Is J Street Unwelcome in the American Zionist Movement?

The liberal pro-Israel group withdrew its application to join the largest U.S. Zionist umbrella group after conservative groups torpedoed its chances

The Forward
Arno Rosenfeld
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Israeli and American flags on a table as the U.S. secretary of defense meets with Israel's defense minister, earlier this month.
Israeli and American flags on a table as the U.S. secretary of defense meets with Israel's defense minister, earlier this month.Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
The Forward
Arno Rosenfeld

J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group, withdrew its application to join the largest Zionist coalition in the United States last month after a series of eleventh-hour maneuvers by conservative groups sank its chance of being accepted.

The board shuffle that effectively prevented J Street from joining the American Zionist Movement (AZM), which has 36 members, comes seven years after the organization was barred from joining another umbrella institution, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Defenders of these institutions say that both decisions are related to higher levels of participation in the bodies among conservative Jews. Still, J Street’s leadership and other critics claim, the pattern of exclusion proves that communal groups are rejecting constituents they claim to represent.

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“The American Jewish community continues to have establishment leadership and organizations that hold a set of views that are to the right of the median of the American Jewish community,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street. “There is something structurally wrong here.”

The American Zionist Movement is ostensibly open to any Jewish organization that agrees to a brief platform endorsing basic tenets of Zionism, and currently includes a socialist youth group, a neoconservative think tank and the international affiliate of an Orthodox Israeli political party. While the series of decisions that led J Street to abandon its quest for admission to the coalition stemmed from a conservative electoral victory last fall in the World Zionist Congress, some longtime Jewish leaders see more than a shift in political orientation at play. They claim that the new, hastily-installed board majority wants to exclude liberal Zionists from a key Jewish forum.

In the United States, which does not have a chief rabbi or the kind of governing boards that hold Jewish communities together in countries like Britain and France, maintaining a membership that accurately represents the Jewish population is left to umbrella organizations. Sarrae Crane, director of Mercaz, the Conservative movement’s Zionist arm, said that leaves them vulnerable to rightward shifts.

“Their strength is in their ability to get the whole community in,” Crane said, “and when they don’t, the question is, how does the Jewish community express itself?”

Liberals question timing

Liberal members of the Zionist coalition pushed hard for J Street’s membership, arguing that with political differences testing the bonds between Israel and Jews in the United States, a broad approach to Zionist advocacy has become even more important.

Increasingly, American Jews and some Jewish organizations have shown a willingness to express their disaffection with Israeli policy, particularly over its treatment of Palestinians. Left-wing organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which are not Zionist, have seen their membership boom over the last few years. Other, more mainstream Jewish groups, like the Union for Reform Judaism and J Street, also adopted a more critical stance toward Israel during the recent fighting in Gaza than they have during past conflicts.

And while the recently-released Pew Research Center report on American Jews found that 82% considered caring about Israel as essential or important to their Jewish identity, its authors also described Jews as “among the most consistently liberal and Democratic groups” in the country. Most surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with Israel’s governance, with 40% approving of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership and one-third believing that the Israeli government was sincerely attempting to make peace with Palestinians.

The numbers are even more stark among young Jews. Twenty-seven percent of those between 18 and 29 say caring about Israel is not important to them, compared with 8% of those over 65 who say the same, and support for boycotting Israel — at 13% — is nearly double in that age group compared to older generations.

Kenneth Bob, president of the Labor Zionist group Ameinu, said that excluding organizations like J Street — which claims 200,000 supporters — makes it harder to present Zionism as a Jewish value that transcends ideology. He said this was a marked change from the AZM’s recent past, when it fostered freewheeling discussion between diverse groups.

“If the idea is to engage more people with the idea of Zionism, then you actually want to emphasize that you can be a liberal and Zionist,” said Bob. “An organization like AZM should make the extra effort to make Zionism accessible for all people.”

Though it is unknown to many American Jews, the coalition has grown by roughly one-third in recent years and includes all the major Jewish youth groups, as well as centrist organizations like Hadassah and B’nai B’rith International, allowing its educational programming about Israel and Zionism to reach a broad cross section of the Jewish population.

