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Should J Street Be Accepted to the Presidents Conference? A Short Guide for Casting Your Vote

by Shmuel Rosner

April 29, 2014 | 2:35 am

Jeremy Ben Ami, photo courtesy of J Street

1.

J Street, the self-proclaimed “pro Israel, pro peace” organization, made a shrewd move by asking to be accepted to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.

Shrewd – because it can’t lose.

The way the J Street image was built, the organization is going to gain either way. If accepted, this will be a token of, well, acceptability. If rejected by a majority of organizations in a secret ballot, or even better, if it is rejected by a large-enough minority of organizations, this will be yet another proof of institutional bias against the up and coming enterprise. Thus, the vote, planned for tomorrow, is not about letting J Street score another point. The point is already in the bank.

2.

The vote is also not about having a Conference with a unified voice on Israel. The conference has member organizations of many types and persuasions, from ZOA (Zionist Organization of America) to APN (Americans for Peace Now). Richard Jacobs of the Reform Movement, who is supportive of the J Street move – as one could expect – told JTA that the Conference is “not meant to be a group of people that agree on everything. It’s meant to be a group of organizations that come together to do holy work and strengthen the values they stand for”. We will get back to that point, but we can agree for now that not all values are shared by all current member organizations – just some values for which they work together. J Street membership will merely add to the mix yet another organization with only some values in common with others.

3.

It is somewhat disturbing that the argument for J Street participation has been laid out by several advocates, while the case against it does not have a clearly stated rationale (if I missed any such a rationale that was clearly stated and is also convincing, I’d be happy to correct this statement). The obvious argument for participation was made, among others, by Mark Hetfield of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society: ““J Street is a major American Jewish organization, and they should not be excluded just because they have a different perspective than some other members on the best strategy for supporting a strong and democratic Israel.” The group seems to meet the procedural criteria, so why not let it in?

Surely, there are good reasons, but these have not yet been laid out methodically by anyone I could see.

4.

To put it shortly: if your goal is “broadening the tent”, as JCPA leaders seem to believe as they declare their support for J Street’s membership, then the case is pretty much closed. J Street will broaden the tent. Hence, it should be accepted. And one must admit: making a case against a broad tent in today’s American Jewish community is neither an easy enterprise, nor a popular one. Being against “inclusion” – the more the merrier – is almost like declaring oneself an enemy of Judaism itself (that is clearly in defiance of the relatively exclusionary nature of historic Judaism, but that is a matter for another time).

5.

The ZOA’s Mort Klein attempted to make a case against J Street membership: although there are liberal groups in the Presidents Conference that oppose Israeli settlements — such as Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu — that position is “not the same as condemning Israel for war crimes that don’t exist.… An umbrella group can have a large tent, but that does not mean a universal tent”. So the question is where to draw the line. For JCPA, being “pro Israel” is the test, or maybe declaring support for a “Jewish and democratic Israel”. For Klein, it is the level of criticism leveled at Israel that is the key (you can see a similar argument, but in viler language, here). Yet one has to wonder: would Klein vote for Ameinu membership had it been discussed now? Would he not draw the line even further back to say that Ameinu type of criticism is beyond the pale?

6.

I see two main reasons for opposing the acceptance of J Street – reasons that should be measured against the reasons for acceptance.

A. Because J Street is not sincere.

B. Because it is not a team player.

7.

What do I mean by not sincere? That is easy: just read Alan Dershowitz’ case against the organization. It is a strong case. “J Street survives, and even expands, largely as the result of speaking out of two sides of its mouth. It seeks to attract centrist members by advocating the two-state solution, an aggressive stance towards peace negotiations and criticisms of Israel’s settlement policies. These are positions I fully support, and if they were J Street’s only positions, I would have joined that organization many years ago. But in an effort to expand leftward, particularly hard leftward, it has taken positions that undercut Israel’s security and that virtually no Israeli center-leftists support”.

The problem with accepting an organization that is not sincere into the Conference is also quite obvious: you don’t exactly know what you vote for. I think this is an overwhelmingly persuasive argument against the J Street request, but to act on it one first has to accept the premise – that is, that J Street is truly insincere. Obviously, the people of J Street would have you believe that they are sincere. “We urge those attacking us to spend a little less time leveling baseless accusations against a now-established Jewish organization and a little more time addressing these fundamental challenges facing the Israel we love”, wrote J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami.

I am more convinced by Dershowitz, but Ben Ami deserves a hearing.

8.

What do I mean by not a team player? As I already mentioned, J Street built its image as a contrarian organization, an anti-establishment one that is bravely fighting against the powerful forces of right-wing Jewish American behemoths. Just look at the headline to the (needless to say favorable) Cairo Review article on Ben Ami’s book: Jeremy Versus Goliath. Of course, there is value to having contrarians and organizations that challenge the establishment. But why would such groups want to become members of the establishment is less clear. It can be a sign of moderation and desire to gradually change things from within. Or it can be a trick with which to attempt to destroy the establishment from within. If you do not trust the sincerity of J Street, you’d probably opt to assume the latter.  

9.

Thinking about J Street not being a team player is a highly practical concern for outside observers of the Conference. If the team becomes less coherent and busier with infighting, it will be less effective. If the participation of J Street is going to make other major organizations uncomfortable working through the Conference, the conference will also be less effective. If Israel – whose government is hardly enthusiastic about the positions and the policies of J Street – becomes less prone to productively communicate with the Conference, it will also be less effective. So from purely organizational viewpoint, there is a danger in accepting J Street.

10.

But there is also a highly pragmatic argument in favor of acceptance. If the Conference doesn’t let J Street in, many Jews might feel alienated from it, and more prone to accept the claim that it is hawkish and archaic and detached from Jewish American realities. Such belief among Jews will eventually make the Conference less representative and hence less effective.

11.

A fear factor is at play here: on the one hand the fear from J Street’s radicalism, and on the other hand the fear from alienating a constituency. It is not much of a surprise that the more liberal the group, the quicker it is to announce its support for J Street participation. This is not because these groups agree with the positions held by J Street – but rather because, and forgive my cynicism, these groups have the highest level of fear from angering their own constituencies by opposing J Street. Instilling such fear, by the way, should be counted as one of Jeremy Ben Ami’s successes.

12.

If you are looking for a bottom line, there isn’t an obvious one. The issue of engaging J Street has been a constant dilemma in recent years both for Jewish organizations and for the Israeli government. Generally speaking, I would support a conditioned engagement – that is, putting a price tag for the label of legitimacy that acceptance bestows on the accepted. The Israeli government can surely put such a price tag as it ponders engagement with J Street (or any other organization for that matter, including problematic elements on the right). If such a process is even conceivable in the case of J Street and the Conference I don’t know.

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