Pull Back the Curtain — and Let J Street In


j street

Published April 29, 2014.
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If you want to know why ordinary American Jews, especially younger ones, are turning away from the communal establishment — not out of anger but out of disinterest or, perhaps, disgust — then look no further than the convoluted argument over whether J Street should be a member of the Conference of Presidents.

J Street: Calls itself the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby. Generally backs the Obama administration. Challenges the Netanyahu government frequently. Experiencing huge growth since it began five years ago.

Conference of Presidents: Officially, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, but its 51 members include a lot of minor groups as well. Established in 1956 to present a more unified Jewish voice on Israel to the White House and beyond. Bills itself now as the umbrella group for all “pro-Israel” activities, from left to right.

So a reasonable outsider may ask: What’s the problem? J Street’s politics are to the left, but no more than other groups already in the Conference. (See: Americans for Peace Now.) The dovish lobby, now five years old, fulfills the official membership requirements — which, it appears, not all the 51 members do. With 180,000 supporters in nearly 40 chapters nationwide, along with another 50 chapters on college campuses, J Street is way larger than many of the Conference’s other members. (See: B’nai Zion Foundation, MERCAZ USA, and more.)

But this argument is not on the merits. That’s the first problem. The second is that it is conducted largely in secret. Only because of the dogged reporting of journalists like our Nathan Guttman do we even have a glimpse of what has gone on behind closed doors in these deliberations, which may — or may not — culminate in a vote tomorrow night.

The absence of transparency leads inevitably to the perception that a handful of people are deciding which organizations get to call themselves “pro-Israel” and then purport to speak for everyone. But they don’t. They can’t.

We would have liked to put these issues directly to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chair of the Conference since 1986. But as has been his custom for the last five years, he refused to return our phone call.

The legitimate case against granting J Street membership is that it has a related PAC, a separate organization that channels money to political candidates, something other Conference members do not do. But you get the sense that’s not what has so deeply bothered its opponents.

Rather, it’s the way that J Street’s President, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has disagreed with and sometimes challenged the Netanyahu government, and therefore supposedly giving succor to those who wish to harm or delegitimize Israel.

But to declare that the reason for exclusion is simply hypocritical. The Zionist Organization of America has vehemently disagreed with Israeli leaders in the past, and it’s a member in good standing. As it should be. The Conference should represent all legitimate points of view, no matter who is in power in Jerusalem.

As of this writing, it’s not clear whether there will actually be a vote tomorrow – the rules are complicated – or whether J Street’s fate will be decided via a secret mail ballot over the following ten days. Two-thirds of the current members, totaling 34, must vote in favor.

J Street supporters privately say that a mail ballot will help their cause, presuming that some Conference members would rather not publicize their votes. Nonetheless, such secrecy harms the larger cause of transparency and trust in Jewish leadership.

Some Conference members have openly declared that they support J Street’s membership. We think all 51 should do so. However they vote, they should be willing to defend it to the Jews they claim to represent.

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