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.

Bob Nesson

Assistant Secretary of State Henry A. Byroade personified the “Arabist” and often anti-Israeli approach of the U.S. State Department in the 1950’s. 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But consensus has been replaced by bitter acrimony in the past few days in the wake of the conference’s divisive but decisive rejection of the membership application of the leftist-liberal lobby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, 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.