The (well-justified) J Street exclusion

A scandal. A disgrace. An outrage. A violation of Jewish values. This is what we hear about the vote by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to deny membership to J Street, the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobbying group. Admission requires a super majority two-thirds “yes” vote from existing members. J Street failed to win a bare majority, which it lost comfortably, 17-22, with a number of organizations abstaining or otherwise not participating. All told, J Street garnered little more than a third of all organizations eligible to participate. We are now told that the Conference must reform and change its voting procedures or face the wrath of the silent Jewish majority. The Reform Movement has threatened to leave. To many, it would seem, the greatest crime any thoughtful, open-minded, pluralistic and generally good Jew can commit is approve of this horrific vote.

J Street advocates muscular and sustained American pressure to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Supporters argue that the reason they were kept out is because established Jewish institutions are controlled by right-wing ideologues determined to prevent “pro-peace” voices from having a seat at the communal table. But this argument does not pass scrutiny. If J Street had won a majority of votes, you could argue that keeping them out would be unfair, even though the super majority requirement can be seen as appropriate to define who speaks for the Jewish community at large. But there are not nearly enough genuinely right-wing organizations in the Conference (i.e., Young Israel, ZOA, American Friends of Likud, etc.) to have denied J Street a bare majority. That means J Street lost the majority vote by failing to win support from centrist or center-left organizations.

Another argument advanced in J Street’s favor is that it was wrong for relatively small, right-leaning organizations to have the same vote as, say, the large Reform Movement, which supported J Street’s membership. But Reform Jewry is represented by four organizations within the Conference, so as a movement they get four votes. Additionally, a number of the organizations which voted for J Street are also small.

The truth is, J Street’s membership was collectively rejected by a diverse array of institutions with very different agendas and ideological and religious orientations. We know this despite the secret ballot because many organizations announced their vote, leaving it relatively clear how the rest broke down. Isn’t it possible that those who voted “no” objected to something legitimate? Something beyond their own closed-mindedness?

There is a touch of “protesting too much” in the reaction from J Street. It has received emphatically sympathetic press coverage, as commentators disdain the supposedly backwards thinking of the Conference members. J Street has always presented itself as the consummate outsider, and has thrived in that role. It continues to do so today. It is deeply invested in its own narrative of exclusion, gaining “market share” by arguing that it speaks “hard truths” that the rest of the Jewish world does not want to hear. J Street has asked a question (why is the Jewish community so intolerant) and presented themselves as the answer (because they are hostile to us).

Membership in the Conference is an important symbolic marker of acceptance. J Street’s admission would have robbed them of outsider status. A left-leaning Republican is interesting, but once they become a Democrat they are just one of many. Still, in what sense is J Street a true outsider? The near universal condemnation of the vote (and the reluctance of “no” voters to defend themselves) puts the lie to any argument that J Street is some type of silenced opposition group kept on the margins. How can they be when their supporters are prominent Rabbis, commentators, institutional and denominational leaders and educators? In truth, J Street is a well-funded lobby supported by major philanthropists and staffed by savvy political insiders. They command the attention of the Jewish and non-Jewish world in a way many Conference members do not.

One problem for “no” voters may have been the distinction between J Street’s official policies and its actual behavior. While they call themselves pro-Israel, their actions leave questions. As one example, J Street is officially opposed to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), which seeks to impose South African-style boycotts on Israel, and has a goal of destroying the country. But J Street has invited BDS supporters to speak at its conferences and gatherings. Some reports have noted that BDS supporters get the best reception, suggesting that J Street members are actually quite supportive of BDS, notwithstanding the official position taken by its small national staff.

J Street argues that it is legitimate to engage in dialogue with BDS supporters. Perhaps. But giving the BDS movement such a prominent platform sends the message that J Street is a home for its views. It is an implicit or explicit statement that BDS is part of the range of positions J Street is willing include under its umbrella. This situation is even more pronounced on campuses where J Street’s college wing, J Street U, regularly partners with BDS-supporting organizations to run events. So on the issue of BDS, J Street maintains a policy of plausible deniability. To the mainstream American Jewish community, which is near universal in its condemnation and rejection of BDS, it is opposed. But in fact, to BDS supporters, the doors are open with a wink and a nod.

