If J Street Is Out, Then Justify Why You're In

Where are the liberal values and transparency in the U.S. Jewish world when a secret ballot means those organizations voting against J Street’s inclusion escaped publicly justifying their decision?

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J Street supporters holding a rally in Boston for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.Credit: Bob Nesson

Last week, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the institutional umbrella administration of the American Jewish community, conducted a secret ballot vote to decide whether to admit J Street, the self-described “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” into its ranks alongside over 50 member partner organizations. After a six year effort to make inroads within organized American Jewry, J Street received a clear message: Hit the road, Jack. Two roads have diverged on Israel – yet again, on the path toward further polarization.

Despite a total lack of transparency in balloting procedure, recent leaks (notably J.J. Goldberg’s reporting for The Forward) offered a near-complete accounting that allows for analysis. While the vote confirmed some existing trends in American Jewish life, the results were also marked by some surprises.

Most striking was the continued politicization of Zionism within the religious denominations and the schism between the Reform and Conservative movement, on the one hand, and the Orthodox Union and religious Zionist groups on the other. A newer development was the pro-inclusion stance of major communal organizations often associated with a more right-leaning viewpoints in domestic politics and diaspora issues. To wit, the ADL's Abraham Foxman pronounced in an interview at the conference, “I think to preserve the integrity of the Jewish community advocacy it has to be an open tent. I don’t have to like J Street. I don’t have to agree with it. But I certainly believe they have a right to be part of a group which advocates for Israel.” “I find it somewhat bizarre,” he continued, “that there is more tolerance for dissent … in Israel than there is in the American Jewish community … J Street is akin to Meretz or Labor … it’s O.K. for them to be heard in the Knesset but not O.K. in the Conference of Presidents?”

While Foxman points out troubling differences in the range of acceptable discourse about Israel, the problem of this logic is that the onus of proving their legitimacy remains J Street’s burden, rather than being the responsibility of those who wish to prevent them from joining the Conference. As Leon Wieseltier powerfully argued in his New Republic column, “the exclusion of an opinion is not a refutation of it.” Shunning J Street in a secret ballot vote is not an intellectual argument or an intelligent discussion of communal visions, it is the kind of emotional snobbery of schoolchildren who don’t want to share the lunch table.

Added to that, the rationale behind the vote of various organizations is not self-evident. For example, when considering the religious Zionist bloc vote against J Street’s inclusion, what about these worldviews is incompatible? Is it the willingness to give up all or part of Judea and Samaria [a hotly-debated halakhic issue within the Orthodox community]? Is it a sense that J Street does not represent the Orthodox community (despite the fact that J Street counts religious Zionists amongst its ranks)? Are there actually points of dialogue as much as disagreement?

The American Jewish public doesn’t know the answers to these questions because these organizations are seemingly unwilling to make this decision an open debate about ideas. In addition to disclosing their vote, I believe that each member of the Conference of Presidents should issue a press release describing the motivations behind their ballot decision.

Further, rather than hiding behind their status as being members of the club as justification for keeping J Street out, I would to see these groups articulate why they should be "in." All of these vital organizations in our community — regardless of whether they voted for or against — are “missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to be part of a pressing discussion about what being "pro-Israel" means in the American Jewish community today. They are sidestepping the critical need for a meaningful and pluralistic conversation that might help define these terms and the tensions between universalism and particularism.

Last but not least, the J Street "scandal" (to quote Wieseltier) is a powerful demonstration of the limitations of the slogan of “Jewish and democratic.” While a vote took place by organizations that consider themselves "Jewish" (perhaps more Jewish than J Street in their own eyes), this alone did not produce a transparent and inclusive result.

I hope that advocates for Israel — both within and outside its borders — might consider adopting both the language and logic of “Zionist and liberal” in its place, which puts more emphasis on the ideological (rather than religious) nature of Jewish nationalism and highlights the importance of liberal values as much as democratic practices for Israel as well as for her advocates. This could create a more inclusive and pluralistic community of Jewish and non-Jewish Zionists (potentially including some identification by Israeli Arabs, despite Israel’s failure during the last 66 years to cultivate the integration of Israeli Arabs into Israel’s national identity). It would stress the importance of the recognition of a Zionist entity entitled to self-determination as the nation-state of the Jews.

This is in stark contrast to the vision of a “Jewish state” which seemingly denies the value of any non-Jewish minorities value as stakeholders right off the bat. Rather than a “Jewish state”, what Israel wants (and needs) is recognition not only of its Jewish majority population, but the international and internal legitimization of Zionism as the expression of Jewish nationalism, the framework being the political – not religious – concept of a state of the Jews.

So far, the J Street vote has showcased secrecy, defensiveness and a free pass for unilateral action without a public debate or justification. Perhaps we can hope that the American Jewish community will, in the near future, choose a different road: One that embraces open dialogue and a more rigorous adoption of the liberal values that the United States prizes at a time when they are under increasing pressure in Israel itself.

Sara Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow at Oxford University. She is writing a forthcoming book about American Jews and the Israeli settler movement. Follow her on Twitter @SaraHirschhorn1