Everywhere, Jewish right wing grows more militant and intolerant
Here are four of the many articles on COP’s exclusion of JStreet, most of them critical:
1) Haaretz: The J Street confrontation: Between a local squabble and a historic schism, Chemi Shalev spots a trend;
2) New Republic: J Street’s Rejection Is a Scandal, Leon Wieseltier is angry;
3) JNS: After J Street rejection, critics target diversity of Conference of Presidents, gathering-in of quotes;
4) NY Times: Jewish Coalition Rejects Lobbying Group’s Bid to Join, Michael Paulson, facts and comment, April 30, 2014;
J Street supporters holding a rally in Boston for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine. Photo by Bob Nesson
The J Street confrontation: Between a local squabble and a historic schism
Reform leader Rick Jacobs decries ‘dysfunctional’ Conference of Presidents, whose rejection of J-Street has stirred emotions and raised tempers across the Jewish community.
By Chemi Shalev, Haaretz
May 08, 2014
Assistant Secretary of State Henry A. Byroade personified the “Arabist” and often anti-Israeli approach of the U.S. State Department in the 1950s. He objected to the Law of Return and to unbridled Jewish immigration to Israel and demanded an “evenhanded” American approach to the Middle East. He once enraged American Zionists by lecturing Israel to “drop the attitude of a conqueror and the conviction that force is the only policy that your neighbors will understand.”
Nonetheless, Byroade was the main State Department contact for American Jewish groups, as well as World Jewish Congress leader Nahum Goldman and then-Israeli ambassador Abba Eban, with whom he developed close working relationships. Tired of having to conduct identical meetings with myriad Jewish groups, Byroade showed his cluttered diary to Goldman and Eban one day in 1954 and asked whether the Jews couldn’t possibly form one, unified body that would represent all the rest.
Thus, at the urging of an American diplomat who is not remembered fondly in Zionist history, the first umbrella-like President’s Club was born. A few years later, the Club spawned the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, as it is known today.
Byroade’s vision of a single Jewish point group for American administrations was overly ambitious, of course, if not completely un-Jewish: stronger groups such as AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League continued to maintain exclusive channels of communication with U.S. officials.
Nonetheless, in the hands of its first executive director, Yehuda Hellman, and even more so of his successor, Malcolm Hoenlein, the conference became the closest thing to an American Jewish “parliament,” the forum where consensus is reached and decisions are made, especially on matters relating to Israel and Diaspora communities in distress.
But consensus has been replaced by bitter acrimony in the past few days in the wake of the conference’s divisive but decisive rejection of the membership application of the leftist-liberal lobby J Street. The leader of the conference’s largest member, the Reform movement, demanded an upheaval and threatened to depart; the editorials of mainstream newspapers such as the Washington Jewish Week called for a “referendum” on the conference; and the high priest of liberal American Zionism, the New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier [below], described J-Streets rejection as a “disgrace” for American Judaism as a whole.
For a Jewish establishment that tries to keep up a unified façade and to wash its dirty laundry away from the limelight, it was a juncture of acute embarrassment. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of Union for Reform Judaism, said that it was a “critical moment” that revealed how “dysfunctional” the conference was – and actually has been for decades. “Like when you clean a rug and lift it to reveal that the floorboards are rotten underneath,” in his words.
Though other groups that supported J Street have not joined Jacob’s ultimatum to bolt the conference if changes are not made – by which he still stands – they are collaborating in an effort to demand an overhaul in the voting procedures and decision-making processes of the conference, as well as the guidelines for accepting new members. But it’s not just an organizational matter, Jacobs notes: the rejection of J Street affects the entire spectrum of Jewish communities and local organizations that are grappling with the question of who should be included and who should be left out of the proverbial “Jewish tent.”
“I recently met with J Street university students at Johns Hopkins University,” Jacobs recounted, “and they were some of the brightest, most well informed and Jewishly-literate kids I’ve ever met. They may have their criticisms of Israeli government policies, but they all love Israel; these are not people that we should push away, as the conference vote implies.”
Hoenlein himself has stayed out of the public debate over the vote, and most of its critics credit him with giving J Street a fair hearing anyway. Many of those who supported J Street’s membership also accept that some of the statements and positions made by the lobby and its leader, Jeremy Ben Ami may have alienated some of those who voted against their acceptance.
