get engaged in that kind of political pandering over a very serious issue, not to make people's personal background an issue in a campaign.
The majority of American Jews agree with the positions of J Street, and it's a safe bet that we're going to continue to try to convince candidates that they will actually score political points by articulating a vision more in line with J Street than in line with what has traditionally been assumed to be necessary to say.