Last week the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejected the controversial group, J Street, for membership. Was the vote a test of the openness of the communal umbrella group itself or of the truthfulness of the rebuffed lobby that describes itself as “pro-Israel and pro-peace?”

I think it was both, in part, and can be viewed on the micro level as an issue about the nature of the two groups — one Establishment and one anti-Establishment, and how and where they clash — and on the macro level as possibly indicating a significant a shift in American Jewish attitudes toward Israel and its policies.

To dispense with the facts, J Street failed to garner the votes of two-thirds of the 50-member Conference that was required – it received 17, and there were 22 against, with three abstentions. That set off a potent round of criticism and counter-criticism throughout our community, and even within specific religious denominations. For example, after the vote Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Reform movement, which supported J Street’s inclusion, suggested that that his group may choose to leave the Conference because it “no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community.”

Yet his colleague, Rabbi Richard Block, president of the Reform movement’s association of rabbis, said that though he is a political liberal, he believes rabbis have “a primary duty” to focus on Israel’s “virtues” rather than its “flaws” and that he “cannot … identify with those on the left, even those defining themselves as pro-Israel, that welcome and provide a forum to supporters of BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel], engage in public criticism of Israel … prescribe policies its government should follow, and urge the U.S. to pressure Israel to adopt them.”

As it has played out in recent days, the controversy speaks to the growing split over what it means to be “pro-Israel” today and the relevance, fairness and structure of our Jewish communal organizations. And it is a reflection of the Jewish version of the ugly Blue State-Red State divide in our country — one that seeks to marginalize, if not demonize, those on the other side of the debate, in this case over Israel’s security and very survival.

Part of the reason for all the heated rhetoric is that each side insists the other is not what it claims to be.

Critics see J Street as a kind of Trojan Horse, seeking acceptance as pro-Israel when its real goal is to focus blame on Jerusalem for the lack of peace with the Palestinians. And critics of the Conference of Presidents say it claims to represent the views of American Jews on Israel when in fact it leans right-of-center and is more focused on maintaining that position than opening up its tent.

The Case For J Street

The case for J Street’s inclusion is that its speaks for the majority of American Jewry’s strong support of a two-state solution in the Mideast, bolstered by a young, growing constituency of 180,000 supporters (with nearly 40 chapters around the country and 50 campus chapters). They tend to be dissatisfied with the old Israel-right-or-wrong support of Jerusalem governments whose policies, they maintain, have made peace with the Palestinians more difficult to achieve.

J Street says that the settlements, ongoing occupation of the West Bank and an emphasis on military rather than diplomatic solutions have weakened Israel’s standing in the world and threaten the security of the state. Further, supporters say that its credibility in progressive circles in this country — and particularly among young Democrats, minorities and women, who tend to be more critical of Israel — has been of great help in countering the BDS movement, and on other fronts.

What separates J Street from other dovish groups in the community is its lobbying in Congress as an alternative to AIPAC, the official Israel lobby; its serving as a PAC in supporting congressional candidates around the country; its often bold, anti-Establishment posture; and perhaps most of all because it has more political and financial clout than other American Jewish peace groups. One sign is its inclusion in White House meetings with Jewish leaders during the Obama years.

Even some strong opponents of various J Street positions, and its edgy style, voted for its inclusion in the Conference of Presidents as proof that the umbrella group was open enough to embrace all segments of the community advocating a democratic Jewish state. “They infuriate me,” ADL’s national director, Abe Foxman, told JTA, but he said he is troubled when “those who want to celebrate Israel” are scrutinized too closely.

The Case Against J Street

The case for J Street’s exclusion from the Conference of Presidents is that the lobby not only does not represent mainstream American Jewish views on Israel but also works to undermine them. Namely, by proclaiming support for the Zionist cause while consistently speaking out against the government in Jerusalem and its policies.

Most egregious, critics say, was J Street’s complaint that Israel was using disproportionate firepower in the Cast Lead war in Gaza; its defense of the subsequent Goldstone fact-finding report for the United Nations that blamed the Israeli army as well as Palestinian militants for war crimes in Gaza — Goldstone later retracted his claim that Israel deliberately targeted civilians; and J Street’s opposition to stronger sanctions against Iran in the debate over Tehran’s nuclear program. The group has also been called out for inviting BDS supporters to its events, though it is on record as opposing BDS.

The argument continues: How can a group that consistently takes positions in opposition of mainstream American Jews claim to represent them? How disingenuous is it for a lobby that stakes its claim by opposing the Establishment, to seek membership in the most Establishment of umbrella groups — and then cry “foul” when it is turned down?

