Pity Jeremy Ben-Ami, the hapless head of J-Street, the we-condemn-Israel-constantly-because-of-how-much-we-love-it lobby.
In the recent tension between the Obama Administration and the Jewish state over Jews building in Jerusalem, the pro-Israel camp was represented by Elie Wiesel whose full-pages ads in major American newspapers criticized President Obama’s ban on Jews living anywhere in the holy city. The letter, as with everything Wiesel writes, was haunting, stirring, and deeply personal. “For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem… The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem.”
The letter, by one of America’s most celebrated citizens, caused such angst in the White House that President Obama changed his schedule to invite the Nobel Peace laureate to a private kosher lunch in order not to appear out of sync with the Jewish prophet. Like Lyndon Johnson who panicked when he lost Walter Cronkite over Vietnam, Obama understood that losing Wiesel over his Middle East policy spelled almost certain doom.
But while the President behaved courteously, Ben-Ami did precisely the opposite. Not content with Judaism’s greatest living personality having the last word, the J-Street head quickly went into action and responded to Wiesel with full page ads of a bizarre editorial by Yossi Sarid, the former Meretz politician, utterly unknown to the American public whom Ben-Ami is seeking to influence. The man who Oprah travelled to Auschwitz with and chose his book Night as a main selection of her book club and whose novels are studied in the world’s leading Universities was dismissed by Sarid as being a writer ignorant of current events. “You know much about the heavenly Jerusalem but less so about its counterpart here on earth.”
Sarid was only getting started. Next he accused Wiesel of being naïve and easily misled. ‘Someone has deceived you, my dear friend.’ Sarid’s friendship would intensify two paragraphs later when he accused the man revered around the world as humanity’s most eloquent voice for the oppressed as a religious fanatic ‘imbuing our current conflict with messianic hues.’ Finally, not content with his dismissal of Wiesel as ignorant, naïve, and fanatical, he couldn’t help himself but conclude that Wiesel is not only confused but intentionally sought to mislead and misinform others. ‘It is unfortunate that a man of your standing must confuse fundamental issues and confound the reader.’
How unfortunate that Ben-Ami and Sarid were not able to forewarn the gullible American president not to invite the ignorant holocaust survivor to lunch and to instead send Air Force One to pick up the encyclopedic, peace-loving, temperate Sarid instead!
Which brings me back to Jeremy Ben-Ami, whom I would now like to address directly.
“Jeremy, my dear Jewish brother. Since the launch of J-Street not long ago you have tried hard, like any effective CEO, to make a name for your organization and capture headlines. The method you have used, however, appears to involve a cavalcade of insults and attacks. And while this has worked in the short term, knowing just a little bit about PR myself, I am fairly certain that it will backfire in the long run.
“Last September I wrote a column commenting on your quotations in a New York Times Magazine feature where you insulted all staunch American Jewish supporters of Israel as paranoids who believe that the world is filled with murderous anti-Semites. Surely that kind of character assassination is not only unnecessary but, I would argue, indicative of significant insecurity about your message. Not that I blame you. I realize that you have the most difficult job of any Jewish organizational head in the world, namely, running an organization that purports to be pro-Israel but invariably finds itself in the company of Israel’s worst enemies and critics.
“But even so I never believed that someone as media-savvy as you would make the mistake of spending your valuable money on full pages ads attacking Elie Wiesel. That, my brother, is pure suicide.
“I twice hosted Prof. Wiesel at Oxford University for public lectures where more than 2000 non-Jewish students hung on his every word. I took him to lecture at the Mormon Church in Utah where thousands more felt awed to simply stand in the same room as him, and just a few months ago I hosted him in New York City on a panel with my friends Dr. Mehmet Oz and Mayor Cory Booker of Newark at a seminar on values where you could hear a pin drop from the more than one thousand people who stood in line to hear him. In each of these forums people from all walks of life came to bask in the light of the man regarded as the most courageous living voice for victims of hatred and genocide. He is regarded by most as a living saint, and his books, especially Night, are among the most influential literature of modern times. You might as well take out full pages ads savaging Nelson Mandela, Mother Theresa, and the Dalai Lama.
“I suggest that whoever is your PR consultant, my friend, be fired immediately and that you recalibrate your message to simply criticize Israel, which J-Street has done with considerable success, rather than attack the voice of the six million which has, predictably, brought an avalanche of condemnation of protest both in print and all over the internet.
“And Jeremy, my dear brother, please be advised that while my advice is free, Wiesel’s words are priceless.”
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, is publishing, this week, his new book ‘Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Filled Life.’(Basic Books). His website is www.shmuley.com.