The Conference of Presidents has compromised its integrity as a group that truly represents American Jewry.
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you win, but really lose. And then other times you lose, but really win.
On the face of it, J Street lost this week in its effort to gain membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. After an application process that lasted almost a year, the organization that calls itself “pro peace, pro Israel” failed to garner the requisite votes to meet the constitutionally mandated membership threshold of the Conference. Those who opposed J Street’s candidacy will no doubt see this as a victory. I’m not at all so sure…
As President of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis, I have been a member of the Conference for the past two years. In fact, I served on the Membership Committee that shepherded J Street’s application from its inception to this week’s vote. The Rabbinical Assembly voted to admit J Street. I supported that vote.
Though I sit in the Conference as the President of the Rabbinical Assembly, what I write in this article is not to be construed as an official comment of the RA. And the Rabbinical Assembly’s vote was not an endorsement of J Street. We have members who support it and members who oppose it. What we wanted to do with our vote was affirm the reality and the importance of pluralism in the Zionist community – and in the Conference of Presidents.
Truth to tell, I am not a big fan of J Street. My personal inclination in matters relating to pro-Israel activism are much closer to the AIPAC view of how Israel is best helped and protected in these perilous and uncertain times. Jeremy Ben-Ami, the founder and President of J Street, has always seemed to me unnecessarily provocative in his advocacy efforts. Of the Palestinians, Abba Eban once famously said that they “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Mr. Ben-Ami, in the name of providing an alternative, left-of-center advocacy voice for Israel, has never shied away from taking a stance on a controversial issue that went beyond an alternative advocacy voice, and veered into something dangerously close (some would say over the line) to obscuring J Street’s fundamentally pro-Israel posture. He rarely, if ever, missed a chance to critique the more mainstream Jewish leadership.
But my personal feelings, and those of the other members of the Conference, were not what was being voted on this week. What was at stake was the integrity of the Conference of Presidents as an umbrella group that truly represents the broad swath of American Jewry.
J Street would not have been the first left-leaning organization to sit in the Conference. There are others, including Ameinu and APN, the American branch of Peace Now, but their views are largely overwhelmed by the consensus-driven nature of the Conference and its leadership, which tend to be far more conservative as Israel goes. J Street is much larger, better organized, and far more influential than either of them, or any other left-of-center organizations in the Conference. Its reach, particularly on college campuses, is something that most mainstream Jewish organizations can only covet.
Despite my own personal misgivings about J Street, I advocated for its admission to the Conference precisely because I don’t share its views. There are other members of the Conference whose views are not consonant with my own on matters that are of the greatest concern to me, including my legitimacy as a rabbi and as a Jew, and religious pluralism in Israel. But in the years that I have participated in its meetings and programs, the Conference has afforded me – and those with whom I differ – a crucial opportunity to move beyond the instinctive demonization of “ the other” to a healthier, more reality-based appreciation of the areas of commonality that we share.
That is exactly what should have happened with J Street. Membership in the Conference would have afforded its leadership a crucial opportunity to see the world though the Conference’s eyes, and for the Conference to see the world of Israel advocacy through J Street’s eyes. It would also have sent a much-needed message to the many college students who have found their voice on Israel through J Street that the leadership of the American Jewish community hears them, and values what they have to say, even if it sometimes disagrees. But the Conference of Presidents did not do that, and that was, in my view, most unfortunate.
I continue to believe that the Conference of Presidents plays a vital role in advocating for Israel’s cause and security, and for the security of the Jewish community as a whole, both here in America and around the world. When the Conference talks, governments listen. I think, however, that the Conference’s voice would have been strengthened, and made more authentically representative of the community that it serves, had more of its members transcended their fears and voted to include J Street. Now that it has not, Jeremy Ben-Ami, who has never missed an opportunity to accuse the mainstream Jewish leadership of being out of step with reality, has been handed his next op-ed piece for the New York Times on a silver platter.
On the surface, it looks like the mainstream leadership won, and J Street lost. But like I said, some times you lose but you really win, and that’s exactly what J Street accomplished. It didn’t have to be that way. And the Jewish community as a whole will wind up paying the price.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.