J Street Board Sticks With Ben-Ami After Soros Flap

By Nathan Guttman

Published October 06, 2010, issue of October 15, 2010.
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On September 25, a day after J Street, the dovish Israel lobby he helped found, was revealed to be funded by George Soros, Jeremy Ben-Ami convened a conference call with members of his group’s board.

Ben-Ami, the lobby’s president, had already alerted board members by e-mail about an upcoming report in The Washington Times revealing that Soros, a controversial figure in the Jewish community, had donated or pledged some $750,000 to the group — support that contradicted Ben-Ami’s earlier avowals that Soros had given it nothing.

According to participants, Ben-Ami told his board members that he does not think the flap will damage the group’s credibility. He added, however, that he knew his own credibility could take a hit.

Now both Ben-Ami and the organization are trying to contain any blemish on their image. Early signs suggest that damage-control efforts are paying off. Doors on Capitol Hill and in the administration remain open, and according to J Street officials and political insiders, Ben-Ami’s leadership of the group has not been challenged.

For Ben-Ami, 48, it was the first test in a real-time political crisis. It was a chance for the newcomer to Jewish politics to prove his mettle and to kick the wimpy image that has stuck both to him and to the organization.

“I told our team, I am not Gandhi and I am not Rahm; I’m somewhere in the middle,” Ben-Ami recalled in an October 5 interview with the Forward.

Ben-Ami took full responsibility for not revealing in public the fact that Soros has been providing funds to J Street. He issued a statement carrying this message as the press and right-wing blogs were already in a frenzy of criticism against the group, some predicting that the Soros affair would mark the beginning of J Street’s demise, or at least the end of the Ben-Ami era.

But most observers now agree that neither scenario is likely to materialize.

“People see it as an aberration, not as a pattern,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, referring to Ben-Ami’s post-Soros image in political circles. “Usually you get one free pass for things like this.” Saperstein, who was also involved in initial talks that led to the creation of J Street, said he did not sense any concerns on Capitol Hill or in the administration about dealing with Ben-Ami or with J Street.

Daniel Levy, a founding board member of J Street, added that within the organization there is “no backstabbing,” and that Ben-Ami’s way of dealing with the Soros crisis was not criticized by the board or the staff. Another J Street insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed this account. “If you’re a strong enough leader, you can take a small knock,” Levy said.

Ben-Ami, who grew up on New York City’s Upper West side in a Zionist home (his father was born in Palestine and was a member of the Irgun underground movement before the establishment of Israel), began his political career by working on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign. He later became the deputy domestic policy adviser in Clinton’s White House. Ben-Ami spent two years in Israel, between 1997 and 1999, working as a communications consultant, and returned to New York to serve as deputy campaign director for Mark Green, the Democratic mayoral candidate who lost to Michael Bloomberg. The unsuccessful campaign was involved in a mini-scandal when it was accused of spreading racially charged fliers meant to attract Jewish voters. But Ben-Ami was never linked to the flier incident.

He then moved on to the New Israel Fund, his first station in the Jewish organizational world, where he served as spokesman and later headed the group’s New York’s office.

Ben-Ami began discussing the creation of a dovish Jewish lobby five years ago, reaching out to potential donors and desiging its political structure. Initially, Ben-Ami and his colleagues sought to form the new group by merging the three existing left-wing groups: Americans for Peace Now, Israel Policy Forum and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom. But when talks failed, he decided to set up a new group.

His rise to the top of the group was organic, Levy said. “At the beginning it wasn’t clear that the name would be J Street and that Jeremy would run it,” Levy said, “but people liked the name and liked the way Jeremy was working.”

Saperstein described Ben-Ami as a reluctant leader who had hoped others would take on the top position. “He did not try to put himself front and center,” Saperstein said.

Seymour Reich, attended talks on the creation of J Street as then-president of the moderately dovish Israel Policy Forum before his group decided to back off. Reich said it was not unusual to have a leader emerge without rising through the ranks of Jewish organizations. “All it takes is money,” he said, referring to Ben-Ami’s fundraising abilities, “a good PR campaign and having something to say.”

Within two and a half years, Ben-Ami turned J Street into a significant, although controversial, player in the pro-Israel scene. With time, the lobby has gained wider, if still guarded, acceptance within the mainstream Jewish community as representing a significant body of Jewish opinion. But on Capitol Hill, credibility is the coin of the realm.

“If you’re an advocacy organization, credibility is the most important asset you have,” a longtime congressional staff member said, even as he stressed that no damage has been seen.

Reich, not a supporter of J Street, said that the damage was minimal. “Their credibility has been dented,” he said, “but time has a way of healing.”

Ben-Ami himself sounded confident about having survived his credibility crisis, even passing through the apology phase to sound a hint of bravado.

“We are going to continue to play the game by the same rules, exactly as everyone else plays,” he said, “and as we grow and make our mark, there will be a few eggs to scramble.”

When asked if he intends to change anything in the way the group operates, Ben-Ami paused and then answered: “Nope.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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