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NJ senator, J Street leader air opposing views on Israel
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NJ senator, J Street leader air opposing views on Israel

Politician and activist address peace process in separate speeches

J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami says Israel needs “not unquestioning love but the firm hand of friendship.” Photos by Robert Wiener
J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami says Israel needs “not unquestioning love but the firm hand of friendship.” Photos by Robert Wiener

A politician and an activist who each avow strong commitments to Israel disagreed on tactics for peace negotiations Sunday in separate appearances at a New Brunswick synagogue.

Although they did not meet face-to-face, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and CEO of the progressive peace-oriented J Street, both addressed the issue at a “Consultation on Conscience” at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple.

Ben-Ami professed strong support for an active role by the United States in brokering a Mideast peace, and endorsed administration efforts that many pro-Israel activists to his right consider undue pressure on Jerusalem.

Menendez, meanwhile, was among the nearly 300 members of Congress who last week signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing their “deep concern over recent tension” between the United States and Israel.

Speaking an hour before the senator’s arrival, Ben-Ami said, “What Israel needs right now is not unquestioning love but the firm hand of friendship to save itself from a future of never-ending conflict….

“The best thing the United States can do for Israel is help her face up to these difficult choices and to actively lead the way to a two-state deal.”

Without referring to the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee by name, the J Street leader said the pro-Israel lobbying organization’s voice is so pervasive and influential among Washington legislators that “the lesson they have drawn is that in order to win American-Jewish electoral support, they need to be as hawkish as possible.”

He said those voices “have allied with the evangelical Christian community and neo-conservative policy advocates to have a voice that doesn’t speak for me. It doesn’t speak for many Jewish Americans, and it is not consistent with a community that is one of the most liberal and progressive in the United States.”

Two hours later, after addressing the gathering, the senator told NJ Jewish News he disagreed with Ben-Ami’s call for the Obama administration to challenge Israel and the Palestinians to begin negotiations.

“I think Israel already has shown itself willing and has taken risks,” said Menendez. “Leaving Gaza at the end of the day was an enormous risk. Israel has shown its willingness.”

“What Israel needs is a willing partner.”

In his talk, Menendez spoke on the prospects for peace.

“What Israel needs to know its neighbors will stop funding terrorism, and what all of us need is to know that Iran will not become a nuclear power,” he said. “What Israel needs to know is that the United States is squarely behind it and its efforts to safeguard its people and to secure a lasting peace in the Middle East.”

In his speech, Ben-Ami suggested a different, less unilateral approach.

“We are saying to the president, ‘Not only is it OK for there to be friendship with the State of Israel but it is absolutely vital and necessary to ask both sides to make painful compromises for peace,’” Ben-Ami said.

Speaking of construction of Jewish homes in east Jerusalem, Ben-Ami said the area in which they are being built would most likely remain in Israeli hands under a peace agreement. But they are being built, he added, “over the Green Line in territory that the Palestinian people in a negotiating context still views as theirs. If you continue building while you are supposedly talking, it is not a show of good faith.”

Israel announced plans for a new housing development in east Jerusalem during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit there in March, precipitating an angry U.S. reaction.

Asked about the incident, Menendez told NJJN, “It was a huge mistake to have the settlement issue at the time when Vice President Biden was there. By the same token, there has been an overblown reaction by the White House to that reality. What is important is to send a message of a very close relationship between Israel and the United States, that there is no light between them.”

Following Ben-Ami’s speech, a questioner, identifying himself as a member of an Orthodox synagogue in neighboring Highland Park, said fellow congregants “perceive Obama as being unfair” and think the president “is pushing Israelis far more than the Palestinians and alienating the Israeli population.”

In response, the J Street leader said he has warned officials of the Obama administration that “they have not done the job adequately of reassuring everybody of the depth of their commitment to Israel and its security and of the depth of their commitment to bringing pressure on both sides.”

Much of Menendez’s address dealt with the personal challenges he faced as the child of poor Cuban immigrants and the corruption and injustices he faced as an adult.

Speaking about immigration, the senator said he found it “alarming when I see Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs and others constantly create a venomous attitude in which the enemy is from within and yet remains so silent.” He also decried “a dangerous upward swing of anti-Semitism. It is often masked as anti-Israeli sentiment, but it is anti-Semitism at its core.”

The event was sponsored by the synagogue’s Gertrude and Milton Kleinman Fund.

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