The Jewish community’s so-called big tent when it comes to Israel is large enough to include Alpha Epsilon Pi, the college fraternity, but it may not be big enough for J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby group. AEPi, as far as anyone knows, isn’t a powerhouse, Israel-wise, but in 2012 J Street distributed $1.8 million to 71 candidates, believed to be the most in history by a pro-Israel political action committee.
Just as right-wing Jewish groups are protesting the inclusion in the June 1 Celebrate Israel parade of organizations that support a targeted boycott of West Bank products, a move is now on to keep J Street from gaining admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which counts the fraternity as one of its 51 member organizations.
“I’m setting up a website and have sent out a comprehensive report detailing the consistent and repeated anti-Israel actions J Street has taken over the last several years, such as urging the U.S. to support anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations and targeting pro-Israel congressmen for defeat,” said Mort Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.
“They have given podiums to groups promoting the boycotting of Israel and have never once praised Israel,” he added. “Voting in favor of anti-Israel resolutions delegitimizes Israel, which violates a fundamental precept of the Presidents’ Conference.”
J Street’s application for membership was forwarded without comment to the full organization for a vote April 30, according to Rabbi Vernon Kurtz, chairman of the membership committee.
“The committee felt this is something the conference as a whole should make a decision on without our recommendation,” he said.
But that fact alone suggests J Street’s application faces an uncertain future, according to one Jewish leader who asked to remain anonymous.
“I would not be surprised if they were rejected,” he said. “I think the membership will interpret the lack of a recommendation as a reservation. But I think a rejection of J Street will hurt the conference more than anybody else. J Street doesn’t need the conference.”
A J Street official declined to comment, saying the Presidents Conference election process was confidential and that the organization is respecting that. According to its own literature, J Street in 2012 helped defeat six members of Congress who it said took particularly extreme positions on Israel and the two-state solution.
Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, a Jewish and Interfaith Critique of Politics, Culture and Society, said via email that he was “disappointed that J Street would apply for membership in a group that pretends to speak for American Jews yet consistently articulates positions which represent the views of only the most militaristic and extremist section of American Jews.”
Calling the Conference’s leadership a group of “unelected loudmouths who claim to speak for all American Jewry,” Lerner said the organization’s “militaristic policies” are alienating “younger Jews [who] rarely hear the ‘Thou Shalt Love the Stranger’ and ‘Remember when you come into your own land, do not oppress the stranger’ messages that are, in one form or another, the most frequently repeated injunctions in Torah.”
The New Israel Fund, a liberal group that has never applied for admission to the Presidents’ Conference, said in a statement that it supports J Street’s application and would be “surprised if one of the most vibrant and successful new Jewish organizations — representing the opinions of tens of thousands of American Jews — were refused admission to a conference claiming to constitute the leadership of the community.”
The ZOA’s Klein pointed out that 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.”