Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, was born in Poland in 1940, and he often sounds as if only eternal vigilance will ward off the Holocaust in the offing. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, was born in a camp for displaced persons, to parents who were Holocaust survivors. The prophetic voice comes naturally to such men. So does the sense of besetting peril. Important Jewish organizations are normally reached through a series of locked doors presided over by glassed-in functionaries. The peril may be real. But it can also feel like a marketing device. “You know what these guys are afraid of?” says M. J. Rosenberg, Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum. “Their generation is disappearing. All the old Jewish people in senior-citizen homes speaking Yiddish are dying — and they’re being replaced by 60-year-old Woodstock types.”
J Street, by contrast, is wide open to the public. Visitors must thread their way through a graphic-design studio with which the organization shares office space. There appears to be nothing worth guarding. The average age of the dozen or so staff members is about 30. Ben-Ami speaks for, and to, this post-Holocaust generation. “They’re all intermarried,” he says. “They’re all doing Buddhist seders.” They are, he adds, baffled by the notion of “Israel as the place you can always count on when they come to get you.” Living in a world of blogs, they’re similarly skeptical of the premise that “we’re still on too-shaky ground” to permit public disagreement.
“There’s a rational side that on policy grounds is with us and Obama,” he says, “and can understand that talking, peace, these are good things, and they’re better than pre-emptive military action. Then there’s their grandmother’s voice in their ear; it’s the emotional side and the communal history, and it’s the fear of not wanting in some way to be responsible for the next great tragedy that will befall the Jewish people.”
This in turn raises a question about J Street’s prospects. As a lobbying group, would you rather represent the passionate few or the dispassionate many? The National Rifle Association knows the answer to that question. One administration official involved with the Middle East points out that Aipac cultivates single-issue partisans. Wielding the other 92 percent into a potent political force, he notes, will be “a major, long-term and uphill task.” He adds, “I’m not sure it can be done.”