Those Who Reject J Street Are Blind

'They Still Don't Hear Us,' Says the Next Generation

Rejected: J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami represents an organization that speaks for an increasing number of young Americans.
J Street
Rejected: J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami represents an organization that speaks for an increasing number of young Americans.

By Leonard Fein

Published May 03, 2014.
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The decision by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to reject JStreet’s application for membership was perverse. More than that, it was pathetic. There are some 5,000 students, on 60 campuses, who are involved with JStreet U, JStreet’s college organizing vehicle, this at a time when the Jewish community is appropriately agitated by the alleged turn away from Israel by young people. And the “official” Jewish community has turned them away.

I have concluded a non-random survey of JStreet U adherents — specifically, a survey of one person, my granddaughter, Liat Deener Chodirker, who is finishing her freshman year at the University of Maryland, where she is on the board of JStreet U. Liat has been to Israel five times and will be there again this summer. Before college, she reports, she gave little thought to the “big” issues in which Israel is embroiled; more recently, she has come to believe that if you’re passionate about social justice and about Israel’s safety, which she assuredly is, you have to advocate for a two-state solution. And she is upset, to put it mildly, at the evident disconnect between the mainstream Jewish community — “they still don’t hear us” — and the plural views and voices of a resolutely pro-Israel community. How can silencing voices such as JStreet U’s benefit the case for Israel? How can it make room for all those who care not a whit less for Israel’s safety and destiny as the most fervent member of the Zionist Organization of America?

Liat observed, and the observation is supported by reams of data, that very many young Jews are of generally liberal disposition and that silencing their voice does a disservice to us all.

Folks, it is not as if we have a surplus of young people who care, and deeply, for Israel. The fact that there are campuses around the country where recognition of JStreet U is a contentious issue, that there are some Hillel foundations that spurn JStreet U, is not merely bewildering; it is mind-boggling.

Some part of the swamp through which JStreet must navigate tracks to JStreet’s most vigorous critic, Alan Dershowitz, who insists that JStreet is analogous to Jews for Jesus, that it is entirely deceptive in its outreach, that it cannot honestly claim to be pro-Israel: “JStreet’s ‘big tent is open to only one side — the anti-Israel and BDS-supporting hard left of its own position; pro-Israel centrists are censored.”

I am not aware of any statement by JStreet that comes within a furlong of support for BDS — Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. (No, wait: I have just looked “furlong” up and have discovered that it is a mere eighth of a mile — so make that eight furlongs.) In my view, JStreet has in fact erred on the side of caution. But what it believes, in the end, falls well within the ongoing and entirely appropriate discussion and debate regarding Israel and the policies it pursues, the choices it is required to make.

Serious people can disagree about the centrality of an American role in moving Israel and the Palestinians towards a resolution of their conflict. JStreet is unambiguous in advocating such centrality. But: John Kerry’s valiant effort has apparently fizzled; there is, for all practical purposes, no longer any ongoing peace process. America’s bark has been muted, its bite non-existent. “Poof,” as Secretary Kerry might say. JStreet will, presumably, persist in advocating on behalf of a vigorous American role, and the day may come when such a role will again be relevant, but that day is not now in sight; dusk has replaced it, dawn is delayed yet again.

For Liat, the drumbeat of criticism of JStreet and JStreet U violates our community’s need to accommodate pluralism, damages our sense of peoplehood. For her, JStreet U is not at all an outlier, but an integral element of our community. The battle for peace and justice is a vital Israeli interest — or should be — and hence must be at the heart of America’s pro-Israel community.

So when Farley I. Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, says (quoted in The New York Times of May 1) that he is relieved that JStreet’s bid for membership in the Conference of Presidents has been rejected and explains that “On virtually every single issue, their position is contrary to that of anything that would be considered pro-Israel, and they don’t represent the rank and file of the Jewish community in America,” one is bound to ask whether Weiss has too narrow a definition of the term “pro-Israel” or whether he is simply out of touch with the Jewish community. Or both. I wonder: Do people such as Mr. Weiss favor a two-state solution? If not, he is truly out of touch.

Not “by the way”: JStreet’s bid for membership was supported by the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, the Reconstructionist movement and the Anti-Defamation League. So where’s the real mainstream?

Contact Leonard Fein at fein@forward.com


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