After the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted not to accept the membership application of J Street, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, published a statement critical of the vote. He acknowledged that Conference procedures, which he could have questioned long before the J Street vote was held, were properly followed. Rabbi Jacobs seems to allege that a cabal of small right-wing members excluded a major Jewish organization because that organization espouses disagreeable views. Rabbi Jacobs seriously miscategorizes both the vote on J Street’s admission and the issues underlying the vote.
The vote expressed a decisive, broadly based rejection of J Street. The vote tally, widely reported (though omitted by Rabbi Jacobs), was 17 for admission, 22 against, and three abstentions, with seven members absent. Based on Conference bylaws requiring a two-thirds vote for admission, J Street would have needed 34 votes, double the amount it received. Some 65 percent of the Conference members did not vote in support of J Street’s application. Analysis of the vote leads inevitably to the conclusion that the majority of the 25 negative votes and abstentions were organizations considered large, centrist or both.
The issue before the Conference was not whether to seat at the table a dissenting voice. The issue was, instead, whether to admit an organization whose message is perceived by many to conflict with the core consensus of the Conference, and potentially to harm the clarity and effectiveness of the Conference’s message and purpose. Conference members have widely divergent views on a number of key issues, including a two-state solution (which the Conference has repeatedly endorsed), the peace process, territorial concessions and settlements. Member organizations are free to express their own views on these issues, and those views frequently run the spectrum. At least three presidents of Conference members sit on J Street’s board and presumably represent J Street’s point of view on these issues.
But the Conference’s mandate is to support the strongest possible relationship between America and Israel. To many, J Street’s policies and positions threaten to weaken that relationship.
A major consideration was that J Street, unlike any member organization, operates a Political Action Committee (“PAC”) that contributes funds and endorses candidates for elective offices. The record of the J Street PAC (as well as its mission statement) is to endorse candidates who would shift Congress’ attitude regarding Israel and, in the view of many members, weaken the America-Israel relationship.
A primary emphasis of the Conference has been to persuade America and the world that Iran cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, and all options to prevent this result must be available. J Street has even opposed legislation backed by the administration and passed overwhelmingly by the House of Representatives imposing sanctions on Iran.
Demonization and delegitimization of Israel is a core challenge that the Conference and its members must meet head-on. Insidious and dangerous terminology such as the reference in the Goldstone report to “war crimes” in describing Israel’s response to Hamas’ bombing of civilian centers in southern Israel, or “apartheid” — a term used recently by Secretary of State Kerry — must be condemned. Even after Goldstone and Kerry repudiated use of these terms, J Street, alone among Jewish organizations, has accepted them.
Other areas of concern include J Street’s urging the White House not to veto a one-sided UN resolution condemning Israel, opposing a Congressional resolution condemning Palestinian incitement, describing the behavior of IDF troops on the Mavi Marmara as “cruel brutality” and opposing a bipartisan Congressional bill passed almost unanimously in the House supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Gaza- launched rocket attacks. Members have also reacted negatively to J Street’s strident, in personam attacks on the Conference and many of its members.
The vote says something significant about J Street and the message it has conveyed. As many as two-thirds of the Conference’s members suspect J Street’s goals and its means, and have concluded that J Street’s self definition of “pro-Israel” is far different from that of the Conference. Many Reform and Conservative Jews who are intensively engaged with other organizations in pro-Israel activities share these concerns.
The Conference accomplishes so much because it is rightly perceived in America, Israel, and all over the world as voicing a consensus (albeit not unanimity). We should be intensifying the effort to take the Conference’s strong and positive message about Israel not only to the American government, but also, as I have personally experienced, to the heads of state or foreign ministers of scores of countries, and to those here at home who are not yet within our constituency, especially young people. Whatever conclusions the Conference and its constituents take from its consideration of the J Street application, I am confident that when the dust and bluster clear, we will be united under the time-tested umbrella of the Conference.
Richard B. Stone is past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.