A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation

A New Voice for Israel: Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation

by Jeremy Ben-Ami


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Many Americans who care about Israel's future are questioning whether the hard-line, uncritical stances adopted by many traditional pro-Israel advocates really serve the country's best interests over the long-term. Moderate Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder of J Street, the new pro-Israel, pro-peace political movement, punctures many of the myths that have long guided our understanding of the politics of the American Jewish community and have been fundamental to how pro-Israel advocates have pursued their work. These myths include:

- that leaders of established Jewish organizations speak for all Jewish Americans when it comes to Israel

- that being pro-Israel means you cannot support creation of a Palestinian state

- that American Jews vote for candidates based largely on their support of Israel

- that talking peace with your enemies demonstrates weakness

- that allying with neoconservatives and evangelical Christians is good for Israel and good for the Jewish community.

Ben-Ami, whose grandparents were first-generation Zionists and founders of Tel Aviv, tells the story of his own evolution toward a more moderate viewpoint. He sketches a new direction for both American policy and the conduct of the debate over Israel in the American Jewish community.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780230341661
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 10/16/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the founder and president of J Street, an advocacy group and political action committee that is both pro-Israel and pro-peace. Ben-Ami has been profiled in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, CQ Weekly, and The New York Times. During his 25-year career in government, politics, and communications, Ben-Ami has served as President Bill Clinton's deputy domestic policy adviser, and as national policy director on Howard Dean's presidential campaign, and has helped run numerous political campaigns, including one for mayor of New York City. He also started the Israeli firm Ben-Or Communications while living in Israel in the late 1990s. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Read an Excerpt

A New Voice for Israel

Fighting for the Survival of the Jewish Nation

By Jeremy Ben-Ami

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2012 Jeremy Ben-Ami
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-30995-2



My great-grandfather was a bootlegger, my grandfather was a card shark and my father was a terrorist.

I've always loved delivering that line when asked about my family history. In reality, I'm just a preppy, private-school kid from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, not exactly the rabble-rousing type. The colorful ancestry has always been the one thing that gives me a bit of an edge. Of course, the story's better if you don't know that my mother's father was actually a European bridge champion, not a hardened gambler—but good comedy does depend on slight exaggeration.

The truth is that my family's story wouldn't be all that different from that of most other Jewish Americans if my father's family hadn't chosen to escape the Russian pogroms in the late nineteenth century by heading south to the land of Israel (then Ottoman Palestine), rather than west to Europe or the United States. We took a sixty-year, three-generation detour on our way from the shtetls of Russia to the shtetl of the Upper West Side.

In fact, of the nearly two million Jews who left Russia from the late nineteenth century through the end of World War I, only 1 or 2 percent actually made their way to Palestine. The rest headed west—and most, at least initially, had little interest or stake in the success or failure of the Zionist enterprise.

The few Jews who went to Israel in those early years were true visionaries. They dreamed of rebuilding a nation for the Jewish people in the ancient homeland of their ancestors.

Three generations of my family devoted their lives to this dream. They were pioneers, builders and ultimately fighters for the cause, for their family and for their people. The work of these first generations of Zionists was valiant, at times miraculous and, of course, controversial. Their story sets the scene for some of the toughest challenges facing the Jewish people today—in Israel, in the United States and throughout the rest of the Diaspora.

As of today, their work remains incomplete. The Israel they founded is still without internationally accepted borders. It is technically at war with several of its neighbors and has yet to be formally recognized by most of the countries in the region. It still struggles to accept that another people live on the same land and that they, too, call it home. Despite over a hundred years of hard work building a secure and democratic Jewish home in the land of Israel, the entire experiment remains at risk.

It falls to the Jewish people of today to complete the work, to bring the dreams of our grandparents and great-grandparents to fruition. This generation must make the decisions and compromises necessary to ensure the future of the Jewish homeland that my great-grandparents envisioned when they arrived by boat in the historic port of Jaffa 130 years ago in the second year of the First Aliyah.


