J Street, the dovish Israel lobby, has failed to win the endorsement of a crucial committee for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — a development that makes it unlikely to win admission to the key umbrella group.
In an April 11 meeting described as a “grilling” by participants, members of the Presidents Conference closely questioned J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, who came to make the case for accepting his group into the conference.
The Manhattan meeting, held by the conference’s membership committee in preparation for J Street’s application being brought before the full conference on April 30, found that J Street fulfills the administrative and governance requirements in the conference’s bylaws. But most of the discussion focused on J Street’s views on Israel.
The gathering attracted a dozen representatives of Presidents Conference member organizations to attend personally while six other representatives joined in by phone. According to several sources present, many of the questions posed to Ben-Ami carried a critical tone.
One question was about the support J Street’s political action committee gave to Democratic Congressman John Dingell of Michigan, who was described at the meeting as anti-Israel. Another questioned donations J Street had received from liberal billionaire George Soros. The hedge fund manager and philanthropist drew flack from Jewish leaders in 2003 for his comment that the policies of Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and then-U.S. President George Bush towards Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza contributed to a resurgence in European anti-Semitism.
Participants at the meeting also claimed that J Street had supported the United Nations-sponsored Goldstone report, which found that Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas had committed numerous war crimes and possible crimes against humanity during their conflict in late 2008 and early 2009.
Questioners also quoted a critique of J Street prepared by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. Some alleged that J Street cooperates with groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, which are harshly critical of Israel’s policies.
Contacted after the meeting, J Street officials would not respond directly to claims made in the meeting, citing an agreement to keep the discussions private. The group has stressed publicly that it opposes Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel. But J Street also states that it believes that it serves “the long-term health and vibrancy of our community to engage in discussions of the substance of these issues, even – and especially – when we have fundamental disagreements with some of the individuals or organizations we debate.”
According to an account provided to the Forward by one participant and confirmed by another, at the meeting Ben-Ami attempted to respond to most of the questions and took issue with the accuracy of some of the questioners’ factual assertions. Among these was a claim that J Street’s support for American aid to the Palestinian Authority was out of step with the views of the organized Jewish community and of Israel.
In the discussion, one participant asked whether J Street would agree to accept the Presidents’ Conference rules that require all members to adhere to consensus positions adopted by the conference, and if J Street would refrain from criticizing other Jewish groups.
The membership committee reached no decision on J Street’s bid for membership after the meeting. “After careful consideration,” wrote the committee’s chair Rabbi Vernon Kurtz of the American Zionist Movement in a summary sent to all conference member organizations, “[we] decided not to take a vote, but to refer the membership application of J Street for consideration by the full membership of the Conference at the Conference’s General Meeting to be held on April 30, 2014.”
A decision to accept J Street will require a quorum of 75% members and two-thirds of the votes to pass. The tone and content of Thursday’s discussion could indicate that reaching such a majority will be difficult.
Jessica Rosenblum , J Street’s spokeswoman, said in a statement that the group is hopeful that the Conference ultimately decides to accept J Street “and, in so doing, to embrace the challenge of building a representative body that reflects the breadth, depth and vigor of the community itself.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.