Fear and Exclusion of J Street Is Misguided and Destructive

The Conference of Presidents’ collective failure of leadership in excluding J Street is another sign of a strident, extremist trend restricting the U.S. Jewish community’s necessary dialogue about Israel.

Bob Nesson

As Israel and the Jewish community worldwide face an increasingly unstable Mideast, an Iran with nuclear ambitions and a stalled peace process, it is not surprising that there will be some who turn to fear-mongering in order to gain a sense of control over a profoundly dangerous reality. But we must not let this happen.

Earlier this week, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted to deny membership to J Street. The Conference vote was a study in self-defeat and in the inevitability of how people acting from fear create the very reality they fear most.

Let us be clear, J Street was not actually defeated, in fact they won the popular vote– the large nationally and internationally networked, chapter based, grassroots organizations publicly stated their intentions to vote for dialogue with J Street – the Conservative and Reform Movements, the JCPA representing JCRC’s, and the ADL. It was reported but not confirmed that the Federations would vote similarly. All in all, those groups total something on the order of 3.5 million Jews.

While many of J streets ideas and tactics are controversial, and indeed I personally disagree with many of their views, it is puzzling how this debate over allowing J Street to participate in communal dialogue became an issue of such rancor and division. J Street has become the place where the older, establishment generation quarantines its overwhelming anxiety that the young, who did not experience the miracle of Israel’s founding and early growth, will have neither the will nor the willpower for the inevitable struggles for Israel’s survival that are far from over.

However, to focus that fear on J Street, an organization that has captured the imagination of many younger Jews, is misguided and destructive. By excluding J Street from the communal dialogue, J Street’s opponents are putting their heads in the sand regarding the complexities Israel faces in the Middle East and the attitudes of a younger generation that grew up in a different era.

The exclusion of J Street from communal dialogue is only a symptom of an increasing trend of extreme and strident voices in the community that has chilled much necessary dialogue about Israel. As the head of an international rabbinic organization that not only prides itself on Zionism, but sees the State of Israel as a central and vital aspect of our living Jewish theology, philosophy and identity, I have painfully witnessed rabbis who are deeply committed to Israel come under searing criticism in their communities for merely signing their name to the list of roughly 600 rabbis in the “rabbinic cabinet” on the J Street website.

In a similar vein, the JCPA released an important study in October 2013: “Reluctant or Repressed? Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis.” According to the study of 549 rabbis, nearly twice as many rabbis who self-identified their views on Israel as “dovish”(43%) were afraid to share their views with their congregations, as opposed to those who self-identified their views as hawkish (25%). I routinely hear rabbis lament the ever-increasing difficulties of bringing Israel – centered programming to their congregations or speaking about Israel from the pulpit. All too frequently, such public discussions end miserably when self-defined “defenders of Israel” in the congregation feel free to apply litmus tests of Israel loyalty to presenters, fellow congregants or program attendees who are chastised publicly for statements or even for questions that don’t meet the loyalty standard.

While yesterday’s vote is very concerning for the future of the Conference of Presidents, much good can come from it. For one thing, the affirmation by the leaders of several large organizations that it is acceptable to dialogue with people with whom we may disagree will hopefully stem the frightening patterns of discourse in our communities.

Further, a painful but important light has been shone on the very structures of Jewish communal leadership at the highest levels. The Talmud teaches (Horayot 10a) that one who is appointed by the community is the servant of the community. The Jewish community at large does not get to appoint its leaders – no one votes for us—leaders of individual organizations, accountable primarily to those organizations, are elevated through the happenstance of a decentralized structure to speak for the larger community. It is up to us, therefore, to earn the privilege to serve by making ourselves accountable to the public and the public good. As a collective body, the Conference of Presidents clearly failed to exercise the kind of leadership that will help foster responsible dialogue, locally and internationally.

Our tradition believes that the opportunity for teshuvah is always available – let us hope that this can be a time of reckoning for the Conference, and for the community at large. While we strive for a secure and thriving Israel at peace with her neighbors, we must accept the possibility that this vision is still far off. In the meantime, it is up to every Jew, and especially to the community’s leaders, to demonstrate that we can contain our anxiety, listen respectfully, and earn the merit to serve our people.

Rabbi Julie Schonfeld is the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.