But that wasn’t the decisive factor, according to Forward columnist JJ Goldberg, author of “Jewish Power.” The reason for J Street’s failure, he believes, is its success: after many failed efforts, the liberal Jewish left finally has an organization that commands a genuine following in the Jewish community and holds considerable sway in the corridors of power in Washington as well. The militant right wing is trying to eject J Street from the Jewish establishment, just as it is targeting ideological opponents in New York’s Salute to Israel Parade, Washington DC’s Jewish Community Center and San Francisco’s Jewish Film Festival – but rejecting J-Street’s membership request “broke the camel’s back”, Goldberg says, infuriating liberal American Jews.
As is the case with most contentious narratives these days, the aftermath of the rejection is in the eyes of the beholder. In Orthodox and right wing circles, the protests of the “noisy minority” is dismissed, despite the polls showing greater Jewish support for most of J-Street’s positions than those of its detractors; and J-Street is still depicted as “anti-Israel,” notwithstanding its own declarations to the contrary. On the left, the rejection is viewed as a watershed moment that has raised J Street’s stature, galvanized Jewish liberals and could ultimately shake up Jewish organizational life and open the perennial question of “who speaks for Israel.”
And people who are pessimists by nature might also reflect on the fact that support for Israel, once descried as the new “religion” unifying American Jews, is now threatening to create a schism – in a worst case scenario, to rival the splits of other great religions.
Finally it should be noted that the J-Street brouhaha hardly caused a stir in Israel and was largely ignored by its media, either as a reflection of the distance between the two communities or of a lack of interest in what may have seemed like yet another squabble between Jewish askanim (functionaries). But the debate could have long-term consequences for the unity of the American Jewish community and for the clarity of its support for Israel. This danger is amplified, of course, in the absence of a viable peace process that both sides can support, albeit with hesitation and reservations.
This writer, in any case, cannot but note the parallel lines and even mutual feedbacks stemming from the polarization of the political dialogue in Israel, America and the Jewish community. In all three, the right wing is growing increasingly militant and intolerant, using its financial might – in donation-starved Jewish organizations, for example – to get its way. They are defining the contours of acceptable support for Israel, ejecting those they deem unworthy and rejoicing in the purity of their camp: it began with incitement against the New Israel Fund, continues with the rejection of J Street and will soon arrive, don’t fret, right at your doorstep.
March 2013, ex, but preferred, president George W Bush shakes the hands of leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations at their 50th anniversary gala.
J Street’s Rejection Is a Scandal
By Leon Wieseltier, New Republic
May 07, 2014
“I dwell among my people,” said the Shunamite woman, one of the most affecting incidental figures in the Bible, to Elisha. She had no need of any intervention on her behalf with the political or military powers, she told the prophet; the people with whom she lived, the group in which she was a member, was sufficient to her needs. (She was the mother of civil society.)
I have always cherished the concreteness of her statement. It is a lucid and elemental affirmation not of an ideal community, but of an actually existing community. The objects of one’s allegiances should not be imaginary, or made unreal by fantasy or ideology. One may differ with, and even despise, aspects of one’s society, but solidarity is premised on a generosity of attitude, on a warm inclination to commonality. Every community has a boundary, but the boundary must not be so wide as to be hollow or so narrow as to be ugly. The search for perfection in love is a prescription for a loveless life. There are conservative American patriots whose contempt for the mores of their fellow Americans is so great that they may be accurately described as anti-American.
But it is not my country that provokes these reflections, it is my people. The body that purports to be the most representative institution of the American Jewish community has just done something disgraceful. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization, has voted to deny admission to J Street. Exclusion is often an admission of infirmity. There is a hole in the umbrella. “Their positions are out of the mainstream of what could be considered acceptable within the Jewish community,” the president of the National Council of Young Israel, an alliance of Orthodox congregations, told The New York Times about J Street. The question of “what could be considered acceptable within the Jewish community” is a question of values, and has for decades been a matter of ferocious debate; but the mainstream is an empirical matter and it can be measured. No organization that claims the membership of merely 25,000 households, as the National Council of Young Israel does, can speak for the mainstream. Nor can, say, American Friends of Likud, a plainly partisan entity that enjoys a seat at the President’s Conference table. Most American Jews support a two-state solution and an exchange of land for peace, and most American Jews do not support the program of Israeli settlement in the West Bank, except perhaps in the ever-expanding environs of Jerusalem. These views may be right or wrong, but they are not marginal. The hawks in the Jewish community cannot be brave dissenters against a dovish consensus and the mainstream.
