J Street: Allowed in the tent, but not fit to lead it

While J Street calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” critics charge that the organization goes too far in placing blame and pressure on Israel.

AIPAC and J Street  (photo credit: Courtesy)
AIPAC and J Street
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Who has the right to represent the American Jewish community? The debate is now raging in the aftermath of a major decision.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which consists of 50 member organizations that come together to engage American leaders on issues concerning Israel and American Jewry, voted to leave left-wing group J Street off of its membership.
While J Street calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” critics charge that the organization goes too far in placing blame and pressure on Israel. As a result, their membership bid for the Conference of Presidents was denied – and they are furious.
Supporters of J Street are arguing they were treated as “beyond the pale,” believing there is a lack of “respectful dialogue.”
One J Street leader said the vote proves that, in the Jewish community’s mind, “J Street doesn’t deserve a say.”
J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami, for his part, said the vote “shut the door to debate.”
The editor of the New Republic – who called J Street’s rejection a “scandal” – believes the Jewish community treats left-wing Jews as treif (non-kosher).
Next month’s Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City will take place just in time to disprove these points, as J Street and other controversial leftwing Jewish groups will be marching in it. In fact, they have had a presence at many similar Israel Independence Day celebrations around America for several years now. That is hardly treif treatment. The parade is symbolic of their role – they are active participants.
But the Conference vote is emblematic as well: they are only participants.
While the Jewish community is comfortable with their participation, it is not comfortable with J Street voting on the leadership council that makes decisions for the Jewish community.
But J Street does not appear prepared to accept that, so they change the issue by protesting their right to expression and dialogue.
However, the organization has received countless platforms to express its views. It was allowed to campaign, and its supporters were allowed to speak in anticipation of the Conference vote and at countless other Jewish forums.
J Street has probably had more Jewish press than any other organization over the last several years. Ben-Ami has spoken at many synagogues; he recently sat on a panel discussion with former US ambassador Danny Ayalon at Yeshiva University; and he has debated major Jewish thinkers such as Daniel Gordis and Yossi Klein Halevi. Jewish publications have published his op-eds.
Peter Beinart, one of the leading authors for the J Street point of view, has received similar exposure, including many speaking engagements at campus Hillels.
Shut out of the dialogue? They have actually had a louder voice than their size calls for. The widespread exposure is exactly why their rejection is so devastating – but to acknowledge that is to accept J Street’s defeat.
J Street acted in the same way when it was twice denied a seat on the Jewish student union at the University of California – Berkeley. They claimed they were shut out of the dialogue; yet it was not true there, and it is not true on the national scene.
The reality is that members of J Street and other far-left groups – constantly critical of Israeli policy – can participate in the Jewish community, and are given the right to express their views.
They have not, however, earned the privilege to lead. While they are participating in the parade, they are not authorized to vote on anything important.
They are essentially the opposition, much like in Israeli politics – where those who call for relinquishing land haphazardly and dividing Jerusalem have not won an election in years. That does not mean that the likes of the Meretz party are “shut out” or “ostracized.”
It just means they are relegated to the opposition in the Knesset.
The same dynamic is true at every level of the American Jewish community.
Most Jews today do not agree with J Street’s agenda. J Street argues that most American Jews favor the two-state solution, and therefore agree with their organization, but the argument is a sleight of hand.
While most Jews do favor a twostate solution in theory, they do not favor forcing it into existence without a pro-peace Palestinian leader on the other side. They do not favor dividing Jerusalem, softening pressure on Iran or accepting anti-Israel demagoguery such as the Goldstone Report.
Most importantly, they do not favor undermining Israeli democracy by pressuring the Israeli government to go against the will of the Israeli electorate.
The only way J Street’s supporters can deny this is to claim their point of view is not given a fair chance to be expressed.
The truth is that J Street has been able to make their points loudly, and repeatedly.
As a result, they have been asked not to lead.
This is called democracy – and it is perfectly appropriate. ■ The writer is a master’s candidate in Middle East studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.