By Alina Dain Sharon and Sean Savage/JNS.org
In what many observers will see as the de facto expression of mainstream U.S. Jewry’s outlook on J Street, members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Wednesday voted 22-17 (with three abstentions) to reject the membership application of the self-labeled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby. J Street secured the votes of only about a third of the Conference’s 50 members.
The 42 Conference members in attendance in New York exceeded the 75-percent quorum needed to hold the vote, but J Street fell significantly short of the required threshold of a two-thirds affirmative vote from the Conference’s full membership. The result that 25 organizations either voted against J Street or abstained meant that half of the Conference’s members declined to support J Street’s application.
“The Conference meticulously followed its long-established Process and Procedures Guidelines in considering J Street’s application. … The present membership of the Conference includes organizations which represent and articulate the views of broad segments of the American Jewish community and we are confident that the Conference will continue to present the consensus of the community on important national and international issues as it has for the last 50 years,” said Conference of Presidents Chairman Robert G. Sugarman and Executive Vice Chairman/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein.
J Street said in a statement, “This is a sad day for us, but also for the American Jewish community and for a venerable institution that has chosen to bar the door to the communal tent to an organization that represents a substantial segment of Jewish opinion on Israel.”
Jewish leaders have used a “big tent” metaphor to describe which views on Israel and U.S. foreign policy are encompassed within the community’s consensus. Since its formation in 2008, J Street has been a frequent subject of debates on how far that tent stretches, and the group’s bid to join the Conference of Presidents proved no different.
The Forward reported that at an April 11 meeting during which J Street had failed to win the endorsement of a crucial committee for membership in the Conference, J Street was questioned over donations it has received from liberal billionaire George Soros—whose foundations have come under scrutiny for allegedly funding anti-Israel groups—and over the lobby’s support of the United Nations-sponsored Goldstone Report, which accused Israel of war crimes against the Palestinians. Furthermore, J Street was accused of collaborating with anti-Israel groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine.
Some Conference members were also troubled that J Street, if voted in, would have been the only organization in the Conference of Presidents that endorses or raises money for political candidates through a political action committee.
Andrea Levin—executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a Conference of Presidents member—told JNS.org that J Street is taking positions “totally out of sync with the Jewish mainstream,” noting its opposition to a 2011 congressional letter criticizing Palestinian incitement in the wake of the Itamar massacre that killed five members of an Israeli family, and more recently, its refusal to condemn the Fatah-Hamas unity deal.
In an op-ed for JNS.org last year, however, J Street Executive Director Jeremy Ben-Ami called his group’s position on Israel “the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.”
“At the end of the day, J Street exists to help Israel reach the deal it needs and wants so much and which is so central to its future as a Jewish state and as a democracy,” wrote Ben-Ami, referring to a two-state solution, whose achievement is central to J Street’s stated mission.
Yet Sarah Stern—president of the Washington, DC-based Endowment for Middle East Truth think tank and policy group—believes members of Congress are often confused about where J Street stands on Israel. She noted that J Street “has consistently taken the same positions as the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and the National Iranian American Council (NIAC).” CAIR has been accused of being a front group for the Hamas terrorist group, and NIAC routinely takes anti-Israel positions.
“It’s hard enough for members of Congress to listen to a growing Muslim and Arab demographic, but when they have a Jewish constituency that is basically siding with the enemies of Israel, I think it’s extraordinarily deleterious for the Jewish community here in the U.S,” Stern told JNS.org.
Georgetown University professor and Middle East analyst Moran Stern, meanwhile, does not believe it is particularly relevant to be asking whether or not J Street is a “mainstream” American Jewish organization.
“The surge of J Street is a fact,” he said. “What the Conference of Presidents and other Jewish organizations in the U.S. that might have conflicting views on J Street are doing, and I think are doing very wisely, is they are identifying the surge of J Street. They recognize it and they adapt accordingly.”
Before Wednesday’s vote, a number of Conference of Presidents member groups publicly expressed their intent to support J Street’s application. Ameinu—which says its “connects liberal American Jews with a progressive Israel”—posted on Twitter, “Ameinu will vote for J Street’s inclusion in the Conf. of Presidents. They meet all of the requirements. Simple.” In a blog post for the Times of Israel, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote that there should not be an “ideological litmus test” for joining the umbrella organization.
“If the Conference begins to limit its membership based on organizations’ views on specific policy issues, it ceases to represent the entire American Jewish community,” Jacobs wrote.
The leadership of Conservative Judaism’s congregational umbrella group echoed the call for accepting a diversity of views.
“The Conference of Presidents is designed as a forum in which the Jewish community, in all its diversity, can come together to discuss the major issues of the day and speak with world leaders and organizations as representatives of the Jewish people,” said United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick and International President Richard Skolnik.
On the flip side, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) campaigned aggressively against J Street’s bid. Ahead of the vote, ZOA distributed 18 bullet points for why it believed J Street should not be admitted to the Conference of Presidents, and issued press releases slamming J Street’s statements on the Palestinian unity deal and Secretary of State John Kerry’s remark warning that Israel could become an “apartheid state.”
Reacting to criticism of Kerry’s comments, J Street had said, “Instead of putting energy into attacking Secretary Kerry, those who are upset with the Secretary’s use of the term should put their energy into opposing and changing the policies that are leading Israel down this road.”
ZOA then said, “J Street has again demonstrated that it is an extremist group, hostile to Israel, by supporting Secretary of State John Kerry’s ‘apartheid’ accusation against Israel.”
Moran Stern, however, told JNS.org that from his observations of the culture of U.S. Jewish organizations, he has witnessed a “reservoir” of talented and educated young American Jews among the J Street ranks, and questioned the premise of abandoning that cadre of Israel advocates.
“The question is what do you do with that reservoir,” he said, explaining that leaving out J Street might “play into the hands of those who are anti-Israel because they will say, ‘Look at the Conference of Presidents that claims to be pro-Israel and pro-Jewish, and here there is a group like J Street that supports the two-state solution and all that, and when they try to be part of that club they are being denied.’”
The professor added that given J Street’s popularity on college campuses, it is important not to neglect those young American Jews who care about Israel but may have a different approach than traditional pro-Israel advocates.
“I think that while you may not accept certain ideas, J Street certainly doesn’t fall under this category,” he said. “They do not call for the one-state solution, for the destruction of Israel, for boycotting Israel. Quite on the contrary.”
But Dr. Charles Jacobs—president of Boston-based Americans for Peace and Tolerance, the group behind the new documentary “The J Street Challenge”—explained that J Street breaks a long-honored tradition between American Jews and Israel.
“[American Jews] can freely criticize Jewish leaders in Israel—we can do it publicly, but we who do not live there or have our children on the front lines do not have the right to use our American power to circumvent Israeli democracy, and to try to lobby to get an American administration to impose our views and policies on the Israelis. … J Street’s entire program is designed to break this longstanding agreement,” Jacobs told JNS.org.