Why J Street’s Rejection from the Conference of Presidents is a Good Thing

Last week, when J Street’s bid for acceptance into the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations was rejected ”badly” as the Jewish Daily Forward put it, receiving only 17 of the needed 34 votes to be accepted into the 51-member body, seen by many as spanning the mainstream of organized Jewish America (and while it may not speak for the majority of Jewish Americans, its members certainly control a majority of American-Jewish resources and political clout when it comes to these issues).

I wrote the a version of the following on Facebook after reading the article in the Forward:

Over the past few years, In order to gain favor with the Mainstream American Jewish community, J Street has: (1) supported an American veto of Palestinian declaration of independence at the UN (2011) (2) uncritically celebrated false-left-wing Israeli politicians like Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni (the last two conferences), (3) willingly gone along with Jewish organizations that are anything-but-Left in their efforts to demonize and exclude any type of boycott, divestment or sanctions (including providing what some analysts say was the swing-factor in defeating cases like the Presbyterian effort to divest from only technologies and corporations that profit from the Occupation (and not Israeli corporations writ large), (4) ”honored the memory” of Ariel Sharon without mentioning his responsibility for massacres (a few months ago), and more.

With all of this, J Street’s bid to join the Conference of Presidents was rejected. This is a good thing. I say that not to say “we told you so,” but rather in hope that this rejection will move J Street onto a different path. It is time for J Street to stop trying to please the Jewish right (if they didn’t accept J Street now, they’re not likely to later), to stop stepping carefully (being pro-peace means taking real risks), to return to its roots (i.e., to the Left) and to look further leftwards (to Palestinians, to Palestine-solidarity activists, to Israeli, Palestinian and Diaspora anti-occupation movements). That’s where the change is going to come from, not from the halls of the Conference of Presidents.” 

Garnering “likes” from dozens of people I knew from my J Street days, I decided to expand on the status, by going into my own background with J Street, and elaborating on what I hope this will mean.

My Background with J Street

In the Winter of 2008-2009, as the Israeli army rained down destruction on the whole of the Gaza Strip in an operation dubbed “Cast Lead,” the first thing I did every morning when I woke up in my chilly Vermont dorm room was to flip open my laptop and mumble an improvised prayer that the headlines would tell me that it was over. But it seemed to be unending: day after day, week after week, dozens after hundreds after more than a thousand Palestinians killed by the bombs and bullets of the army that I had grown up believing “never entered wars except when absolutely necessary,” that I had grown up knowing “did all that it could to prevent the deaths of innocents.” It was horrific. Of course, it was far away: I was an American-Israeli Jew nestled away in the safety of Vermont. Even so, it came closer to me than most wars in the past had: a new friend and fellow waiter at the Middlebury “Language Tables” suffered an unspeakable loss when both of his brothers were killed by Israeli soldiers. One of them bled to death as the ambulance was barred from reaching him. 

Unsettling and disturbing in a different way, and perhaps one closer to home, was the reactions of my community, the American Jewish community. “Israel is doing what it has to be doing to stop terror,” was the gentle way some put it. And there was of course a lot more nauseous, celebratory bellicosity. Where was the pursuit of justice, where was the defiant irreverence that drove many to Civil Rights activism, where was the anti-Vietnam war spirit, where was the nation who will not lift up sword against nation? There were only two Jewish groups at the time that I came across who were willing to utter even the most basic criticism of how many human beings Israel had killed the process of this “operation,” Jewish Voice for Peace, whose languages was compelling but whose apartheid-comparisons and boycott-advocacy were [then] deterrents for my fully signing on [no longer], and J Street, a new “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” lobby and grassroots organizing body. It’s statements were not as strongly-worded as JVP’s, which is perhaps what allowed me to step fully into their midst, or perhaps it was just circumstance. Either way, I had found a home to pursue peace and justice for Palestinians and Israelis, as I saw it then, and within a year, I was student president of the national board of J Street U, and by the Spring of 2011, I was tasked with introducing Peter Beinart at J Street’s second annual conference. Here’s what it went like (different world, different framings, different uniform, different headgear, but ultimately, same me):

