Natsec expert Jenna Ben-Yehuda was shaped by her Jewish upbringing
The Truman National Security Project CEO previously served in the top echelons of the State Department
As the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, Jenna Ben-Yehuda understood from a young age that U.S. policy is more than just a bill signed by a president — and that even the most arcane, bureaucratic components of American policy have the ability to change people’s lives, for better or for worse.
“I knew there was a pretty strong dotted line between decisions that somebody at a port of entry at Ellis Island had made about whether or not to let in my grandfather, and my being here,” she told Jewish Insider in a recent interview.
After 12 years at the State Department, culminating in her position as senior military advisor to the assistant secretary of Western Hemisphere affairs, Ben-Yehuda is now the CEO and president of the Truman National Security Project, a think tank and membership organization that has helped cultivate a generation of Democratic foreign policy leaders. Its members are heavily represented in the Biden administration, with officials including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg among Truman’s alumni.
Ben-Yehuda, 40, says her interest in foreign policy was molded by her Jewish upbringing. “Part of my Jewish identity,” she said, “was about the role U.S. national security policy could mean for people and how it could create a safe harbor or not.”
Born in Atlanta but raised in a part of California that lacked a significant Jewish population, Ben-Yehuda often felt like an outsider, and she looked beyond her community for a sense of belonging. “I felt very connected to the rest of the world,” she said. “There was always discussion of, like, the ‘old country’ and family recipes, and who came from what ghetto, and I think there was always a world beyond our borders. For me, that was really deeply rooted in the story of my family.”
Her mother’s side of the family, from Savannah, Ga., had a deep connection to Judaism. “They were very publicly and proudly Jewish, even though my mother grew up in the 1950s in Savannah and got mail from the KKK that identified all of the names and ages of the Jewish children in her home,” said Ben-Yehuda, whose grandfather had been a rabbi in Savannah.
Meanwhile, “my father didn’t know that he was Jewish until he was in college,” Ben-Yehuda said. Her paternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who became a doctor in a small Indiana town, had changed his name to Hoffman — Ben-Yehuda’s maiden name — and married a non-Jewish woman, ultimately hiding his religion from his children. “My father never liked me to wear a Jewish star in public; he didn’t want us to put summer camp bumper stickers on the car, because there was so much nervousness around being publicly Jewish that grew out of the fear that his family had,” she recalled.
As Ben-Yehuda began to travel, eventually living outside the U.S., she learned about Jewish communities around the world. During high school in 1996, she studied in Hungary just a few years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. “I spent time in the synagogues of Eastern Europe,” she said. “The country was still really very much in the early days of reopening, and there was open discussion of antisemitism, which has only gotten worse.”
In college, she took a United Jewish Communities (now the Jewish Federations of North America) trip to Prague and Israel that she likened to Birthright. Later, before joining the State Department, Ben-Yehuda worked for the American Jewish Committee as a member of its Goldman Fellowship Program in its Atlanta office, which “works very closely with the Black community,” she explained. That mattered to her: “Coming out of having grown up in the South and having returned there every summer as a child, I had seen firsthand the dynamics between Blacks and Jews in the South.” She saw her work building relationships between Atlanta’s Jewish and Black communities as an extension of her parents’ civil rights activism decades earlier.
“I loved that work. I felt it was deeply meaningful and actually informed a lot of the subsequent human rights and outreach engagement that I did in a lot of other countries around the world,” she noted. “It wasn’t so much that I selected away from working in the Jewish communal space, as I had been just really drawn by this desire to work at the State Department.”
As a child, she skipped school to see then-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan speak at UCLA. She later chose The George Washington University for her undergraduate degree because the school had a program in which undergrads could work at the State Department. The State Department then, as now, suffered from staffing shortages.
“My first job was managing 200-plus cases of international parental child abduction. I covered — as a 20-year-old without a college degree — all of the cases in Latin America, the Caribbean and west to North Africa. It was a massive portfolio, totally overwhelming,” Ben-Yehuda said. The federal government has since placed a limit on the number of such cases one person can handle.
Later, when Ben-Yehuda returned to Foggy Bottom after graduating college, she began a career in the Western Hemisphere bureau. She began by working in intelligence, but later switched to policy analysis. “I was really into the heat and the chase of it all. I was less interested in sitting in front of a computer for 10 hours a day, writing up my research,” she explained. “I flipped to the policy side, worked a lot on Central American gang issues on regional security matters, and I focused really on what President Biden now calls the root causes of migration.”
