Responding to criticism of the Obama administration’s interim deal with Iran, Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, said that the first-step agreement should be given a chance to work.
The goal of the sanctions supported by most Jewish organizations, after all, was to bring Iran to a diplomatic resolution that would assure the country would not develop nuclear weapons, Ben-Ami said.
“For those who have supported sanctions to facilitate diplomacy to say they are not satisfied, maybe they didn’t understand or support the democratic process in the first place,” he said, speaking to a crowd of students and community members at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School on Nov. 19.
Ben-Ami expressed particular concern about the impact of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s angry response to the six-month interim agreement; he called the deal a ‘historic mistake.’
“For the prime minister to inveigh against the U.S. in stark terms and use his bully pulpit is damaging not just to prospects of this [agreement] but damaging to Israel’s most important security asset — its long-term relationship to the United States,” said Ben-Ami, whose Washington-based organization was founded as a left-leaning counterweight to the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
J Street hopes the deal will freeze and begin to roll back Iran’s nuclear enrichment for six months while a permanent agreement is being hammered out. Netanyahu and other critics worry that the deal will give Iran, which is being asked to suspend its enrichment of uranium to a low level of 20 percent, the ability to develop other parts of its nuclear program.
Ben-Ami added that if the U.S. Congress were to insist on increased sanctions or other moves that would undermine the deal, it could lead to two possible outcomes “both worse than the deal”: Iran continuing its nuclear program full speed ahead or “finding ourselves on the road to a military conflict.”
Ben-Ami also emphasized the central role American public opinion plays in creating an atmosphere of success for the peace process being pursued by Secretary of State John Kerry. He urged American Jews to provide strong vocal support for a two-state solution and chided them for looking for ways to punish, rather than promote, moderate Palestinians.
Natasha Madorsky, outreach chair of Princeton’s J Street U chapter and a freshman from Cleveland, said she has not been comfortable with the strategy of Jewish organizations regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Rather than delving into the complex issues regarding the conflict, they talk about the great things Israel is doing…in gay rights,” she said, adding, “They are denying reality if they don’t talk about the political intricacies here.”
Junior Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, president of the university’s J Street U chapter, said that the group got started with a vigil during Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation in Gaza in response to rockets fired at civilians. The vigil, which remembered innocent civilians on both sides, was attended by about 40 people, including Jews from Tigers for Israel, a pro-Israel campus group, as well as Muslims and Sikhs, he said.
In the fall 2013 semester, said Nussbaum Cohen, J Street U has reached out to Tigers for Israel in an effort to widen the discourse about Israel in the Jewish community. “We got Tigers for Israel to screen The Gatekeepers and The Law in These Parts,” he said, referring to two documentaries critical of Israel’s settlement policies in the West Bank.
While J Street U chapters on other campuses have often clashed with other pro-Israel groups, Princeton students from J Street U and Tigers for Israel have attended each other’s events. “There is a conversation, and the conversation is being enhanced,” said Nussbaum Cohen. “We want to work with everyone on campus to engage in constructive and interesting conversation about what is going on, and we are starting to see that happen.”