J Street applied for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Today, its application was resoundingly rejected in a vote in which only 17 of 50 voted to accept the group. 22 voted “No” and there were 3 abstentions. J Street need 34 yes votes and didn’t even come close despite an intense push. In the past week several centrist groups announced their support for the group and none announced their opposition. However, the Conference has been run for decades by Malcolm Hoenlein, who earned his stripes in the Soviet Jewry campaigns of the 60s and retains a hawkish Cold War mentality. Undoubtedly, Hoenlein didn’t want J Street, and worked hard behind the scenes against its acceptance.
The Conference is a roundtable group that represents most of the members of the Israel Lobby, though it deals with a slightly broader range of issues relevant to American Jewry. It takes a party-line position supporting Israel and acts as the choir for the Netanyahu hawkish approach to Iran. When the Obama administration wants to sound out American Jewish leaders on questions regarding Israel, it often turns to the Conference as its interlocutor.
But in truth, the Conference represents the increasingly irrelevant dying gasp of the organized mainstream Jewish community. When the Pew Center polled American Jews about their changing beliefs and found interest in old-line issues like Israel, anti-Semitism and assimilation waning–it was the groups within the Conference who were especially taking the hit. Their membership and fundraising is declining. As Israel wanders farther from international consensus concerning the Occupation and creating a Palestinian state, the protestations of the Conference in its favor increasingly fall on deaf ears.
I find the news of J Street’s rejection to be interesting in a clinical sort of way. As a study in what’s wrong with the American Jewish community. I’ve already discussed some of the issues involving the Conference. But J Street’s role is also instructive. It views itself as the liberal standard-bearer for American Jews, a 21st century version of the American Jewish Congress as it was in the 1950s and 60s. So it made perfect sense for J Street to step up to the plate and take its rightful national leadership role. Though I haven’t studied the numbers, clearly J Street represents a growing membership and fundraising base. It speaks to a ruling liberal Democratic administration and on behalf of the 70% of Jews who supported it. It had every right to expect admission.
The fact that the Conference thought otherwise instructs us on what I call the closing of the American Jewish mind. While American Jews remains largely liberal, their communal organizations have turned increasingly conservative. That’s why the Conference feels it can afford to slap J Street in the face with this rejection. In reality, the loss speaks volumes about the increasing irrelevance of the self-appointed ruling elite of American Jewry. It goes without saying that they’re unelected. These are white men who’ve climbed the corporate ladder to success. They have the leisure, motivation and ego to pursue these sinecure positions. But they don’t speak for anyone but the Jewish 1%. Anyone who believes that when they speak to the Conference they speak to a representative body is deluding him or herself.
That’s why this statement from the Conference was so laughable:
“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.
The Conference represents the ‘consensus’ of the 1%, not of the broad body of American Jewry.
Returning to J Street. I’ve believed for years that the group is based on a false premise. It purported to be a pro-peace organization that would be critical of Israeli policy and act as an alternative to Aipac. It’s never been that. It is only critical of Israeli policy when the Obama administration is (which is almost never). That’s why this barrel of lies from Mort Klein (who’s right even less times a day than a broken clock) is so preposterous:
Morton Klein, president of the ZOA, [criticized ]…“some of their horrific, anti-Israel actions,” including endorsing the Goldstone Report, opposing Iran sanctions, and calling on the US administration to endorse a UN resolution that condemned Israel, which the US ultimately vetoed.
In fact, J Street opposed Goldstone, supported Iran sanctions and has never opposed any administration position regarding Israel at the UN. In fact, J Street is, as I’ve often written, Jews for Obama. It’s the cheerleading section for the Democratic Party with an emphasis on its Mideast policy. It’s a little to the left of Aipac and most of the Lobby, but not by much. That’s why Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer were absolutely correct (and I disagreed with them at the time) in including J Street as a member of the Lobby. Of course they are.
That’s why it’s absolutely ludicrous for the Conference to reject J Street. It’s like a human body rejecting its left hand. It makes no sense.
But if you look at this process in terms of the increasing dysfunction and irrelevance I outlined above, it starts to make more sense. J Street pretends to be something it’s not. The Conference is itself based on a false premise. The whole thing is a sham. But what scares Jews who object to all this mishugas is–what is the alternative? Who will speak for us if not these fat-cat Jewish mandarins. It is another mark of our failure as a community that we haven’t had the foresight, leadership or courage to devise a Plan B for American Jewry.
The Forward reports that Reform Judaism leader, Rabbi Rick Jacobs is pretty ticked off at this development. You’ll note that this statement pretty much reflects what I’ve written above (though in a slightly more judicious articulation):
“This much is certain: We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs accused the Presidents Conference of being beholden to a large number of small right wing groups that do not adequately represent the diversity of the American Jewish community.
He said that many of the largest and most reputable organizations, including all member organizations from the Reform and Conservative movement, supported the bid.
“It is clear that the Conference of Presidents, as currently constituted and governed, no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community,” he said, calling the procedures of the conference into question.
To which I have two replies: what took you so long? And “better late than never.”
NOTE: I’m delighted that The Nation has republished, Israel-Palestine: Kerry’s Peace Talks Hit the Separation Wall, which I wrote for Foreign Policy in Focus, on the death of the U.S. brokered Israel-Palestine peace talks. My last piece published at The Nation was in 2008 (not for lack of trying!).