On March 13, 1881, Tsar Alexander II was killed in St. Petersburg. For my family, as for so many Jews in the Russian Empire, his assassination and the ensuing reprisals against the Jewish community sent a crystal-clear message: Wake up and move to safety.

For nearly one hundred years before that, both sides of my father's family, like half the world's Jews, had lived under Russian authority. They experienced a constantly changing set of rules and regulations governing where and how they lived as the Russian Empire grappled with what they called their "Jewish problem." The problem began when the expanding Russian Empire absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jews as part of its takeover of Poland and Lithuania in the late eighteenth century.

The primary challenge was economic. In the Russian economic system, Jews formed a poor though stable middle class. As craftsmen, merchants and innkeepers, they occupied the economic space between wealthy aristocrats and landless serfs and peasants. Only a small number worked the land—as late as 1897, less than 4 percent of Russia's Jews were farmers, according to the national census.

Economic tensions grew through the nineteenth century. The serfs were freed and needed more opportunity. As the empire expanded, the tsars sought more taxes. The nobility found itself owing more to the tsar, while controlling less land, workers and resources. The lower classes found themselves with greater freedom, but limited opportunities. And the Jews, as the outsiders, served as a convenient scapegoat and focus of anger from all quarters. Their separation from those around them—with their own language, schools, houses of worship and community councils—only reinforced deepening suspicion and hostility among the broader population.

The Russian authorities tried different approaches to managing the challenges posed by this large minority living in their midst. They passed and then rescinded numerous laws on where and how Jews could live and what professions they could pursue. They tried forcing Jews into the army. And they focused particular attention on the Jewish education system—the heart and soul of the community—as the key to integrating the Jews into Russian society. They employed carrots, encouraging Jewish students to enroll in Russian schools, and sticks, requiring that traditional Jewish schools teach in Russian, Polish or German—not in Yiddish or Hebrew.

Owning land was one of the great obstacles facing Jews, not simply in Russia but throughout the Diaspora. Country after country forbade Jewish land ownership. In the Russian Empire, Jews were initially confined to living in certain areas and denied the right to own or work the land. But in the early nineteenth century, Tsar Alexander I—in an effort to move Jews out of the villages and to break up their concentrated pockets of "alien" life—allowed them to settle on lands allocated by the government.

Part of my family took him up on this, moving from their village outside the larger town of Brisk to a farm outside Grodno, today a regional capital in northwest Belarus. There my great-grandparents Ze'ev and Batya made their home and brought up six children—including my grandmother Sara—in the late 1860s and 1870s.

The other part of my father's family made its home near Vitebsk—today in northeast Belarus. This family was part of the Chabad movement, a branch of Hasidic Judaism dating to late eighteenth-century Russia. Chabad is today one of the largest ultra-Orthodox movements, well known for its network of community centers around the world and its active program of Jewish education and outreach. The Jewish community in the Vitebsk area traced its origins back to the sixteenth century, when Jews made their way across Europe from Spain following the Inquisition.

My great-grandparents on this side of the family, Shmuel and Chaya-Frieda Rosin, had eight children, including my grandfather Menahem. It was a source of great pride to my father that he could trace Chaya-Frieda's family directly back to Don Isaac Abravanel, a respected leader, scholar and adviser to the Spanish royal court, who was regarded as the leader of the Jewish community in Spain at the time of the Inquisition.

Abravanel, in an effort to convince the royal family not to expel the Jews from Spain in 1492, famously pleaded the case for the Jewish community to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, ultimately losing his argument to the Grand Inquisitor Torquemada. Abravanel fled to Italy, and the family traveled through the Rhineland to Poland. Their route was the same one followed by much of the community that lived for hundreds of years in what I grew up referring to as "Russia-Poland."

By the 1870s and 1880s, my great-grandfather Shmuel was neither an adviser to kings nor a treasurer to empires, but a simple miller with a distillery, turning the grain farmed by peasants into alcohol for the tsar's soldiers.