“It’s really important that the case for Israel is made in ways that can be heard by all sorts of different audiences,” said Ben-Ami. “We would have liked to have been a part of that thinking with them: how do we present the case for the national rights of the Jewish people to a progressive audience in the 21st century?”

But the unexpected ascendance of a right-wing Orthodox faction during last year’s elections for the World Zionist Congress, which the American coalition is affiliated with, signaled a shift in the balance of power away from the Reform and Conservative movements, who along with progressive organizations like Ameinu support a form of Zionism more palatable to some progressives, joining sometimes harsh criticism of the Israeli government with support for a Jewish state.

(This reporter previously worked for the Union for Reform Judaism.)

Yet it may be difficult for the AZM to be a big tent for American Zionists when its membership is structured to be more representative of those engaged with the movement, individuals who tend to be more conservative. Most of the organization’s board seats are assigned based on the results of the World Zionist Congress elections and last year the Zionist Organization of America, which reports a membership of around 25,000, won 10,312 votes. Meanwhile, the Union for Reform Judaism states that it represents 1.8 million Jews in North America, yet its election slate earned just over 31,000 votes; a coalition of progressive organizations including J Street tallied fewer than 8,000.

Perhaps, suggest even some left-leaning leaders, liberal Jews bear some responsibility for their underrepresentation in groups they complain are excluding them.

“Make-up of the AZM is not done on a popularity contest or by a Pew survey — it’s based on elections,” said Weinberg, the Reform movement vice president. “If American Jews are so upset about it, where were the 180,000 members of J Street when it was time to vote in the Zionist Congress election? And my own movement, I would say I’m not proud of the result that we produced.”

Richard Heideman, president of the American Zionist Movement, said that J Street’s failed attempt to join the organization is not a sign his organization has shunned ideological diversity. Instead, he blamed the recent spat on ultimately failed tactics employed by the Reform movement and its allies.

“What has created the divide was not their application but it was the political maneuvering,” Heideman said. “I can tell you there’s been great disruption and it’s a shame.”

Debate over motives

J Street originally applied last August and what was expected to be a narrow vote in favor of its membership was postponed until February, an unusually long delay that the organization’s supporters blame on Heideman’s alleged reluctance to admit the liberal group. The delay allowed time for conservatives to organize and leverage their success in the Zionist Congress election to stymie J Street, convincing the Zionist Supreme Court, a department of the World Zionist Organization that has jurisdiction over the AZM — that new right-wing representatives deserved to be seated before voting could take place on other new members.

Miriam Naor, the Zionist Supreme Court’s president, allowed the American Zionist Movement’s board to reconvene only after adding representatives from Eretz Hakodesh, a conservative Orthodox slate that was the breakout star of last year’s Zionist Congress elections, and the Zionist Organization of America. The total shift in power resulted in a swing of 22 seats for right-wing groups on the AZM board, which fluctuates in size but has roughly 150 members.

That series of rulings by Naor, former president of the Israeli Supreme Court, infuriated J Street and its allies. While the adjustment of board seats was tied to the election results, new representatives typically aren’t added until the American Zionist Movement’s annual meeting, which was scheduled to take place months after the vote on J Street’s membership.

“Because of these undemocratic and irregular steps,” said Shaina Wasserman, who handles J Street’s community relations, “we decided we no longer wanted to be a part of this organization.”

But Naor said in her decision that it was a simple matter of fairness: Eretz Hakodesh won seats during last year’s elections and should be allowed to weigh in on contentious decisions like J Street’s membership.

“In democratic elections, the wheel always turns, and turns again: today’s outcome may be different from tomorrow’s,” Naor wrote, according to a translation of the ruling. “Each and every one of us needs to reflect on whether they would accept that others behave towards oneself as we have behaved towards them, when fortunes change anew.”

J Street, which was founded in 2007, has a close relationship with many top Democratic officials — then-Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the group’s conference in 2013 — and some Israeli leaders, though it is loathed by many on the right.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, has been a longtime foe of J Street, criticizing what he described as its weak position on Iran, opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and support for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. Still, Klein said it was “pure coincidence” that his campaign to change the American Zionist Movement’s board composition came just before the planned J Street vote.

