Last month’s rejection of J Street by the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has revealed an upsetting pattern within the Jewish community: many of our leaders prefer to silence and exclude those they disagree with, rather than debate them respectfully on the substantive issues.
The Conference vote, which has been roundly condemned by wide sections of the community, has finally ignited a much-needed conversation about who belongs in the communal tent. But the problem goes beyond mere exclusion.
Some on the right feel they have the right to engage in slander and intimidation against pro-peace activists in a way that flies in the face of Jewish values and ethics. If we are serious about promoting a healthier and more open Jewish dialogue, we need to confront this epidemic of bullying and intimidation used to silence critics every day, in synagogues, college campuses and online forums.
J Street’s advocacy for US-led peace efforts even inspired an hour-long “documentary” called The J Street Challenge, funded by Charles Jacobs of the ironically-named Americans for Peace and Tolerance. Jacobs’ film slings a host of smears and personal attacks at J Street staff and supporters, accusing them of being naïve, malicious and worse.
And now they’ve come after me personally, because I had the chutzpah to write an op-ed arguing that this sort of hate speech has no place in our communal discourse. Jacobs and I have never met, but that didn’t stop him from publicly questioning my love for Israel in The Jerusalem Post, or targeting me for insult on the film’s Facebook page.
This is apparently how Jacobs operates. His film features cherry-picked, out-of-context quotes from J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami and extensive interviews with J Street critics.
And yet it lacks a single interview with Ben-Ami or his staff, or the 800 rabbis who serve on the group’s rabbinic cabinet, or the hundreds of community and student leaders who run chapters across the country.
He failed to consult any of the Israeli generals or the lawmakers on the Left and Right who speak regularly at J Street events.
Then Jacobs attacked me in the same way, twisting my words and claiming that I have no right to call myself pro-Israel. For someone who has spent a lifetime caring about Israel and working to strengthen the US-Israel relationship in Federations, AIPAC, CLAL and other groups, I found this gratuitous smear to be unfair and deeply insulting.
But even more disturbing and telling were the comments on The J Street Challenge Facebook page – built and run by Jacobs and Americans for Peace and Tolerance. It featured numerous profane and hateful slurs about J Street and me personally, including a personal threat against me. A friend who tried to post a comment supportive of me said his comment was posted for 30 minutes but then taken down. Only the obscenities and slander remained.
Is that how peace and tolerance works in Jacobs’ version of the Jewish community? This is not just about me. Progressive, propeace American Jews are being demonized in the Israeli or American Jewish press every day for their belief that Israel’s survival as a Jewish democracy depends on peace with the Palestinians.
And yet, according to polls, three-quarters of American Jews support a two-state solution and US efforts to achieve it.
They are our friends and neighbors. Many are young people looking for a place to form a meaningful relationship with Israel. They deserve a seat at the table with everyone else, without having their loyalty questioned.
Fortunately, we may finally be seeing a tipping point in the community, though not the one that Jacobs and his supporters had anticipated.
The leaders of the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements have all come out strongly against the Conference’s rejection of J Street, as has the Anti-Defamation League and a broad range of other groups. The issue touched a nerve in the national media, and among Jews who had never even heard of the Conference until this vote. They may not agree with every J Street position, but they believe that we all have a right to be heard.
And I hope they also share my belief that pluralistic community-building organizations such as Federations, JCCs and Hillels undercut their own stated missions when they sponsor events attacking fellow community members. I am not suggesting censorship. Just better judgment and better choices regarding the endorsement of programs designed to delegitimize other Jews.
I hope that Jacobs understands that no one is trying to silence him. As an American and as a member of the Jewish community, he has a right to air his grievances about J Street and the ideas it supports.
He should just keep it honest and above the belt. If he doesn’t support a two-state solution as being in Israel’s best interest, let’s hear his alternative.
This issue is much bigger than J Street. There are serious challenges facing our community – let’s address them together in a positive way and not waste time attacking each other.
The author has held leadership positions for Jewish Federations, Israel Bonds, AIPAC, Jewish Day Schools,Hillel, CLAL, and J Street. He is a graduate of the Wexner Heritage program and has lectured on Jewish business ethics in the U.S. and Israel.