When American Jewry’s major umbrella group on Israel met recently to debate a membership application from the dovish lobby J Street, some of the strongest opposition to it came from an organization better known for throwing beer-fueled parties.
Deliberations in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations are secret. But the hawkish Zionist Organization of America thanked only one other group in its press release praising J Street’s ultimate rejection: Alpha Epsilon Pi, the all-male Jewish college fraternity whose executive director spoke against J Street at the April 30 Presidents Conference meeting.
AEPi, with more than 170 chapters and 9,000 student members, is a frat for young Jewish collegians. But it’s also the newest member of the Presidents Conference, accepted in December 2013 into the increasingly fraught ranks of the 50 leading national Jewish organizations.
So how did AEPi get into the Presidents Conference when J Street’s way was blocked?
Created in the 1950s to help coordinate Israel policy among American Jewish organizations, the Presidents Conference encompasses groups with a wide array of missions, many of them far afield from Israel. Still, nearly half of its member organizations exist largely to work on Israel-related issues. Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Presidents Conference, won’t speak to the Forward and didn’t respond to a request for comment on AEPi. But members of the Presidents Conference say that the group’s acceptance was quiet and entirely without fuss.
“AEPi was very noncontroversial,” said Ken Bob, national president of Ameinu, a left-wing Zionist group that belongs to the Presidents Conference. “I’m generally a believer in the inclusive nature of the organization, so I had no central objection to it.”
Others questioned why AEPi, which does little work on Israel policy, was able to get into the Presidents Conference while J Street, an Israel policy group that supports a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, was not.
Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a former AEPi chapter president at Johns Hopkins University 60 years ago, went so far as to complain personally in a phone call to the fraternity’s executive director, Andrew Borans, who had himself cast the “no” vote at the Presidents Conference.
“When I said I was shocked and unhappy about AEPi’s vote, the first thing he said was that no one was supposed to know how anyone voted. Of course! — Then no one could complain!” Waskow, a longtime peace activist, related in a mass email he sent out to supporters of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, which he heads.
According to Waskow, Borans told him that “90% of their undergrads and 95% of their alumni” had urged the fraternity to vote against J Street’s admission. Waskow responded that the fraternity had never contacted him and asked how many of its members had been canvassed.
“He wouldn’t say,” Waskow related in his email blast. “Where did he find them? Well, he met them. Visiting fraternity houses. Raising money. Dinners.”