PM Netanyahu addressing the March 2014 conference of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations
The American Jewish community is the sum of the identifying Jews who live in America. In one way or another, and simply for not surrendering or disappearing, they are all saving remnants. In this sense, sociology is identity. And the political and religious variety of the Jews of America is the most obvious fact about them—but it pains the nostalgists and the dogmatists, who see no glory in a plenitude of Jewish dispensations and regard diversity as a historical and ideological disappointment. They prefer to delude themselves with legends of a lost uniformity of opinion that never existed. Quarrel has always been a Jewish norm, and controversy a primary instrument for the development of Jewish culture and Jewish religion. But there are those, the heresy hunters and the truancy hunters, the real Jews, the true Jews, the last Jews, who refuse to accept the community as it empirically is, to engage with the cacophony and its causes, and instead they haughtily promulgate definitions of inclusion and exclusion, certifications of authenticity and inauthenticity. Most of their fellow Jews are, for them, for one reason or another, traif. What sort of expression of peoplehood is that? We are a people, not a sect. Like the pseudo-Sanhedrin in Jerusalem that calls itself the Chief Rabbinate, they know nothing about the wisdom of flexibility in an era of change. They seem to believe that certitude makes fairness superfluous. It was not surprising that J Street’s most energetic opponents at the President’s Conference came from the Orthodox, many (but not all) of whom are so busy congratulating themselves on their righteousness and their fertility rate that they are blind to their irrelevance to the fate of Jews who are not like themselves, which is to say, to the fate of the overwhelming majority of American Jewry.
It was the infamous ogre Abraham Foxman who got it magnificently right: “We will support the admission of J Street not because we agree with them …”—a golden moment of tolerance in a community that is having, let us say, tolerance issues. I do agree with them, at least about some things. But I do not wish to idealize the American Jewish left. It cannot plead innocent to the conformity of opinion. Not long ago I heard someone from Jewish Voices for Peace, which supports the anti-Israel discrimination known as BDS, complain about the closed mind of American Jewry. I asked her when the last time was that her group invited someone from the settler movement to address it. What a festival of odiousness that would be! She had the decency to fall silent.
The logo of the presumably now weakened COP.
The orthodoxies and the bubbles and the closed loops and the echo chambers are everywhere. Every current of thought, right and left, cleaves to its own—and what dissidents we all are! But J Street, which unequivocally denounces BDS, is a pro-Israel organization, a Zionist organization, and an organic part of the American Jewish landscape. Brothers and sisters, get used to it. Whether or not we are perverse, we are polymorphous. The exclusion of an opinion is not a refutation of it. There is honor in the mainstream and there is honor in the margins, if a view is held with intellectual integrity and with a sentiment of belonging—which is not easy to do, since the reason of the mind and the rapture of the heart often compromise each other. Even the man who denies that I am his brother is my brother. That does not make me a fool. It makes me a Jew.
Leon Wieseltier is literary editor of The New Republic.
By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org
May 04, 2014
Since the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted April 30 to reject the membership application of the self-labeled “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby J Street, the umbrella group has come under siege with accusations of not being adequately representative of U.S. Jewry’s views and for being controlled by a faction of small right-wing members.
Yet a closer look at the Conference’s makeup reveals the prevalence of politically centrist or apolitical organizations—particularly among its largest members—such as the Jewish National Fund, Hadassah, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Also included in the Conference are openly liberal groups such as Ameinu and Americans for Peace Now.
Americans for Peace Now join the annual Celebrate Israel parade in New York City, June 2012. The group is a member of COP but critical of its “procedures, rules and regulations”.
“A majority of the groups voting against J Street were secular, centrist groups, not religious or right-wing,” Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) National President Morton A. Klein told JNS.org, noting that by his count there are no more than 11 religious or right-wing groups among the Conference’s 50 members.
“To say it’s not inclusive when you have Peace Now, Ameniu, [American Friends of] Likud, and ZOA in the Conference, is an absurd statement,” Klein added.
J Street responded to the vote with a letter on its website addressed to Conference of Presidents Executive Vice Chairman/CEO Malcolm Hoenlein, stating, “Dear Malcolm: Thank you for finally making it clear that the Conference of Presidents is not representative of the voice of the Jewish community. We recognize the need for an open and honest conversation on Israel in the United States. We appreciate you being honest. Now we’ll work on the openness.”
To gain membership in the Conference, J Street needed the support of two-thirds of the body’s members. Forty-two members showed up for the vote, whose final tally was 22 against J Street, 17 in favor, and three abstentions.