My Disillusionment with J Street 

Fast-forward to J Street’s third conference, in March 0f 2012.  I’d spent the past eight months as an activist on the ground in Jerusalem, and my outlook had changed. But I thought then, and I still think now, that the change wasn’t only on my end: J Street, as it gained momentum, recognition and power, had undergone a process of chiseling away at its Left-wing foundations in an effort to gain favor with the mainstream. Worried and upset, I wrote an op-ed in +972 Magazine arguing that J Street risked losing its deep value if it abandoned its Left-Wing ideals:

J Street will not catch up to AIPAC in terms of money, membership or power in time to stave off Israel’s process of Apartheidization. The only thing J Street has over AIPAC is our system of values. And this system of values must be stronger than the temptation to ally with people responsible for war crimes, as “politically/strategically valuable” as such an act might seem. While I think that many left the conference feeling excited and invigorated, I and some others left deeply concerned.” [Full article here]. 

I wasn’t alone in my criticism. Others, including Naftali Kaminski, an Israeli doctor based in Pittsburgh with whom I had felt deep resonance when we first met at a J Street leadership gathering, penned an open letter to J Street members criticizing what he called J Street’s inability to influence congress, its double-speak and its disconnect from Israel.

My Hope for J Street

As I wrote in another piece after the conference in 2012, with J Street’s political failings and disappointing rightward trends, it remained an important organization and a highly capable convening-body and communal-anchor for wide-swaths of American Jewish Leftists and Liberals:

“…the recent J Street conference showed that the organisation’s second reason for existence, creating a space in the American Jewish community that allows for a variety of opinions about Israeli policy and which embraces debate, continues to resonate and reverberate. For example, in the fall of 2009, when J Street held its first conference, there were about 200 students in attendance. This recent conference drew around 650 university students from over 120 colleges and universities around the United States through J Street U, the organisation’s university arm.” [Full piece here]. 

And that is the crux of all of this. Therein lies the potential of the Conference of Presidents Rejection to serve as a wakeup call for both J Street’s leadership and its base:

The organized American Jewish community isn’t failing: It has failed. It has failed to carry the mantle of genuine Jewish American commitment to social justice for Jews and non-Jews alike. It has failed to carry the mantle of the Israelite prophets willing to rebuke their own community when the community acted in ways that were violent, selfish or wrong. It has failed to model what a meaningful relationship to Israel could look like by inventing an imaginary Israel that is home only to Jews and just so happens to house a few million non-existent people and/or terrorists. The organized American Jewish community has failed. So is tiptoing so as not to anger the representatives of the establishment the right way forward? Is seeking membership in the body that represents this failure an avenue towards peace? Is peace going to come once Eric Fingerhut and Malcolm Hoenlein and Abe Foxman all recognize J Street’s right to exist?*

I’d say: no way.

And I know that there are many in J Street who would – or might – or may – agree with me, especially now, especially after this. Because J Street’s base, I think, is generally left-wing. J Street’s base, I think, is genuinely appalled by the occupation. J Street’s base, I think, is generally genuinely pro-Peace. So let’s ask J Street to change, those of us who were once members, those of us who are still members, and those of us who were, by and large, never members (ie., those of us who come from the single most relevant demographic in terms of ending the occupation, and who suffer by far the most greviously from the lack of peace, and who are still often excluded from conversations about what needs to be, ie., Palestinians).

Can it be done? Can J Street, following the Conference of Presidents’ Rejection and Kerry’s Failure, begin to slough off its efforts to please the Mainstream? Will J Street return to a path in which it is able to challenge itself and its base by bringing voices- particularly Palestinian voices, but also more radical voices from the Jewish community and others- to the center of its conversation? Can J Street return to its Liberal roots– and then look further left?

I’m an optimist, by nature, but I’d love to hear others’ thoughts.

Who would've thunk
Who would’ve thunk

*Ari Shavit has recently affirmed his support that the Conference of Presidents recognize J Street’s right to exist not just as a lobby but as a Jewish and Democratic lobby.