Point: J Street as a member of the Conference of Presidents
Earlier this week the application of JStreet, which calls itself “The political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” was denied membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (COP). While I personally find their stance on Israel and how they approach Israeli issues in Washington unhelpful from the viewpoint of someone who lives here, nevertheless they deserve a seat on the COP.
To understand that position one needs to look at several critical factors beyond whether one agrees or disagrees with the programs being fostered by JStreet.
Historically, the Conference, when it was formed in 1956, was created at the behest of then U.S. President Eisenhower. At the time American Jewry, with its activism stimulated by the recent creation of the State of Israel, was seeing a proliferation of policy groups all having an interest in influencing U.S. policy. The president and his advisers realized that (a) it was difficult to figure out the differences between each group or even where they agreed and (b) there was an absence of both time and patience to deal individually with each of them. So the suggestion was made that a body be created which would be an address for the administration when it wanted to contact the American Jewish community and, in the opposite direction, a vehicle for that community to convey its concerns to the administration in Washington.
It was not until 1986, when the present executive director, Malcolm Hoenlein, took the reins that the Conference began to become more active in shaping U.S. policy, particularly that of the president and his advisers. According to the Conference’s website their aim is to be a “consensus voice among Jewish organizations in dealings with the executive branch of government.” They cooperate significantly with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as well with a rough division of labor with AIPAC dealing primarily with the legislative branch of government.
This week the argument that was made by the objectors that JStreet does not represent a consensus of the American Jewish community does not really hold water. Clearly within the present membership of the Conference there are many issues on which full consensus can never be achieved. Witness the current differences of opinion between the Reform/Conservative bloc on the issue of the Women of the Wall vs. that of the Orthodox Union. Yet all three groups are well represented on the COP.
In addition, in the democratic spirit of America, each member organization regardless of its size has one vote on the governing board. So, for example, the Workmen’s Circle has the same voting power on the COP as the much larger Orthodox Union. This has been a core principle of the COP. As such the charge that JStreet’s membership was blocked by relatively insignificant players in the American Jewish community is spurious.
The bottom line seems to be that enough of the current members of the Conference find the position of JStreet sufficiently abhorrent so as to prevent those members from agreeing to admit JStreet. Yet, JStreet does represent a significant cross section of American Jewry, no less important than any group currently represented on the COP. So, even though, again, I personally think that the positions taken by JStreet are often not in the best interests of those of us who live here in Israel, by all other standards they warrant the right to be members of the COP.
We need never be afraid to hear another side of the story from our brethren. Thomas Paine said “When men yield up the privilege of thinking, the last shadow of liberty quits the horizon.” There was nothing to be gained from denying JStreet admission and, I fear, quite a bit to lose.
The decision of the COP not to admit them is a self-serving one and not at the level of honest evaluation that one would expect from such high level lay leaders. I hope it can be reconsidered.
Sherwin Pomerantz is a 30-year resident of Jerusalem, a former national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel and president of Atid EDI Ltd., an Israeli Economic Development Consulting firm.