Last month’s vote to exclude J Street from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the umbrella group representing the American Jewish community’s interests in Washington and abroad, has shone a bright light on the dangerous direction some of our community’s leaders seem determined to take us.
More than any other event in the six years since J Street was established, the secret vote has underlined our contention that while many in our community, especially the younger generation, are desperate for an informed and intelligent discussion about what it means to be pro-Israel, some of their elders are interested only in shutting down debate and enforcing rigid and blind ideological discipline.
J Street was founded to give voice to a large numbers of American Jews who love Israel and are worried about its direction. Driven by our commitment to Israel’s Jewish and democratic future, we have mobilized tens of thousands of activists, members, donors and supporters to pro-Israel action. We are committed to Israel’s security and have been doughty opponents of the boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign.
We also host the third largest annual gathering of any American Jewish organization, with speakers including Vice President Joe Biden and Knesset members across the political spectrum from Likud to Meretz. Over 800 rabbis have joined our Rabbinic Cabinet, and we have chapters in 40 cities and states and on almost 60 college campuses.
But for some on the far right of our community, the expression of our deep concern about the consequences of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory renders us treif. This despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of American Jews and Israelis supports a two-state solution. These sentiments are also squarely in the mainstream of Israeli political discourse, openly voiced by a majority of its political leaders and parties, including members of its current government, on a routine basis.
We were disappointed with the vote — but we have been greatly encouraged by what followed.
Mainstays of the Jewish community who came out publicly in favor of our admission included the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Anti-Defamation League.
These and other organizations are now asking some long overdue questions: How is it that major organizations representing such a wide swath of American Jewry were outvoted by smaller right-of-center organizations that represent proportionately less of the community? More important than J Street’s admission to the Conference, what does this vote tell us about the way our communal positions on Israel are developed by this body that is supposed to speak for our entire community?
In many ways this vote was more of a referendum on the state of the Israel conversation in our own community that it was a referendum on J Street’s pro-Israel credentials. Those questions have been asked and answered by J Street’s tremendous growth in size, scope and support.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents the largest membership organization in the American Jewish community, recently said after meeting with our J Street U students: “I was impressed by the deep commitment of its leaders to the land, state and people of Israel. Shutting their voices out of our communal discussion only serves to expose how narrow that discussion has become.”
With the collapse of peace talks and the uncertainty of what comes next in the region, one thing is certain: Our work in changing the conversation and the politics here in the U.S. is as necessary and critical as ever.
Alan Elsner is vice president for communications at J Street.