“If they would have won, it would have been a ‘democratic decision,’ and now that they didn’t win, J Street and their supporters complain,” Rabbi Pesach Lerner—executive vice president emeritus of the National Council of Young Israel, a Conference member—told JNS.org. “They use a system when it’s an advantage to them, but when it’s not to their advantage the system’s not good anymore. They knew the rules walking in.”
Yet after the vote, J Street supporters questioned the Conference’s rules, structure, and inclusivity. Some said they would consider further action in response to the vote.
Kenneth Bob, national president of Ameinu, told JNS.org that the vote “demonstrates that there is something wrong with the structure [of the Conference] when even though member organizations that represent the majority of the organized American Jewish community publicly supported the membership application, as well as leading communal organizations like the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) and the ADL, the measure failed.”
Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, said the “large gaps between the ‘popular vote’—the size and grassroots membership of organizations that announced their vote for admission of J Street to the Conference—and the final tally of the organizational vote make the need for some kind of evaluation self-evident.”
“Under the circumstances, such reexamination ought to be something that all members of the Conference view as a necessity if we are to retain credibility as an organization that speaks for the Jewish community,” she told JNS.org.
National Council of Jewish Women CEO Nancy K. Kaufman said, “The Conference of Presidents has been seized by a group of organizations who represent but a tiny fraction of the American Jewish community. … We will be discussing options for further action with our colleagues in the Conference who share our point of view.”
Americans for Peace Now said the vote “points out the inadequacy of the Conference of Presidents’ procedures, rules and regulations,” and that its board of directors would “weigh its options in regards to our organization’s relationship” with the Conference.
Perhaps garnering the most attention for his comments was Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) President Rabbi Rick Jacobs, a former member of J Street’s Rabbinic Cabinet.
“We may choose to advocate for a significant overhaul of the Conference of Presidents’ processes,” Jacobs said in a statement. “We may choose to simply leave the Conference of Presidents. But this much is certain: We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry.”
ZOA’s Klein told JNS.org, “Any group which threatens to leave the Conference because of J Street’s rejection despite J Street’s promotion of boycotting Israel, falsely accusing Israel accusing of war crimes, fighting against Iran sanctions, and supporting both a Hamas-aligned state and [Secretary of State John] Kerry’s ridiculous and odious ‘apartheid’ statement should probably leave.”
“It is saddening to see decent people like the head of one of the Reform organizations distorting the diversity of the Conference, which if anything leans left or a-political, but not right, not to mention that it was J Street’s failure to win over centrists and non-political groups that delivered it so few votes overall,” said Josh Block, CEO and president of The Israel Project.
Block told JNS.org, “The Reform movement is diverse, and rather than stoking conflict inside the movement and the Jewish community over support for Israel, the URJ would be well-served, as would the Jewish people, if the congregational branch would focus on strengthening Jewish continuity and religious practice.”
Ameinu’s Bob and the Rabbinical Assembly’s Schonfeld both told JNS.org that their groups were not currently considering leaving the Conference.
“The Jewish community benefits by having a maximally diverse group such as the Conference— that is why the Conservative movement voted to include J Street,” Schonfeld said. “We do not want to leave, we want to see the Conference revitalized. But if the Conference doesn’t undergo some serious reforms it won’t matter who stays or who goes—the organization will lose its credibility and become irrelevant.”
Bob said, “In terms of leaving the Conference, anything said along those lines could be construed as a threat and that is not how I operate. I prefer to engage in serious conversation about how the Conference can be reformed to better serve the community.”
URJ’s Jacobs explained in his statement, “The [Conference] member organizations of the Reform and Conservative movements, which encompass the overwhelming majority of American Jews, all voted to support J Street’s admission. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents 14 national and 125 local community-relations agencies, voted ‘yes,’ as did the Anti-Defamation League. Still this group was primarily ‘outvoted’ by those that constitute the right wing of the North American Jewish community.”
But Young Israel’s Lerner noted that the Conservative and Reform movements each have four affiliate groups who are members of the Conference, and given that those eight groups make up nearly half of the 17 groups that voted in favor of J Street, support within the Conference for J Street was not as widespread as perceived.
“If you cared about Israel, and you cared about the Israeli people, how would you vote into Conference an organization [like J Street] that wants to talk to Hamas, whose stated mission is the murder of all Jews and the destruction of Israel?” Lerner told JNS.org. “And when you tell me it’s an open discussion, that you have to ‘open the tent,’ the point is that every tent has to have four walls. The tent may be large, but it has to have four walls to protect the people that are inside.”
The leader of another Conference member group that voted against J Street, who asked to remain anonymous, told JNS.org that the group takes issue with J Street’s tactics—not with its views. In particular, the leader pointed to the lobby’s portrayal of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on college campuses.