“If it did have something to do with J Street I’d be proud to tell you,” Klein said. “J Street is an anti-Israel, horrific organization and we will always fight them — but we fought this to get the seats we were entitled to.”

Josh Weinberg, the Union for Reform Judaism vice president, suggested the series of delays that ultimately doomed J Street at least was due partly to what he described as Heideman’s recent personal animosity toward the Reform movement and liberal members of the organization. He ran for chair of the Conference of Presidents last spring and Weinberg said Heideman was furious that progressives did not support his ultimately failed bid. “He stopped reaching out to me,” Weinberg said. “It was pretty stark and drastic.”

Heideman said “there is no truth” to that claim, which he called “absurd, mean-spirited, insulting, offensive and derogatory.” Heideman declined to say whether he personally supported J Street joining the Zionist coalition, but said its application proceeded slowly for several reasons, including that members are meant to be nonpartisan, whereas J Street is a political lobbying group. Its more conservative peer, AIPAC, is not a member of the coalition, although the American Zionist Movement has participated in its policy conferences.

An ongoing fight

The question of who gets to participate in communal Jewish institutions is not a new one. J Street was at the center of a similar debate in 2014, when members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted against allowing it to join. And it’s not only left-leaning groups whose membership has been challenged recently. Liberal organizations unsuccessfully called on the Zionist Organization of America to be expelled from the Conference of Presidents last fall, citing disparaging statements made by Klein about another member group. In April, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston likewise decided against expelling the ZOA for “elevating white supremacist voices.”

Klein said the fact that both the Reform Movement and J Street supported his group’s expulsion from other Jewish forums demonstrated that they were “frauds” who were not sincere about building a “big tent.”

He also objected to some existing members of the American Zionist Movement, including Ameinu and Partners for Progressive Israel, which he said were “really hostile to Israel” and “anti-Jewish,” but added that he was resigned to remaining in coalition with them.

“As soon as I’m king of the world, I’ll make some changes,” Klein said.

Progressive Jewish groups frequently complain that establishment organizations like the American Jewish Committee, and coalitions like the Conference of Presidents, which is led by a former Republican lobbyist, do not represent the views of the overwhelmingly majority of American Jews.

Sophie Ellman-Golan, a spokesperson for Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, called the Conference of Presidents “antiquated and patriarchal” in an email to the Forward. And Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization focused on domestic issues, said that the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable was a coalition “much more representative of the overall political beliefs and priorities of Jewish Americans.”

J Street is a founding member of the Progressive Israel Network, which has released statements countering those of some legacy Zionist organizations. But Ben-Ami said coalitions of like-minded organizations are no substitute for groups that can draw together Jewish groups with diverse views on Israel.

“A group like AZM or the Conference of Presidents is supposed to be an umbrella for people with all points of view,” Ben-Ami said. “If the AZM is only open to organizations that hold right-of-center views from now on they should just come out and say that — but don’t hold yourselves out to be the umbrella.”

The leader of the ascendant Eretz Hakodesh sees things differently. Rabbi Pesach Lener said that it was J Street and other liberal Zionist organizations that had isolated themselves from the broader Jewish community by failing to “unconditionally support” Israel during the recent war in Gaza.

“If someone cannot support their family in time of war, perhaps they don’t really consider themselves part of the family,” Lerner said in an email interview. “You can’t have it both ways.”

Some of those who have been steeped in the domestic battle over who is allowed to speak on behalf of American Zionists look to Israel’s newly-formed “change government” as a model for drawing together disparate voices. If a hardline nationalist prime minister like Naftali Bennet can preside over a coalition anchored by a centrist party and that includes left-wing Meretz and Islamist United Arab List, surely Jews in the United States can embrace messy coalitions of their own.

Others, like Heideman, whose term as president expires this month, are less enamored with the election results. A comfortable majority of voters supported conservative parties and yet, Heideman pointed out, the Israeli right failed to shut liberal Zionists out of power.

“More people from the right voted than people from the left,” Heideman said. “The fact there is going to be a unity government is not one I’m going to comment on.”

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