Who speaks for the American Jewish community? For years the assumption has been that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was the main voice of the American Jewish community. The Conference of Presidents is an umbrella encompassing some 51 Jewish organizations representing all of the religious streams, defense organizations and other significant American Jewish institutions. Their mission is to produce consensus statements on behalf of American Jews on matters important to us, such as Israel’s security, so that political leaders in our country and opinion leaders have a sense of the pulse of the American Jewish community. During the Eisenhower administration, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles complained that he was inundated by so many Jewish organizations lobbying him on Israel, and he didn’t know who spoke for the Jewish community. Therefore, the Conference of Presidents was formed to streamline contact between the Jewish community and Washington. This model works when there is general consensus. Until there isn’t.
Recently, a deep rift in the Jewish community has been exposed over the Conference of Presidents’ vote to reject a membership application by J Street, the so-called “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobby organization. While the vote was secret, news media reported that of the 42 organizations that participated in the vote, 17 supported J Street’s membership, 22 opposed and three abstained. J Street needed a two-thirds majority of the Presidents Conference, or 34 of the 51 member groups.
I must confess to some personal ambivalence over this vote. Underscoring my own ambivalence, two organizations within the Conservative Movement in which I’m involved cast opposing votes on the matter. I sit on the board of MERCAZ-USA, the Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement, which voted against admitting J Street. The Rabbinical Assembly, on the other hand, voted in favor.
Before I spell out the reasons for my ambivalence, I note that our Torah portion this week, Parashat Behar, is focused as a whole on the Eretz Yisrael, that tract of land that embodies so much emotional, spiritual and religious importance for us as Jews. If Israel did not hold such importance, nobody would be getting worked up over a membership vote in the Presidents’ Conference. The portion describes the practices of Shmittah, the Sabbatical year in which the Land is to lie fallow, and Yovel, the Jubilee, in which all land returns to its original owner, all debts are erased and all slaves are freed. Observance of these laws is meant to remind us that the Land ultimately does not belong to us, but to God. In describing the Jubilee, the text instructs: V’khi timkeru mimkar la’amitecha o kanoh miyad amitecha, al tonu ish et achiv. When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another (Leviticus 25: 14).
The Midrash interprets the application of this verse as extending beyond a mere business transaction. Rather, the admonishment al tonu ish et achiv, “you shall not wrong one another,” includes wronging a person with harmful words (Lev. R. 33:1, quoted by Rabbi Harold Kushner, Etz Hayim, p. 740). This includes reminding a repentant sinner of his or her former misdeeds and asking a merchant the price of something when you have no intention of buying. In other words, the Torah is concerned not only with economic justice, as vital as it is, but also in promoting civil discourse.
The centrality of promoting healthy speech in our tradition is the source of my ambivalence over the J Street/Conference of Presidents controversy. On one hand, I have deep concerns about J Street. As Alan Dershowitz wrote an op-ed in Ha’aretz recently:
“[J Street] seeks to attract centrist members by advocating the two-state solution, an aggressive stance towards peace negotiations and criticisms of Israel’s settlement policies. These are positions I fully support, and if they were J Street’s only positions, I would have joined that organization many years ago. But in an effort to expand leftward, particularly hard leftward, it has taken positions that undercut Israel’s security and that virtually no Israeli center-leftists support.”
Dershowitz notes further:
“When J Street invites BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) supporters and those [who] oppose Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people to speak at its events, it claims that it does not necessarily support these positions, but it believes in encouraging its members to hear views that are different from its official positions. That is total nonsense. J Street only wants people to hear views to the anti-Israel hard left of its position. It categorically refuses to allow its members to hear views that are more centrist and more pro-Israel, such as my own.”
As Dershowitz and others have said, J Street speaks out of both sides of its mouth. It says it’s a Zionist organization, but gives public platforms to those who seek to destroy the concept of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people. Given this track record, I understand the sentiment of the majority of Jewish organizations that see J Street as a threat to the consensus-building mission of the Conference of Presidents.
Despite Dershowitz’s compelling case, I am concerned that J Street may actually have won by losing. The negative vote enables J Street to play the victim and boost their agenda to delegitimize the organized Jewish community. Even for those of us who don’t agree with their platform, they have made significant inroads in the Jewish community, especially on college campuses. Like it or not, they are a “Major American Jewish Organization” that is far more influential than many other long-standing members of the Conference of Presidents. J Street is exploiting the vote for fundraising and publicity. It has declared that the vote is proof that the organized Jewish community is tone deaf and doesn’t care about younger Jews who don’t relate to Israel like their parents and grandparents did.
Rabbi Gerald Skolnik, President of the Rabbinical Assembly, voted in favor of admission and wrote the following in an op-ed in the New York Jewish Week:
“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….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.”
Rabbi Skolnik continues: “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.”
We learn in the Torah al tonu ish et achiv, “you shall not wrong one another.” Our tradition understands this as extending to how we talk to and about one another. In this light, I believe it is in the best interest of the Jewish community that those within the organized Jewish community and those who seek to enter find a way to talk to and listen to one another. For J Street this might mean adopting a constructive agenda that does not seek to embarrass American Jewish organizations that have done vital work for decades. For the organized Jewish community, efforts towards greater inclusion might just neutralize the most strident voices they seek to exclude and enhance an umbrella organization committed to Jewish unity. As Israel celebrates 66 years, may we be blessed with renewed vigor to promote civil discourse for the betterment of the Jewish people.