Families with roots in this age and place are never short of tales of the prejudice and hardship they suffered. Mine is no different. As a boy, my father and his cousins often heard the story of how grandfather Shmuel was kidnapped at age seven and taken to serve in the army of Tsar Nicholas I.

In fact, kidnappings of young Jewish boys for army service had been routine for decades. Local councils were required to meet quotas of boys and men for army service, and they often employed "snatchers" who would seize youngsters and send them off to the army or military school. Particularly during the Crimean War in the early 1850s, when the quotas for conscription were much higher, kidnappings of boys as young as seven were incredibly common.

One night, Shmuel's mother, exhausted and shaken from the grief of her son's disappearance, dreamed that he was at the local train station, ready to be transported to a military camp. Against the will of her husband and family, she insisted on going to the station in the morning. She found little Shmuel there amid a large group of other young boys—guarded by two dozing, drunk soldiers. She snuck up behind him, grabbed him by the arm without waking the soldiers, and quietly spirited him back to their shtetl.

Another time, this same unlucky woman was preparing for the Sabbath. In the midst of making the meal, setting the table, cleaning and other Friday night preparations, she left the house to run some last-minute errands. She returned to find her Shabbat table disturbed and knew immediately that something was wrong.

Checking under the challah (bread) cover, she found a dead fetus that had been hidden there while she was out. Without hesitation, she tossed the bundle in the fire.

Moments later, she heard a knock on the door and a young Russian peasant woman stood outside with the police, accusing Shmuel's mother of stealing her baby. The police searched the house but found no evidence. Outside, an angry mob that had gathered seeking vengeance grumbled but silently returned home, their thirst for violence unfulfilled.

"Blood libel"—the centuries-old accusation that Jews used the blood of Christian children to bake their bread and in other rituals—was a prime source of terror and suffering in the Polish communities of the eighteenth century. It was eventually outlawed by Tsar Alexander I in 1817, but remained a common anti-Semitic rallying cry all through the 1800s.

Needless to say, the stress and tension of such a life is unimaginable for most of us, and Shmuel's mother died when he was still young. Shmuel grew up, married and had his own family during the twenty-six-year reign of Tsar Alexander II in the mid-nineteenth century (1855–1881), which brought enormous changes to the entirety of Jewish life throughout the empire. Perhaps best known for freeing the serfs, Alexander II also allowed Jews to enter far more professions, to engage in secular education and to live outside the towns and rural settlements to which they had been limited.

By granting draft exemptions to those with a Russian secondary-school education, he encouraged Jews to abandon their traditional schooling and join the secular mainstream. Jews gradually entered into the intellectual and cultural life of the country as active participants in political debates, and in theater, literature and music. They quickly emerged as well as distinguished artists, journalists, musicians and academics.

The sparks of the Enlightenment that had earlier swept through Europe now caught fire in the Russian Empire, and a new generation of Jews—including my great-grandparents—was suddenly free not just to dream but to truly plan for life beyond the shtetl. The seeds of revolution were planted as well, as the accelerated exchange of ideas and intellectual ferment led to questions about the justice of the social and economic order.

This relatively sudden integration of Jews into all aspects of Russian life caused inevitable resentment and backlash, given the preceding centuries of prejudice, tension and racism. Opponents of the Jews could be found among both the tsar's loyalists and his most radical opposition.

In fact, many of the revolutionary forces beginning to oppose the tsar blamed at least part of the widespread suffering of the masses on exploitation by the Jews. The competition for land became especially fierce, as the emancipation of the serfs took hold at the same time as the Jewish population doubled from two and a half to five million in the late nineteenth century.

The 1881 assassination of Alexander II threw fuel on this ready fire of resentment and anger. When anti-tsarist revolutionaries tried to foment rebellion among the broader masses, the government pushed back and made the Jews the scapegoat. A wave of pogroms broke out—likely encouraged by the government—in the south of Russia. Many Jewish communities endured looting, rioting and in some cases murder and rape.

