Correction: I had originally reported that Jeremy Ben Ami’s email was forwarded to Rebecca Vilkomerson by a J Street staffer, and then on to me. In fact, it was sent to me directly by Vilkomerson, but I was confused about the email chain.
This week I reported Omar Barghouti’s account of J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami refusing to debate him because he was Palestinian, and not Jewish. According to Barghouti, Ben Ami said that J Street preferred to keep the BDS debate “inside the Jewish community.” Now I have Ben Ami’s original email to Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace, in which Ben Ami rejected Vilkomerson’s proposal to include Barghouti in a future debate on BDS.
Before I reproduce the email, here is the background: Ben Ami invited Vilkomerson to debate several BDS opponents at J Street’s annual conference last February. Vilkomerson, who supports targeted BDS, told him in an email on Janurary 26 that excluding a Palestinian from a debate about Palestinian rights was problematic. “I think it is essentially important that this discussion not just be an intra-Jewish affair,” she stated. Vilkomerson proposed scheduling a debate between Ben Ami (or someone representing J Street) and Barghouti, the intellectual author of BDS and one of its most articulate advocates, when he arrived in the States this April for his book tour.
Ben Ami responded as follows (I redacted the email addresses and personal banter):
From: Jeremy Ben-Ami
Date: Wed, Feb 2, 2011 at 7:07 AM
Subject: RE: BDS debate?
To: Rebecca Vilkomerson
My apologies for taking so long to get back to you. Obviously not an easy question – and not a lot of bandwidth at the moment for me to really engage people in discussion of a complex question related to after the conference!
As a general matter, I am open to participating in discussions of strategies for ending the conflict that would include me and someone who favors the use of BDS tactics.
I am not particularly likely to do that in a frame that is about the tactics themselves or even framed as being about the BDS movement. I’m really open to how to frame it, I just don’t think it advances the ball for a broad enough community for it to be simply ‘about BDS issues.’
I also am most likely – given J Street’s mission within the Jewish community – to do such discussions with others in the Jewish community such as yourself – though again I don’t rule out a discussion with Omar or other Palestinian activists. Our discussion as J Street in my mind is less with them – because they can choose whatever tactics they want, but within the Jewish community about how we run our communal conversation around these difficult questions.
Finally – again as a general matter I’d consider it a home run to do such a discussion including someone who thinks we’re both wrong and who thinks that any of our efforts to change Israeli policy constitute de-legitimization…
Ben Ami’s email was provided to me by Rebecca Vilkomerson. “Jeremy [Ben Ami] asked me to forward on exactly what he wrote because he believes this will clarify that his policy is not racist,” she told me.
I am assuming that Rebecca made a mistake in calling Ben Ami’s rejection of the offer to debate Barghouti a “policy.” If J Street does have a policy of excluding Palestinians from debates relating to BDS, charges of racism would stick. However, Ben Ami emphasized that he is open to publicly engaging with Barghouti or other Palestinian activists at some point in the future. Only time will tell…
Judging from his language in his email to Vilkomerson about “how we run our communal conversation around these difficult issues,” Ben Ami appears interested in containing J Street’s involvement in the BDS debate to exclusively Jewish spaces. In such a situation, Palestinians are not only excluded from the debate, they are segregated from an audience primarily concerned about what is “good for the Jews.”
If Ben Ami is reluctant to debate BDS in public with Palestinians, I imagine it is because he (or any self-proclaimed liberal BDS opponent, for that matter) would be uncomfortable looking a Palestinian in the eye and telling him or her that instead of campaigning for their rights through non-violent means, they should wait around quietly until Washington convinces Israel to enact a magical solution. “You’re moving too far, too fast,” as some said in the early 1960’s.