Another reason for “no” votes may have been because Conference members resented J Street’s assertion that it is the true home for “pro-Israel, pro-peace” Americans. The clear suggestion is that if you do not associate with them you are not pro-peace, because other organizations, like AIPAC, simply define themselves as pro-Israel. Here too J Street’s fundamental narrative is dishonest. AIPAC and other existing organizations are not anti-peace. They are simply cautious after more than twenty years of failed negotiations.

It’s hard to believe now but during the early 90s it was the Israeli right which was seen as fringe or illegitimate. This was during the euphoria of Oslo when much of the American Jewish community basked in the afterglow of the famous handshake between Clinton, Rabin and Arafat on the White House lawn (me included). The Israeli right was seen by many in the “American Jewish establishment” as fanatical naysayers, even delusional in their predictions of the devastation Oslo would bring. By contrast, Peace Now was hip and popular. Young Jews affiliated with the left-wing Meretz political party, among the architects of Oslo, who were seen as the vanguard of a new Israeli and Jewish society. Too bad J Street was not around in those days when their “new ideas” were so in vogue.

The failure of Oslo and the devastating war which followed, the Second Intifada, caused a collective sobering up among the American and Israeli Jewish communities. In 2001, at the height of the violence, Ariel Sharon, among the most controversial men in Israeli politics, was elected Prime Minister by a huge majority. His mandate was simply to protect Israeli citizens who were legitimately worried about being blown up on their way to work.

After the Second Intifada, muscular American intervention was tried again during Bush administration as part of the Olmert-Abbas talks. Abbas rejected the most comprehensive peace proposal Israel had ever made without providing a counteroffer. These days, it is hard to imagine an American president closer to J Street’s view than President Obama, who openly confronted Israel over its settlement policies, and backed the recently failed Kerry peace initiative.

Notice how J Street’s actual views are rarely discussed. Rather, the conversation remains focused on how they are treated. This may be because J Street’s policy positions are not as original, remarkable, or neglected as they would have us believe. There may be a time when American engagement could bring about a deal, as has previously been done with Egypt and Jordan. But the situation between Israel and the Palestinians is not and has not been ripe for it. Saying so does not make one “anti-Peace.” New thinking is needed. While presenting itself as the future, J Street is mired in a failed past.

J Street has not sought to take its place within the family of “major American Jewish organizations.” Rather, it has argued it should replace an existing Jewish community that it claims has grown insular, unresponsive and too close to an Israeli government many American Jews dislike. It has spent the last several years relentlessly attacking the so-called Jewish establishment. Should it be surprising that this same establishment refused to grant it entry to one of its major bodies?

J Street has told a story which has captured many imaginations. Unfortunately, it is only a story. The mainstream American Jewish leadership is not and has never been opposed to peace or peace negotiations or strong American leadership in support thereof. It has not attempted to silence or exclude organizations which advocate those views, such as American for Peace Now, which is part of the Conference. There have been disagreements, personality clashes and harsh words spoken over the years. That will always be so. But unlike J Street, the American Jewish establishment, in all of its diversity, is not collectively acting as though the last twenty years did not happen. J Street is, and in so doing is giving voice and platform to those who would see Israel destroyed. That is its greatest flaw. And it is a compelling reason to keep J Street out of the Conference.

About the Author
Judah Skoff, one of the Jewish Week's 36 Under 36, is a lawyer and writer. He was a Berrie Leadership Fellow and a Fellow at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation. His plays have been performed in New York, London and at numerous theatres across the United States. His awards include the National Playwriting Competition, the New Jersey Playwright's Contest, and two Governor's Awards in the Arts. He graduated from Brown University and cum laude from Boston University School of Law where he was named Edward S. Hennessey Scholar and Paul J. Liacos Scholar. The views expressed are strictly his own.