Emotions have run high in recent weeks, since J Street failed to win membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Like the Reform Movement of Judaism’s other three Conference member organizations, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic leadership organization of Reform Judaism, voted in favor of J Street’s application. That decision, following a serious and open Board discussion, did not constitute an endorsement of the organization itself. Rather, it reflected the CCAR’s conviction that the mission of the Conference of Presidents, which includes strengthening the US-Israel relationship, can best be accomplished by maintaining a diverse and inclusive membership. That conviction endures, notwithstanding the outcome of this particular vote.
J Street’s disappointment that its application garnered only half the votes needed for admission to the Conference of Presidents is understandable. What is perplexing is the claim some have made that the result invalidated the organization itself, that the decision somehow instantaneously transformed the Conference from a valuable enterprise that J Street sought to enter, to one that is “irrelevant,” “sclerotic,” “unrepresentative,” “deaf, blind and dumb” or worse.
Groucho Marx famously observed that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member. The overheated reactions to the vote on J Street’s candidacy turned Groucho’s quip on its head: A club that won’t have me as a member isn’t worth joining. The emotion makes sense, but the logic is flawed. It is hard to see how an enterprise that was worthwhile in the morning could be worthless in the afternoon. Rather than assailing the Conference of Presidents or its leaders, a more sensible and productive course would be to emulate other organizations that were not admitted the first time around, but eventually gained entry by dint of a patient effort to win the requisite support.
One option available to organizations that supported J Street’s unsuccessful application is quitting the Conference of Presidents, but doing so would be a serious and precipitous overreaction. If the Conference was worth joining, it is worth preserving and strengthening. Like any nonprofit that aspires to be a best practices organization, it would benefit from a periodic, thorough review of its mission, membership policies, operations, structure, and governance.
Such a process would be timely and meritorious without regard to how the J Street vote came out. For that reason, basing demands for reform on that vote is a distraction, at best, if not an impediment to progress. Tying the two subjects together is a mistake, because it is inherently accusatory and needlessly confrontational. It makes it harder for Conference members who voted against J Street’s candidacy to support an otherwise desirable process of change, especially if the ulterior motive of those demanding reforms is seen as overturning the controversial vote.
Failing to decouple an internal process of review from the J Street decision presents another pitfall: the risk of overreaching. As an organizational self-audit at the Conference gets underway, it will be wise for those of us who support the change process to heed the Talmud’s sage advice, “Tafasta meruba lo tafasta.” “If you try to achieve too much, you may achieve nothing at all.” And achieving nothing is not the worst possible outcome. As the absurd remark of a US Army officer in Vietnam – “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it” – amply demonstrates, efforts at change that go too far, too fast, and seek to achieve too much can be destructive.
For more than half a century, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, widely representative and inclusive, even if not perfectly so, and despite its flaws and occasional failures, has served a vitally important purpose. It remains a preeminent forum, sought out by leading policy and decision makers from the US, Israel, and around the world, to address, hear from, and engage a broad cross-section of the American Jewish community’s organizational leadership. It continues to be a strong, passionate, and effective advocate on behalf of the US – Israel alliance, the State of Israel, and the Jewish People.
No one who cares about these vital interests, including the Conference of Presidents’ critics, will benefit if its legitimacy and authority are undermined. The sole beneficiaries would be the Jewish People’s adversaries, for whom Jewish communal disunity is always a cause for rejoicing.