Breaking Up Conference Won’t Help Israel


Monday, May 5, 2014


The day after J Street failed in its bid for admission to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the backlash about the vote is growing. The group that represents the largest denomination of American Jewry, the Union of Reform Judaism, is demanding that the Conference change its one group, one vote policy while also openly threatening to leave the umbrella group. An official of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly is also demanding changes. Meanwhile liberal commentators are blasting the Conference for its 22-17 vote to deny entry the left-wing lobby and making extravagant claims about this vote symbolizing the growing alienation of the Jewish establishment from the wishes of most of those it purports to represent.

Which means that, all things considered, it was a very good day for J Street. As I predicted yesterday before the vote was held, a defeat at the Conference was the best possible outcome for the left-wing organization that came into existence not to fit in and cooperate with existing Jewish groups and coalitions but to blow them up. The negative vote enables J Street and its various left-wing sympathizers to play the victim and boosts their agenda to first delegitimize groups like the Conference and AIPAC and then to replace them.

But while it is understandable that the Reform and Conservative movements would join the lament about J Street’s defeat in order to assuage some of their liberal constituents who support the left-wing lobby, they should be careful about advancing any agenda that could undermine umbrella groups like the Conference. While such organizations can seem at times to be irrelevant to the day-to-day business of American Jewry, they still serve a vital purpose. If the non-Orthodox denominations help J Street destroy them, they will soon learn that not only will it be difficult to replace them but also they and their constituents will not be well served by the politicized chaos that follows.

Only hours after their defeat J Street was already attempting to make hay from the vote with a fundraising email sent out to their list. It read, in part:

“Thank you, Malcolm Hoenlein and the Conference of Presidents.”

Yesterday’s rejection of our bid to join the Conference validates the reason for J Street: those claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community don’t in fact represent the full diversity of pro-Israel views in our community—or even its prevailing views.

Thus despite J Street leader Jeremy Ben-Ami’s public expression of disappointment about the vote, the group was clearly prepared all along to exploit a rejection to further their campaign to brand both AIPAC and the Conference as out of touch. J Street came into existence hoping to do just that, but over the course of the last five years failed miserably to do so. Though J Street’s raison d’être was to serve as a Jewish cheerleader for Obama administration pressure on Israel, it has little influence on Capitol Hill and has even, to its dismay, sometimes been repudiated by a president it supports unconditionally. Thus it hopes to use this incident to gain more traction against mainstream groups.

But those, like Haaretz’s Chemi Shalev, who are using this vote to bash pro-Israel groups should be asking themselves why so many members of the Conference which already includes left-wing organizations like Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu would vote against adding one more to their ranks. The reason is that many centrist groups clearly resented J Street’s unwarranted pretensions to speak for American Jewry and to undermine the broad-based AIPAC.

The Conference was created to provide a way for a diverse and cantankerous Jewish community a single structure with which it could deal with the U.S. government. The point was, though its members have often disagreed and true consensus between left and right is often impossible, the Conference still provides Congress and the executive branch an address through which they can reach a broad and diverse coalition of Jewish organizations. Adding one more on the left wouldn’t have changed that but unlike other left-leaning groups, J Street has never had any interest in playing ball with rivals or allies. Its purpose is not to enrich and broaden that consensus but to destroy it. And that was something that groups that had no real ideological fight with J Street rightly feared.

Moreover, the arguments that only groups like J Street can speak to Jewish youth are also easily debunked. Rather than seek to bolster the efforts of pro-Israel groups on American campuses, J Street’s cohorts seem more interested in making common cause with anti-Zionist and pro-BDS groups than in standing together with the courageous Jews who are resisting the boycotters.

But if the Reform and Conservative movements aid J Street in this effort what follows won’t aid their cause. If the formal structures of American Jewry split between those backed by the centrist establishment and the J Street-led left, this won’t advance the cause of Israel or the interests of American Jews. Dividing the Jews in this manner will only serve the cause of those who wish to wage war on Israel’s democratically elected government and to widen the splits between Jerusalem and Washington. That isn’t something that any group that calls itself “pro-Israel” should want. Non-Orthodox Jews who wish to bolster the position of their members in the Jewish state should also be especially wary of anything that will make it harder to make their voices heard in Jerusalem.

Whatever one may think of the Conference or of its decision to play into J Street’s hands with this rejection, the notion that including the left-wing group would strengthen Jewish unity or the community’s outreach to youth is a myth. J Street may have failed miserably in its effort to defeat AIPAC in Washington, but its campaign to trash the pro-Israel consensus and replace it with one that seeks to undermine the Jewish state is still very much alive.