An open letter to those attending J Street’s conference now convening in San Francisco, and to anyone else who cares about the future of Israel and the American Jewish community
My reason for not participating in your annual gathering this year is plain and simple, and I want you and others to know what it is: family obligations have prevented me from making the trip. Otherwise I’d be there. In fact, following the rejection by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations of your bid for membership, I felt it was important enough to attend your annual conference that I began trying to wriggle out of the commitments that were getting in the way. That didn’t work, so I did the next best thing I could think of. I made a contribution to J Street and became a member of the organization for the very first time. And now I’m writing this letter to explain why.
1) I don’t embrace every stance you’ve adopted. I don’t agree with every one of your publications or support all of your actions. But I can say the same thing about most every other member of the President’s Conference. More than that, there are those organizations whose views on an array of Israel-related issues are anathema for me, and which, I believe, actually undermine the Conference’s objective of advancing Israel’s interests. It is incomprehensible to me, then, that as long as such groups are allowed to remain a part of this august body, that those on the other end of the political spectrum should be excluded from it. But then again, I don’t question the sincerity of your motives or the depth of your commitments as some who voted against you do. And unfortunately, among them are those who appear to have allowed their disagreement with your positions to deteriorate into an effort to delegitimize you. Fighting as we all are against those who would delegitimize Israel altogether, we can scarcely afford such tactics within the family.
2) Preventing your voice from being integrated into the many that the Conference of Presidents shares with the American government, deprives it of the right to claim as it does that it is speaking on behalf of the Major American Jewish Organizations. A good look in the mirror, along with a nominal measure of integrity, would dictate that it now add the word “Some” to its title. I certainly don’t wish to cast aspersions on the intentions of those who rejected you, but I do believe that they were being exceedingly shortsighted in refusing you a seat around the table. Did they not understand that in doing so they diminished their own credibility and weakened themselves immeasurably vis a vis Washington officialdom? Do they not understand that the next time Malcolm Hoenlein sits with the American president, his claim to be speaking on behalf of all of American Jewry will be scoffed at? President Obama may be too polite to say so out loud, but he and his advisors don’t need me to tell them what they obviously already know: that while the majority of organizations in the Conference voted against you they do not represent the majority of American Jews, not even the affiliated ones, of whom more than 50% identify as Conservative or Reform. And those movements have both come out staunchly in support of your joining the club. So, for as long as you are left out of the Conference of Presidents, while the organization may offer a veneer of unity among American Jews, a little scratching by any astute politician will quickly reveal the many cracks below the surface, cracks that are now in real danger of rupturing.
3) Keeping J Street out of the tribal tent risks disenfranchising many, if not most of the next generation of young Jews – and liberal Jews of all ages – from the Jewish establishment. It also risks leaving them with the feeling that there is no real interest in seriously engaging them in regard to their ambiguous feelings about Israel. Many harbor an instinctual affinity for the Jewish state but are at a loss as to how to reconcile those feelings with what they are exposed to in the media. There is now irrefutable research demonstrating that the generally liberal views of Jewish college students clash with their perception of Israeli policy regarding the Palestinians in a manner that challenges their ability to support the very idea of a Jewish state. One might argue that they have been misguided, hijacked, or hoodwinked, but there is no denying that sociologically an ever growing number of them feel very much at home on J Street. And personally, I’d rather have them there then off the map altogether, knowing that it is an address where they can continue wrestling with their feelings constructively and honestly, without being asked to sacrifice either their love for Israel nor the principles and values they believe in.
All in all, then, I urge you to consider calling for a revote. It is probably less important for J Street to be part of the Conference of Presidents than it is for Conference of Presidents to have J Street a part of it. Without your membership, its credibility, effectiveness , and ability to cultivate a new generation of Israel supporters are all in jeopardy. In the meantime, let me know when and where your next national summit will be taking place. I will try to make sure to keep my calendar free.
Dr. David Breakstone
P.S. Full disclosure. I serve today as the vice chairman of the World Zionist Organization. I need to emphasize, however, that I have not written this letter to you in that capacity, and certainly not in the name of that body, which has not taken any position on the matter of J Street’s entry into the Conference of Presidents. So while the opinions expressed herein are exclusively my own, they have been penned by someone deeply embedded in the Zionist establishment. I trust you will interpret that as an outstretched hand.