J Street’s Rejection Is a Milestone in the Growing Polarization of American Jews

On many issues, the liberal advocacy group is closer to American Jewish views than most of the organizations that voted to keep it out of the Conference of Presidents.

Alon Ron

The liberal advocacy group J Street has made a lot of mistakes since its inception six years ago. It took positions that were perceived as anti-Israeli. It was not always upfront or completely forthcoming about its backers and funding. According to some sources, its leader Jeremy Ben Ami succeeded in losing friends and alienating supporters even when he recently appeared before the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations that J Street was asking to join.

Critics of J Street will claim that these factors played a major role in the conference’s decision on Wednesday night to reject J Street’s bid for membership by a vote of 22-17, far short of the two-thirds majority needed. Whether that’s true or not makes very little difference, because the emphatic repudiation of J Street will be widely perceived nonetheless as a milestone in the growing polarization and fragmentation of the organized American Jewish community, as a vivid manifestation of its escalating right-wing intolerance and possibly as a harbinger of a fateful schism to come.

For J Street itself, the establishment’s brush-off is actually a godsend. Rather than getting sucked into the consensual machinery of the Conference of Presidents or being colored by its right wing-tinge, the organization is now the aggrieved party deserving of sympathy as well as the leading alternative to what many younger Jews see as the fossilized infrastructure of the so-called “Jewish establishment.” In the expected absence of a peace process, J Street could be viewed as the last American Jewish bulwark against blind adherence to occupation and annexation.

And though executives led by Malcolm Hoenlein gave J Street more than a fair hearing and played its membership procedures strictly by the book, the Conference of Presidents will likely be slammed not only for its small-mindedness but for its warped voting apparatus that gives tiny Jewish fringe groups with two functionaries and a telephone number the same voting rights as powerhouses such as the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents over a million members, and the Anti-Defamation League, possibly the most prominent Jewish organization in America outside of AIPAC, both of which supported J Street’s acceptance. By keeping J Street out, the conference shot itself in the foot, eroding its claim to represent the entire Jewish community.

Moreover, by turning away J Street, the Conference of Presidents appears to be spurning the majority opinion of the American Jewish community itself. Whatever its alleged misdeeds and misdemeanors, on most issues of the day J Street is far closer to prevailing American Jewish views that most of the organizations that voted on Wednesday to keep it outside the gates. Like J Street, the clear majority of American Jews oppose settlements, support a two-state solution and endorse the administration’s efforts to reach a diplomatic solution with Iran. And most American Jews – 69 percent to be exact – voted in favor of Barack Obama, who is fully supported by J Street but loathed by a significant portion of the so-called “Major Jewish Organizations.”

In rejecting J Street, the conference chose exclusion over inclusion, intolerance over understanding, division over agreement, a bunker mentality over open mindedness. J Street’s unequivocal rejection will be interpreted as a victory for the ascendant forces of right-wing fanaticism who are now engaged in a perpetual purge of the Jewish establishment, communal organizations, college campuses and even the Salute to Israel Parade of disloyal dissenters and deviants, in their own prejudiced eyes. They walk hand in hand with similar agents of arrogant chauvinism who are on the rise in Israel as well, as shown in the letter of support sent by none other than the chairman of Israel’s ruling coalition MK Yariv Levin to the fringe advocates for the eviction of left-wing groups from the annual New York parade.

They want to be the gatekeepers of the proverbial Jewish tent and the sole arbiters of its entry requirements. They wish to keep the pro-Israel camp holy and pure and molded in their own image. They don’t mind the fact that soon they may find themselves alone in the tent or that it is Israel real enemies – and not J Street – who are deriving the most satisfaction from a Jewish community that is starting to tear itself apart.