The new tsar, Alexander III, took the opportunity to roll back some of the freedoms and privileges accorded by Alexander II, imposing new prohibitions on where Jews could live and limiting the number of Jewish students allowed in Russian schools. The press was overtly anti-Semitic, and a right-wing, ultra-nationalist party, also powered by a strong under-current of anti-Semitism, emerged to fight the more liberal revolutionary tendency.

It was this environment that spawned the most famous anti-Semitic screed of all time—the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a tract cited to this day by notoriously anti-Semitic leaders like Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Clearly, this was no place for a generation of more enlightened and more ambitious young Jews to raise their families. The previous generation or two had shown them that a different life was possible. Their long-held aspirations and dreams had been inflamed by these new-found freedoms, and they could not bear to go backward.

Armed with a greater awareness of the world, transferable skills and a deep concern for their children's future, many Jewish families began to consider how to make the most of their lives and, most important, where to raise their children in safety. Some moved within Russia from the more traditionally Jewish areas in the north and west of the Pale of Settlement (today's Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania) to the southern part of the empire. Established by Catherine the Great in 1791, the Pale was the part of the Russian Empire where permanent Jewish residency was allowed. Others looked toward Western Europe and the United States.

As many as two million Jews left Russia between Alexander II's assassination and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. And they were right to leave because the future for those who stayed turned out to be darker than their worst nightmares.

A small percentage of Russian Jews began to consider the notion of returning to the promised land of Zion. Motivated by the writings of Leon Pinsker and later by the dreams of Theodore Herzl, they formed organizations like Hovevei Zion and Hibbat Zion in which they worked in small groups to turn those dreams into practical reality. Together, they determined that real freedom for the Jewish people could not come within the society of another people, but only in their own country, on their own terms.

For centuries, Jews had prayed to return to the land promised by God to their ancestors. It was a longing built into the DNA of the Jewish people, a reaction to their history of exile and return through the millennia. But at the dawn of the modern era, there was one key difference. No longer were the younger, educated Jews of Russia content to pray and wait for the Messiah to bring them to the Promised Land. They were ready to take matters into their own hands and bring that Promised Land into being.

My father writes in his autobiography that his grandfather Ze'ev went to see his rebbe, the spiritual leader of the local Chabad community, to ask whether he should go to Palestine, and the rabbi told him no. As my father relates it, the rebbe told Ze'ev, "It isn't time to go to Palestine. We have to be patient. We have to wait.... We are to stay here and suffer. Our suffering will make us ready for the Messiah."

Needless to say, Ze'ev and his generation were not convinced. Ready to take their future into their own hands, they launched organizations dedicated to settling in Palestine and groups to prepare their young children. They started newspapers and published pamphlets to promote their ideas. They held clandestine meetings in the evenings to plan what only a generation earlier would have been an improbable, perhaps impossible journey—to reclaim their ancient homeland for themselves.

Only a very small number of pioneers, probably thirty to forty thousand, made the journey to Ottoman Palestine between 1881 and 1904, defying conventional wisdom and the rules of their own rabbis. They are known today as members of the First Aliyah—the first "ascendance" to the land of Israel.

Nearly two million of their friends, neighbors and families headed west to Europe and to America. Millions more argued that the known evil at home was better than the unknown evil abroad.


Excerpted from A New Voice for Israel by Jeremy Ben-Ami. Copyright © 2012 Jeremy Ben-Ami. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


The Pioneers and the Builders

The Fighters

Born in the USA

Sixty Seconds in Santa Fe

The Loudest Eight Percent

Ending the Conflict

The Crossroads of Politics and Policy on Israel

Generation Oy

Five Million Jews, One Opinion?

Re-Writing the Rules

What Becomes of Tel Aviv in 2109?

America's Stake in Ending the Conflict

Giving Voice to Our Values

Why Not?

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