Watch the vote. The future of the organized American Jewish community is at stake.
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This week, on April 30, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will vote on whether or not to allow J Street into membership.
The vote is NOT about the future of J Street. J Street does not need Conference membership in order to continue to grow and thrive. Always seen as something of a maverick and outsider, J Street has nonetheless built a significant grassroots presence in a very short time, becoming in the process an important force on campus and a player in Washington. The Obama Administration already invites J Street representatives to White House meetings and briefings, despite its lack of Conference affiliation. None of that changes if the organization is turned down by the Conference.
The vote is also NOT about whether other Conference members agree with all of J Street’s positions. I have had my own disagreements with J Street over the years, and I haven’t been the least bit shy about expressing them. I took strong exception to how it handled the Goldstone Report and didn’t like its stand on the 2008 Gaza War. I have been unhappy about certain speakers invited to its convention, and more importantly, I would like to see it take a tougher stand on Iran. But of course I have disagreements—and sometimes very emphatic differences—with the positions of many Conference members.
What the vote is about is whether or not American Jewry can agree on fundamental boundaries and definitions: Who is part of the family and who is not? When we organize as a community to support and defend Israel, the Jewish people, and the values of the Jewish tradition, who is welcome to join in that effort as we plan strategy, reach out to our government, and rally the troops in the Jewish and non-Jewish world?
Not everyone who wants to gain admission to the various umbrella groupings that we have established to promote our interests should be welcomed. We need red lines. In my view, as I have written before, those red lines are clear. We should invite in those with a firm commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; who, when they disagree with other Jewish organizations or with policies of the government of Israel, will offer those disagreements with love and respect; who are appropriately sensitive to Israel’s security needs; and who expect that the government of the United States will apply the same standards to Israel that it applies to our country’s other allies and friends. Of course, we should never accept for membership purveyors of hate and promoters of bigotry; neither should we take in those—such as BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions against Israel) proponents and sympathizers—who engage in, do business with, or make excuses for advocates of anti-Israel activity.
Does J Street meet these criteria? Yes, it surely does. If some Jewish groups are unhappy with J Street, so be it. But there is no reason in the world why it should not be a part of the Conference of Presidents.
As anyone knows who has had any connection with Jewish life, the Jewish right has engaged in an absolute orgy of anti-J Street invective over the last few years. This invective has continued and intensified as J Street has gotten stronger and stronger. But while there are things one can legitimately criticize, the ongoing nature of the attacks has become tiresome and desperate; and surely it is absurd to continue these attacks now, as if J Street is the enemy of the Jewish people and the primary problem of American Jewish life.
With the vote coming, let’s say plainly what J Street really is: A worthwhile organization that is committed to a two-state solution, that is largely although not exclusively supportive of the positions of the Obama administration, and that has done an excellent job of providing an organizational home to Jews, both students and older adults, who care about Israel but have not found such a home elsewhere. It offers an important response to those Jewish groups, many already in the Presidents’ Conference, that have rejected a two-state solution—even though such a solution is supported by the Government of Israel and every Republican and Democratic administration in America for the last two decades. Now is the time to bring J Street and its supporters into our Jewish organizational world, embrace them, engage them, and of course argue with them when we think they have it wrong.
Because if the American Jewish community says “no” to J Street, it is saying “no” to all of those American Jews who resonate to its message and are committed to the idea that if peace is to come, two states will be an essential element of the agreement. It is saying to these Jews and many young Jews in particular that they have no place in our organizational framework. It is dividing the Jewish world by an act of exclusion when good sense, good politics, and concern for Jewish unity require an act of inclusion.
On April 30, let’s hope that the Conference of Presidents says “yes” to J Street.
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.