J Street, Likud & the Professor

No American Jewish organization has generated more headlines and controversy than J Street.

Moshe Phillips

OpEds Moshe Phillips
Moshe Phillips

Since the Hebrew calendar year 5771 began no American Jewish organization has generated more headlines and controversy than J Street. The same can be said for its founder and executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami. J Street, the controversial Jewish pressure group that was created to lobby for a Palestinian state, made news both for its extremely expensive full page advertisement in The New York Times as well as for a report in The Washington Times that revealed that George Soros has been a major donor since 2008. This was after Ben-Ami repeatedly stated to the media that Soros was not involved with J Street.

The news generating more headlines inside Israel than any other was the resumption of Israel-Palestinian Authority negotiations and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to allow the settlement building freeze to expire. A move J Street sharply criticized.

What do J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami and Benjamin Netanyahu have in common besides generating headlines?

The fathers of both Netanyahu and Ben-Ami were active supporters of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and involved with the Irgun paramilitary organization. 

The elder Ben-Ami (who died in 1985) and the elder Netanyahu (who celebrated his 100th birthday in Jerusalem last March) both
Klausner wrote “The spirit of Bar Kochba calls to us – young Jews, be strong! Don’t give in to spiritual or physical lethargy, to compromise or defeatism. Don’t abandon your people to shame and degradation.”
organized support for the Irgun in the U.S. in the 1940s. They served as part of a delegation of Zionists from the Jabotinsky movement that lobbied for a Jewish State and for the creation of an independent Jewish army to fight alongside the Allies against the Nazis. The men knew each other but worked primarily for different factions within the Irgun’s U.S. networks. Yitshaq Ben-Ami’s faction was later led by Hillel Kook (Peter Bergson) and Ben Hecht and included Ze’ev’s son Eri Jabotinsky.

But even earlier in their lives Benzion Netanyahu and Yitshaq Ben-Ami shared another very important thing when they attended Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The professor who may have had the largest single impact on both of their thinking during their student years was Dr. Joseph Klausner.

Yoni Netanyahu’s biographer Max Hastings noted the relationship and introduced Klausner as “The historian Professor Joseph Klausner, Benzion’s former teacher and close friend…” in his book Yoni: Hero of Entebbe. Klausner is mentioned in two of Yoni’s famous letters from 1975 when he recalls the Passover Seders of his youth when the elderly professor was his family’s guest. The Netanyahu family chose to publish these two letters as part of the collection of letters that make up Self-Portrait of a Hero.

Yitshaq Ben-Ami wrote about Dr. Klausner in his memoirs Years of Wrath, Days of Glory. “My beloved teacher, Professor Joseph Klausner, was perhaps the most unique voice of all in the early 1930s,” stated Ben-Ami.

“Klausner and Jabotinsky made us proud of our national history,” explained Ben-Ami. He also wrote that “…Klausner brought up several generations of youths listening to his words.”

So what were his words? What would the professor want to tell these sons of his students?

Perhaps Yitshaq Ben-Ami knew when he recalled the following that Dr. Klausner wrote in 1932: “The spirit of Bar Kochba calls to us – young Jews, be strong! Don’t give in to spiritual or physical lethargy, to compromise or defeatism. Don’t abandon your people to shame and degradation.”     

 Dr. Klausner is seldom remembered today. He was in attendance in the First Zionist Congress in 1897. He became an expert in the history of the Second Temple era and Roman occupation of the Land of Israel. In July 1929 he organized the Pro-Western Wall Committee in Jerusalem. This was in response to the 1920s version of the Taliban operating in Jerusalem in those days that sought to conspire with the British to drive Jews away from prayer at the most revered site in Judaism.  Daniel Levine explained in his book The Birth of the Irgun Zvai Leumi that “…due to his right-wing beliefs, Dr. Klausner was not given the chair for teaching Second  Commonwealth History [at Hebrew University], which was his major field of interest.” In 1949 he was chosen by the veterans of the Irgun to be the candidate for Israel’s presidency for their Herut Party. Klausner died in 1958.

 It was tragic that Dr. Klausner lost the election to Chaim Weizmann. The State of Israel and the Jewish People would have greatly benefited from his leadership. It is equally tragic that neither Jeremy Ben-Ami nor Benjamin Netanyahu had the opportunity to know Dr. Klausner as a teacher personally.

Jeremy Ben-Ami and Benjamin Netanyahu could choose to read what Dr. Klausner had to say about Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. At the very least they should take a few nights and read (or perhaps in Jeremy’s case re-read) Years of Wrath, Days of Glory. They will without a doubt gain from the experience. So would you dear reader.

 Here is part of Yitshaq Ben-Ami’s Foreword to [the] Second (1983) Edition they (and we) should meditate on: Too often the credo of Diaspora Jews is “Keep a low profile, and anti-Semitism will disappear.” The phenomenon of a Jewish Prime Minister standing up to the gentile world and declaring boldly “Don’t teach us about morality or how to fight for our survival in your midst!” was jarring. And it was anxiety-provoking …to see…Jewish military power used preventatively to destroy life-threatening targets sponsored by hostile political alliances.”

 Yitshaq Ben-Ami was referring to Prime Minister Begin’s 1981 decision to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor and his 1982 decision to go to war in Lebanon against the PLO. The impact of Yitshaq Ben-Ami’s words when applied to the threat from Iran today are clear.

 If Jeremy and Bibi take these messages to heart perhaps they can work together and protect Jerusalem and expand the settlements. Klausner’s 1929 fight continues today. There is no doubt where the elder Netanyahu and the elder Ben-Ami would do if they were in their sons’ positions. Let us pray that they both return to the ways of their fathers.