J Street expressed its deep disappointment a day after the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations rejected its application for membership.
Members of the umbrella grouping of American Jewry voted late Wednesday against admitting J Street – a dovish organization which describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace but has been accused by its detractors of being overly critical of government policies – apparently by a larger margin than anticipated before the secret ballot in New York.
Of the 42 organizations that participated in the vote, 17 supported J Street’s membership, 22 opposed and three abstained, according to several sources. J Street needed a two-thirds majority of the Presidents Conference, or 34 of the 51 member groups.
The Presidents Conference said in a statement issued after the vote that its current membership reflected the community’s diversity.
“The present membership of the Conference includes organizations which represent and articulate the views of broad segments of the American Jewish community and we are confident that the Conference will continue to present the consensus of the community on important national and international issues as it has for the last fifty years,” it said.
In response to the vote, J Street said it was “sad” that such a “venerable institution” would choose to “bar the door to the communal tent to an organization that represents a substantial segment of Jewish opinion on Israel.”
J Street blamed its failure to gain admission to the Presidents Conference on “organizations on the right of the community,” which it accused of not believing in a broad tent that represents the diversity of American-Jewish opinion.
“We are especially disappointed that a minority of the farthest right-wing organizations within the conference has chosen to close the conference’s doors to this emerging generation of inspiring and passionate young leaders,” J Street lamented, stating that such a move turns away many Jews who would like to contribute to the communal dialogue.
The organization also stated that its rejection underscored the reason it had been founded in the first place – namely, to represent the “large segment of the American Jewish community” that “feels that it does not have a home or a voice within its traditional structures.”
Americans for Peace Now, a member of the Presidents Conference, expressed disappointment as well. Ori Nir, a spokesman for the dovish group, stated the decision was due to “close-mindedness” and the conference’s leaders’ inability to see where the winds of Jewish public opinion are blowing.
“Not accepting J Street into the conference is a rejection, perhaps a denial, of the healthy trends that are taking place within the community,” Nir said.
Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, said he was also disappointed by the vote, but wasn’t surprised.
“J Street won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote,” he said. “They got some big players like the Reform and Conservative unions and the JCCA [Jewish Community Centers Association], but it just didn’t rise to the threshold. Hopefully, this will lead to some serious reflection,” he said.
Many members had been very close-mouthed on how they planned to vote in the days leading up to the ballot, but confirmed “yes” votes as of Wednesday morning included big players such as the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
The smaller-than-expected show of support for J Street may be attributable to the nature of the ballot, according to Zionist Organization of America president Morton Klein.
“I’m shocked that more voted against,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “Maybe because of the secret ballot, people thought that saying they would vote ‘yes’ would look good.”
The significance of this particular vote – happening at a particularly polarized and emotional moment for American Jews as the latest peace talks seemed to fail – revolves around how big and inclusive a metaphorical tent the American Jewish community is willing to pitch.
The vote on J Street occurred at a time in which the American Jewish community is embroiled in a debate over the inclusion of the New Israel Fund – an organization that spends millions of dollars funding Israeli NGOs such as Adalah-The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel and Breaking The Silence – in New York’s Celebrate Israel Parade. While the NIF describes itself as advocating for “civil rights, social justice and religious pluralism,” the organization’s critics have accused it of funding groups advocating boycotts and the end of the state’s Jewish character.
Several of the same organizations that have advocated J Street’s inclusion in the Presidents Conference have also come out strongly against the use of a political “litmus test” for participation in the Zionist march.
While many have painted the vote as a test of the limits of acceptable discourse within the American Jewish establishment, not everybody agrees with this interpretation.
Some members of the conference told the Post that what J Street is doing is exploiting the situation to get visibility.
“This is not about the members of J Street,” one member of the conference, who preferred not to be named, told the Post. “Three of our current presidents sat on boards of J Street, and they represent the same views.... But they want to exploit this, so that if they get in, they can say ‘We were accepted, so you know we’re credible’; and if they don’t get in, then they get to say ‘We were excluded from the establishment.’” Reacting after the vote, the same member said that there had been a “serious and appropriate debate” at yesterday’s meeting and that “it wasn’t a right-wing vote.”
“It was the center that rejected J Street,” the source explained, adding that “things change [and] they could try again. This was really done on their merit. I think it’s a real statement.”
None of those who spoke to the Post predicted a communal split because of the rejection, and several recalled that a number of current members of the conference were initially rejected.
“A two-thirds affirmative vote of the member organizations is a significant threshold,” the conference said in a post-vote statement. “Some present member organizations did not initially achieve the necessary support but subsequently reapplied and are now members.”
Brandeis Prof. Jonathan Sarna, an expert on American Jewry, said that what impressed him was the “sense that they can try again.”
“This wasn’t a stinging rejection of J Street. It seemed to be a way of easing J Street into the group of legitimate organizations,” he speculated.
“Clearly, getting the votes at this point would be difficult, but presidents and executives change, and that might make a difference,” said Vernon Kurtz, the president of the American Zionist Movement and the chairman of the conference’s membership committee. “I don’t yet know the ramifications of short term or longer term.”
In an interview with JTA, J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben- Ami, said the organization had “no plans at this time” to reapply.
Asked about the rejection, Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman said that while the inclusion of groups like Peace Now indicate a willingness to entertain views similar to J Street’s, “the criteria are changing, and maybe that’s because of outside pressure on Israel and issues of delegitimization of the state, which 20 years ago we didn’t have to deal with.”
Foxman added that he believes “outside attacks on Israel have impacted the level of tolerance of different views” and that he hopes that this trend will not “impact the conference negatively.”
“There is a serious difference of opinion in the community on J street, and whether they are more pro-peace than pro-Israel,” he explained.
“They have taken several sides of positions, and their positions have morphed, I would say. There’s enough of a record on issues of sanction and pushing the American administration, there’s enough of a debate and discussion to disagree as to how pro-Israel they are.”
This was certainly the view of Farley Weiss, the leader of the National Council of Young Israel, a national network of modern-Orthodox synagogues, who said that J Street’s actions had placed it outside of the pro-Israel camp.
“If you have a record, it’s hard to say that this isn’t who we are,” Weiss said. By defending the United Nations’ Goldstone report, “that even Goldstone doesn’t defend” anymore, he said, “they’re out of the mainstream.”
JTA contributed to this report.