On April 30, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will vote on J Street’s application for admission. It will be a significant moment not just for the left-leaning lobby, but also for the Jewish establishment as a whole, which will have to provide a verdict on whether the communal tent should include an organization that has publicly opposed the policies of the current Israeli government.
The 51-member Presidents Conference includes the larger religious, advocacy, service, fraternal and fundraising organizations. Newly established groups like J Street must wait five years before applying to join, and a vote of two-thirds of the membership is required for acceptance. The fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi was admitted earlier this year as the newest member.
Established in the mid-1950s, the Presidents Conference has as its central purpose the job of conveying the consensus view of American Jewish organizations to the White House and the State Department. “Dissent ought not and should not be made public,” the organization’s 1978 annual report explained, as “the result is to give aid and comfort to the enemy and weaken that Jewish unity which is essential for the security of Israel.” During its first quarter-century, the Presidents Conference achieved unity mostly by adopting the positions of Israel’s various governments.
But in 1993, following the announcement of the Oslo Accords, the organization became mired in conflict. Right-wing groups led by the Zionist Organization of America joined Israeli opposition parties in challenging the peace deal. Chastised by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee for breaking ranks, the ZOA’s newly elected national president, Morton Klein, declared that “in the absence of a consensus in the community, individual groups should be free to pursue their own strategies.”
Twelve years later, stymied by right-wing dissent, the Presidents Conference was one of the few Jewish organizations that dragged its heels before expressing support for Israel’s disengagement from Gaza.
Perhaps to avoid further paralysis, longtime Executive Vice Chairman Malcolm Hoenlein no longer brings contentious issues to a vote. Instead, Presidents Conference statements are issued in the name of the organization’s leaders and signed by Hoenlein and by the organization’s lay chairman, Robert G. Sugarman. There is no pretense of representing all the member organizations, which now span the ideological spectrum from American Friends of Likud to Americans for Peace Now.
In this context, the vote on J Street’s application for membership will not much affect the balance of power within the Presidents Conference or the organization’s ability to reach decisions by consensus.
Nonetheless, the vote matters a great deal. For J Street, it comes shortly after the release of “The J Street Challenge,” a one-sided documentary produced by Charles Jacobs’s organization, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, featuring the views of J Street’s harshest critics. In March, the Philadelphia federation and Hillel screened the film, providing its first mainstream venue. In the context of this new challenge, the Presidents Conference vote could provide J Street with a seal of approval from the establishment and, perhaps, a degree of insulation from future attacks.
But the Presidents Conference also has a great deal on the line. Alongside the recent attacks against J Street, the vote comes in the context of broader efforts by right-wing activists and donors to limit who can speak about Israel in Jewish communal settings. Their targets have included federations, Jewish community centers, Hillel organizations and synagogues. Fair or not, a vote by Presidents Conference members against J Street would be widely viewed as evidence that the Jewish establishment has joined in the crackdown on dissent.
A vote against J Street would also call into question the Presidents Conference’s own claim to represent organized American Jewry. With dozens of chapters across the country and on college campuses, the support of more than 700 rabbis and cantors, and annual conventions that attract thousands — including Israeli Knesset members from both the government and the opposition — J Street certainly qualifies as a major Jewish organization.
Moreover, as the Pew Research Center’s 2013 survey documented, J Street’s political platform — in favor of a two-state solution, opposed to settlement expansion and skeptical of the aims of the current Israeli government — represents a strong tendency in the American Jewish public.
Given the requirement of a two-thirds majority in the Presidents Conference, J Street faces an uphill battle. But for member organizations that favor a big tent for Jewish communal life, it’s a battle that is worth joining. A “yes” vote, if they can pull it off, will broadcast a clear message that the Jewish establishment intends to remain open and representative.
Sending a message of inclusivity would be a significant accomplishment for an umbrella organization that, given deep ideological divisions in the American Jewish community, can hope to accomplish little else.
Theodore Sasson is the author of “The New American Zionism” (New York University Press, 2014). He is a professor of international and global studies at Middlebury College and a senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.