In losing bid for mainstream acceptance, did J Street win the popular vote

J Street wasn’t welcomed under the umbrella, but it hasn’t been left out alone in the rain.

J Street’s failed effort to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations showed that many in the Jewish community still regard the dovish Israel policy group as beyond the pale.

Sign welcoming attendees at J Street’s 2013 national conference in Washington photo/courtesy j street

In a secret ballot, 22 member groups of the conference, the Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella body, voted April 30 against admitting J Street, with 17 in favor, three abstentions and eight not present.

At the same time, the membership bid elicited an unprecedented show of support from leading Jewish groups, some of which had previously clashed with J Street or kept it at arm’s length. The rejection elicited loud protests from prominent Jewish groups and calls for reform of the Presidents Conference.

“J Street kind of won the popular vote,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice chairman of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “The folks who represent actually millions of Jews voted to say we believe the tent is big enough and the table wide enough to continue to grow and to have dialogue.”

Groups that had called for J Street’s admission to the Presidents Conference included the Anti-Defamation League, arms of the Reform and Conservative movements and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the community’s domestic policy umbrella, among others.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld

J Street has had a complicated relationship with the rest of the organized Jewish community, simultaneously seeking acceptance while also dishing out criticism of other groups.

J Street, which describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” has criticized Israeli government policies and called for U.S. pressure on Jerusalem, as well as the Palestinians. J Street has also backed the Obama administration’s opposition to additional sanctions on Iran while negotiations are taking place.

Some of the groups supporting J Street’s membership bid said they did not necessarily agree with its policy positions but felt it represented a segment of the community and should therefore be included.

Groups voting against J Street said it did not merit admission based on its actions.

Farley Weiss, the president of National Council of Young Israel, said that bringing in J Street would render meaningless the Presidents Conference’s mission of presenting a unified Jewish voice to the government. He noted that J Street lobbies Congress and that its positions often are opposed to those of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying powerhouse.

“They would go to Congress and say, ‘We’re critical of Israel and we’re members of the Conference of Presidents,’ ” Weiss said of J Street.

According to participants, the April 30 debate in the Presidents Conference boardroom was civil, with contributions by past leaders of the conference arguing both for and against admitting J Street.

The rejection prompted calls from some Presidents Conference constituent groups for an overhaul of the body.

Jeremy Ben-Ami

“In the days ahead, Reform Movement leaders will be consulting with our partners within the Conference of Presidents to decide what our next steps will be,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement. “We may choose to advocate for a significant overhaul of the Conference of Presidents’ processes. We may choose to simply leave the Conference of Presidents. But this much is certain: We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry.”

Before ascending to the URJ’s helm, Jacobs was a member of J Street’s rabbinic cabinet.

Other major groups, including the Rabbinical Assembly and the ADL, also were calling for an overhaul.

“The Conference of Presidents has 50 or so organizations, each one has one vote, the majority of those organizations are quite tiny,” Schonfeld said. “The fact that J Street did not pass today’s vote is reflective of structural anomalies of the conference.”

Smaller members of the conference with outlooks similar to J Street’s, including Ameinu and Americans for Peace Now, also called for reforms.

A source close to the Presidents Conference said that given the secret ballot, it was not clear that J Street’s rejection was driven by the smaller groups and noted that many of the membership bid’s backers were also small.

The source said previous attempts to change the voting system to take into consideration the various sizes of the constituent groups failed in part because there was disagreement on what criteria should determine the proportional weight of a member organization.

The expressions of support for J Street’s bid were a contrast with the cool reception the group received in its early years. Most major Jewish groups kept away from its first national conference in 2009. Rabbi Eric Yoffie, Jacobs’ predecessor at the URJ, agreed to speak, but much of his speech criticized J Street for not backing Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza earlier that year.

Since then, more major groups have participated in J Street conferences as attendees and speakers.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs

The growing warmth is in part the result of J Street advocating for Israel to other liberals. JCPA officials have said that J Street proved critical in defeating divestment motions targeting Israel that were being considered by left-leaning mainline Protestant churches.

Opponents of J Street’s bid pointed to the group’s willingness to invite supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement to its events.

J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said his group would continue to engage with those who hold different views. J Street opposes BDS. “The whole point of debate is to actively engage with the people who disagree with you,” he said.

Ben-Ami said he was saddened by the vote. “We wanted to be in this tent, we belong in this tent, we’d be an important asset to this tent,” Ben-Ami said.

The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, advocated for admitting J Street despite his disagreements with the group.

“They infuriate me,” he said.