Those who maintain that J Street’s decision to apply for membership in the Conference was a win-win opportunity — a diplomatic success if invited in, and a public relations bonanza if kept out — point to the fact key Jewish leaders are now speaking out in calling the vote a defeat for pluralism and proof that the Conference is vulnerable.

“Are we so insecure as a Jewish community that we cannot allow the presence of different opinions?” asked Nancy Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, a Conference member organization. And J Street founder and executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami posted a letter on the group’s website after the rejection. “Dear Malcolm,” it began, addressed to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference, “Thank you for finally making it clear that the Conference of Presidents is not representative of the voice of the Jewish community.” (Neither Hoenlein nor Conference chair Robert Sugarman voted or took part in the debate preceding the vote.)

The ‘Malcolm’ Factor

No substantive discussion about the Conference can take place without understanding the all-important role Hoenlein plays there. It’s likely that most American Jews don’t know his name, and he probably likes it that way. But those who do, know him as arguably the most powerful Jewish leader outside of Israel, based on his first-hand knowledge of world events, close ties with international and national leaders and behind the scenes work on Israel and world Jewry.

He is synonymous with the Conference, having led it for the last 28 years as a one-man office at times. His style is to stay under the radar, rarely voicing his own political views, which are conservative, as he works not only to maintain the Conference as a consensus-oriented group but also to keep in constant contact with policy makers. 

A virtual force of nature with seemingly limitless energy, Hoenlein, 70, bolsters like-minded supporters and outwits or outlasts those who would limit his influence, including various lay chair people, left and right. His tools are his keen intellect, vast knowledge of national and foreign affairs, and his contacts, conviction and clout, often the gatekeeper as to who is and who isn’t invited to White House meetings or other high-profile events.

“His fingerprints may not be visible but nothing of importance happens in the Conference without Malcolm,” one member said, sounding both impressed and exasperated.

Who Won, And What’s Next?

One of the issues emerging, again, after last week’s vote is the seeming illogic of which groups are and are not part of the Conference, which defines itself as made up of “Major American Jewish Organizations.” They include groups with small memberships (like Workmen’s Circle, the Jewish Labor Committee and, most notably, the reconstituted American Jewish Congress, with 19 members), groups with financial and political power but no members (the ADL, for example, is not a membership organization), groups that oppose a two-state solution (ZOA, from the right), and groups that seem to have little to do with the Conference goal of addressing the needs of world Jewry (Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, Alpha Epsilon Pi).

It’s an old argument, and veteran members note that past attempts to change the structure, bylaws and procedure of the Conference lose their steam after awhile. Critics admit that they, too, have voted to include groups that seemingly don’t belong, going along with “the culture” of the Conference, reluctant to make waves.

Those who attend Conference meetings regularly tend to be the old-timers (literally) who are supportive of its work, while critics on the left are often no-shows unless there is a critical issue at hand. It’s easy to see why the leadership is resentful of those who “only come out every few years to criticize,” as one member noted this week. But it’s difficult to make the case that J Street, with its large and growing membership, financial success and influence among Jewish and non-Jewish progressives, should not have a seat at the communal table.

As one Jewish leader told me, inelegantly but to the point, “It’s better to have them pissing inside the tent than outside of it.”

Perhaps most telling about the deep division between the critics and supporters of the Conference is their comments on what happens now. One insider said that quiet conversations will take place within the Conference to try to smooth things over and perhaps pave the way for another vote on J Street, pointing out that Hillel, for example, did not gain membership on its first try.

Another said more sharply, “This was a tempest in a teapot, being exploited now, but it will blow over.” He asserted that J Street takes positions that “the center of the community finds offensive” and that the group has been “repudiated.”

To which a critic, himself a major player in the community, responded: “It’s a sad and scary comment to say that this will all blow over. That’s not dealing with reality.”

It may well be that American Jews — particularly those under 40 — are both supportive of Israel and increasingly impatient with the ongoing stalemate in the Mideast. Like it or not, our divisions need to be addressed rather than dismissed or seen as cause for splintering off. It would be a mistake for the liberal groups to leave the Conference, shattering any prospect of unity. Better for them to work from the inside to make the structure and process more equitable, as seems necessary. That’s democracy.

Certainly the “pro-Israel” label is more complicated today. Unfortunately we are much better at marginalizing rather than debating those with whom we disagree. In a week when Israel mourns more than 25,000 lost in past wars and still celebrates the reality and vibrancy of 21st-century Zionism, the least we can do from these shores is to continue to wrestle with each other — not out of anger but as the rabbis of the Talmud taught us, for the sake of Heaven.

Gary@jewishweek.org

Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 "Between The Lines" columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as "the Jewish rabbi's son" in Annapolis, Md., is available. Click here for details.