The head of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, was the guest speaker at Meretz USA’s semi-annual board meeting, Sunday, Nov. 22. I found him a very engaging speaker and quite approachable on an individual level.
As you would know from reading this Weblog, Meretz USA was a partner in J Street’s very successful first annual conference last month in Washington, DC, and we enthusiastically see ourselves as allies. As Ben-Ami put it: “We share an agenda in what it means to be pro-Israel.”
Ben-Ami says that the passage of national health care is vital for progress on the peace front because Barack Obama’s entire presidency will likely fail without it. He sees no new energy from the Obama administration until health care passes; he does not see the “mind space” from Obama to renew work on Middle East peace until next February or March. What he hopes to see from the United States is not a new push for negotiations– which he sees as “talks about talks” and endless “process” without peace– but work to shape “bridging proposals,” by meeting separately with the parties to the conflict.
In the meantime, he told us about J Street’s absorption of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. BTvS will be renamed, possibly “J Roots” (for grassroots), and he’s hiring a half dozen new organizers for this operation. Similarly, about a half a year ago, the Union of Progressive Zionists, a student group which Meretz USA founded and nurtured in cooperation with Ameinu, Habonim-Dror and Hashomer Hatzair, was reorganized as J Street U under the rubric of the J Street Education Fund. (UPZ’s dynamic young executive director, Tammy Shapiro, remains in place as director in her office at Beit Shalom in Manhattan.)
This same fund will also now conduct trips for Congressmen to Israel, something that AIPAC does with a less dovish agenda in mind. And Ben-Ami indicates that J Street now has six lobbyists working Congress; AIPAC has nine, so he sees J Street approaching parity with AIPAC in this important arena.
The value that he and we see in J Street is that it functions as the “political arm” of the same pro-Israel, pro-peace movement that Meretz USA is part of. J Street is a registered lobbying organization and has an allied PAC (political action committee) that legally raises money for political campaigns. This gives it special clout with politicians. But he affirmed that J Street will support Meretz USA’s joint slate with Ameinu, Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim-Dror, if there are new elections in the coming year for the World Zionist Congress.