Foxman said J Street had undermined its own cause by criticizing other Israel supporters and emphasizing its differences with the communal consensus.

But whether he liked J Street was beside the point, Foxman said.

“We’re checking the tzitzit of those who want to celebrate Israel,” he said, using an expression that describes overly intrusive inspections of Jewish devotion. “We’re doing tzitzit checks of how deep is their love. That’s a troubling development.”


Is J Street beyond political pale for Conference of Presidents?

ami eden   |   jta

J Street’s president Jeremy Ben-Ami at the organization’s 2012 conference photo/courtesy j street

The vote is over, but the debate rages on over the recent rejection of J Street’s application to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Depending on where you stand, the 22-17 vote rejecting the application was either about J Street’s own missteps, or the conference’s failure to live up to its billing as the Jewish community’s vehicle for bringing together organizations from across the political and religious spectrum to forge a strong pro-Israel consensus.

With passions running high, it seemed like a good time for some fact-checking:

• Claim 1: J Street is beyond the communal pale

J Street did not round up the votes, but in defeat it put to bed the argument that the group falls outside of the communal mainstream. If the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (a body bringing together the largest synagogue movements, several national organizations and scores of local community relations councils) say you belong in the Conference of Presidents, then by definition you are operating within the communal tent. You got a problem with that? Don’t shoot the messenger — take it up with all of the above, not to mention the prominent Jewish and Israeli figures associated with J Street.

• Claim 2: J Street is more left wing than the other dovish members in the Conference of Presidents

I’ve heard the arguments, but I don’t see it. Yes, J Street has pushed for the U.S. government to exert pressure on Israel, but so have other groups in the conference. J Street hasn’t endorsed a settlement boycott, or (unlike conference member Americans for Peace Now) even sort of endorsed a settlement boycott. And in sticking by the Obama administration’s side on Iran through various policy shifts, J Street has at times found itself to the right of some of those on the left in the Conference of Presidents.

• Claim 3: J Street is just like any other left-wing group

Well, no. When it launched several years ago, J Street came out swinging not just at Israeli policies it thought were dangerous but also at the Jewish establishment. The group has demonstrated a willingness to take aim at individual organizations  and individuals, some of whom have long memories and sharp elbows. The group and its supporters are outraged by any suggestion that J Street is not pro-Israel but have no problem questioning others’ commitment to peace. J Street hosts BDS supporters at its conference in the name of fostering dialogue and maintaining a big tent but has publicly pressured others to boycott Pastor John Hagee and shun pro-Israel evangelicals.

So, yeah, J Street might fall within the conference’s and the community’s existing political spectrum, but the group sure has a way of getting under people’s skin. If you’re looking for another example, just check out this statement from J Street in response to the vote: “So,” J Street declared in its statement, “join us in thanking Malcolm Hoenlein for clarifying this situation and revealing to all what we’ve long known: a new voice is needed to represent the true majority of American Jews — and non-Jewish supporters of an Israel at peace.”

First off, why make it all about Hoenlein, the conference’s chief executive? Whatever Hoenlein thinks about J Street, this process for better or worse was driven by the 50 member organizations, with plenty of openness and debate.

Even some of those who voted for J Street have expressed frustration and/or disgust with the way the organization has at times conducted itself.

Of course, I can think of one or two right-wing members of the conference who are similarly skilled at driving folks crazy. But J Street is the one currently on the outside looking in.

• Claim 4: The Conference of Presidents no longer represents the full spectrum of the Jewish community

You can argue that J Street belongs in the Conference of Presidents. You can argue that the existing voting rules are out of whack, giving too much influence to smaller groups on the right over larger left-leaning and centrist groups. But that doesn’t change the fact that, with or without J Street’s membership, J Street’s views are represented in the Conference of Presidents, and the conference continues to serve as the most diverse and reflective platform in the Jewish organizational world.

Period. Full stop.

Plus, it’s worth noting that the process doesn’t need to be over. Other groups have fallen short and then made it in down the road. All that said, it’s easy to understand why, if someone is a member of J Street — or just identifies with the organization’s stated commitments — he or she might feel slighted, not wanted, disenfranchised. This vote took place in a wider context, where J Street and its members have been consistently, harshly and sometimes unfairly attacked, and their motives and loyalty (as opposed to their ideas) questioned, with some of the group’s loudest opponents all but saying there is no room in the Jewish community for those who would criticize Israeli policies.

So, yeah, it’s complicated. What do you expect? After all, we’re talking about the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Ami Eden is the CEO and editor-in-chief of JTA.

Ron Kampeas

JTA D.C. bureau chief