The transition from intelligence to policy is not common, but Tom Shannon, a career foreign service officer who served as under secretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration and supervised Ben-Yehuda years earlier, said she handled it well. “When you make the move from intelligence analysis to policy making, you’re really making a move from somebody who is observing and analyzing to somebody that is advocating. You leave the realm of objectivity and become a participant in the effort to promote and pursue certain policy objectives, and that is a transition that not everybody makes easily. But Jenna did it well,” Shannon observed.
Ben-Yehuda knew she was not interested in a desk job. “I flew around in Blackhawk helicopters, surveying flood damage, doing border assessments,” she said. “I remember sitting with a group of gang leaders in Haiti, in their armed compound, and seeing myself — surrounded by a group of gang leaders, and all of them showing visible weapons and trying — to help negotiate, effectively, a ceasefire.”
As Ben-Yehuda moved up the State Department’s ranks, she began to observe some troubling personnel disparities. “I saw, at the entry level, it was pretty 50/50 male/female,” she observed. But she noticed that “the senior leadership is so heavily male-dominated, [and] the numbers just never added up for me. Women are not becoming less competent over time.”
When Ben-Yehuda got pregnant — she now has three children — she began to understand in a personal way what gender-based discrimination looked like in the government.
“When my oldest, who’s almost 14 now, was born, there were eight infant beds at the onsite childcare facility in a building that housed over 20,000 people. I think I called my mother and told her I was pregnant, and my second call was to the childcare facility to get my name on a waitlist,” Ben-Yehuda remembered. That sparked a realization: “Oh, this is actually not a place that is built to support women.”
Ben-Yehuda’s decision to leave the government after 12 years was not about any sexism she faced at the State Department, but rather a desire to have more flexibility and creativity than she was able to achieve in the massive bureaucracy of the federal government. “This is also one of the structural issues with the civil service, as it’s configured. There were no opportunities for lateral moves or more senior moves. It’s very hard to move around,” she explained.
When she began working in the private sector, she created a group called the Women’s Foreign Policy Network, now comprising several thousand national security and diplomacy experts and practitioners around the world. In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement and a wave of reporting highlighting sexual harassment and assault perpetrated by high-profile men, she authored a letter called #MeTooNatSec calling on the national security community to “take a comprehensive set of actions to reduce the incidence of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.”
In her current job at the Truman National Security Project, which she joined in 2019, Ben-Yehuda tries to bring a sense of equity and accountability to the think tank world, which skews heavily male. “I don’t have a lot of women peers leading think tanks in the D.C. area, but I guess I’m past that point — it’s not an impediment for me,” she said. “I’m somewhat used to being one of the few women in a particular room, but I feel a tremendous responsibility to change that and to bring people up behind me.” For instance, Truman lists salary ranges for all open positions, which is widely seen as a best practice in ending pay disparities between men and women. “I’ve tried to set that bar pretty early on for how we do business and also to shine a light on best practices and seek to hold others in our space accountable,” she said.
Truman releases analysis and research on foreign policy topics, but it is best known for its membership program. “Our mission, really, is to unite and equip a diverse community of American leaders to produce timely, innovative and principled solutions to complex national security challenges,” Ben-Yehuda explained.
The organization was founded in the early days of the Iraq War. “Voters did not trust Democrats and progressives to keep the country safe, and that was a very wrongheaded view,” said Matthew Spence, who co-founded Truman in 2004 and later served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy in the Obama administration. “Truman wanted to help create a home for those Democrats and progressives, and also help bring about the thought that you could have a strong and secure and very tough foreign policy, but also one that’s grounded in our democratic values.”
Ben-Yehuda was wary of using the word “progressive” to define her organization, claiming that the term is often co-opted by conservatives. “I focus less on a label and more on our values,” she explained, defining Truman as committed to “a more diverse and inclusive national security space” and upholding “democracy, human rights and prosperity, and the rule of law.” She noted that “sometimes, yes, the use of force is necessary, but we believe that diplomacy should be in the lead, and that that use of force should come only as a last resort and even then used sparingly.” Still, she is aware of the political reality of Truman’s worldview: “In this political environment, that does mean that it’s mostly Democrats who are aligned with us. I hope we can get to a place where that shifts over time,” she stated.
Shannon, Ben-Yehuda’s former supervisor who is not affiliated with either major political party, praised Truman’s work. “I wouldn’t partisanize it,” he argued. “We just came off an administration that was kind of anti-globalist. I can understand why there might be a perception that an organization which is all about promoting a national security agenda and vision that’s all about U.S. engagement in the world might be perceived as leaning one way or another.”
But, Shannon stated, the conversations that Truman has encouraged — about U.S. engagement with the world and its diplomatic actions overseas — are crucial for everyone in the foreign policy establishment to consider. “Through the Truman National Security Project, she has done excellent work in helping the next generation of leaders understand why U.S. engagement in the world is important,” he said.