“AIPAC is not left, AIPAC is not right, AIPAC is representing whatever the Israeli population votes, democratically in their government,” the leader said. “They’re trying to create a relationship between that government—whether it is a left government, a center government, or a right government—and the United States of America. We think it’s very sinister, dishonest, and disingenuous, the way that the J Street professionals portray AIPAC on campus.”
With reporting by Sean Savage
By Michael Paulson, NY Times
April 30, 2014
American Jewish leaders on Wednesday voted to deny membership in an influential national coalition to a lobbying group that has at times criticized the Israeli government.
The decision by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to reject the dovish lobbying group, J Street, was closely watched because it comes as many Jewish institutions face controversies over how much debate over Israel they are willing to tolerate within their ranks. Supporters of J Street argued that the group’s occasional differences with Israeli policy, over Gaza, Iran and other matters, were well within the mainstream of American Jewish thought and common in Israel itself.
Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, a lobbying group based in Washington that calls itself pro-Israel and pro-peace.Jewish Groups Consider Including J StreetAPRIL 29, 2014
The vote was held at the Conference’s Manhattan offices, and it was not open to the public. But participants said that 42 of the conference’s 50 voting members were represented at the meeting, and that 17 voted in favor of J Street, while 22 voted against and three abstained. To become a member of the Conference, J Street would have needed support from two-thirds of the conference, or 34 votes.
The vote took place after a brief and collegial debate — lasting less than an hour — during which speakers were each allowed 90 seconds to make an argument. The ballots were secret, but several of those present said that it appeared, based on public statements made before Wednesday as well as comments made during the debate, that the voting broke down in large part along ideological and religious lines, with Orthodox and multiple affiliated organizations opposing J Street, and the non-Orthodox members supporting the group’s application.
J Street, based in Washington, was formed six years ago as a counterpoint to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the longstanding lobbying organization advocating American support of Israel.
J Street has differentiated itself, and attracted both support and criticism, by adopting a less hawkish tone toward Middle East policy, and by steadfastly supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The president of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said in an interview after the vote that he was “deeply disappointed,” and added, “We would have liked to be a part of this communal tent.”
A poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center found that a plurality of American Jews did not believe the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to reach a peace settlement. Mr. Ben-Ami said the vote sent a “terrible message” to those who have concerns about aspects of Israeli policy.
“This is what has been wrong with the conversation in the Jewish community,” he said.
“People whose views don’t fit with those running longtime organizations are not welcome, and this is sad proof of that,” he added. “It sends the worst possible signal to young Jews who want to be connected to the Jewish community, but also want to have freedom of thought and expression.”
The Conference, which already includes groups with a broad range of ideological and religious viewpoints, is an influential organization, in part because its longtime leader, Malcolm I. Hoenlein, is frequently consulted by political leaders as a representative of the American Jewish community.
Critics of J Street approved of the Conference’s decision to exclude a group whose views on Israel they viewed as problematic.
Farley Weiss, wife Jessica and (at the time, 2013) six children. He did a brief stint as a volunteer law clerk to Israel’s Supreme Court in 1988. He now has his own law practice in intellectual property rights in Arizona and is president of the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI), the coordinating agency for nearly 150 Orthodox congregations throughout the United States and Canada.
“We’re very pleased and relieved, because J Street’s positions were not within the mainstream of the Jewish community,” said Farley I. Weiss, the president of the National Council of Young Israel, which is an association of Orthodox synagogues. “On virtually every single issue, their position is contrary to that of anything that would be considered pro-Israel, and they don’t represent the rank and file of the Jewish community in America.”
J Street’s bid for membership was supported by major liberal and centrist Jewish groups, including the Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform movements, as well as the Anti-Defamation League.
The leaders of many of those groups have had disagreements with J Street, but argued that it represented the views of a significant number of American Jews and deserved to be part of the discussion that takes place among major Jewish institutions.
“A mistake was made today,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents Conservative rabbis. “It is of crucial importance to the future of the Jewish community that a full range of views is represented, and that we be part of a robust dialogue to achieve what we are all committed to, which is a safe, secure and thriving Israel.”
Rabbi Schonfeld said the vote would undoubtedly prompt an examination of the conference’s membership rules and voting procedures, noting that “one of the anomalies of diaspora leadership is we are not elected by the Jewish community, but we earn the right to be leaders, and it’s moments like this that call upon us to think creatively and openly and earn that leadership.”