The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week voted to reject the application for membership by J Street, a liberal organization of Jews that supports Israel but has been critical of some of the policies and activities of the Jewish state.
While this issue may seem to be just about a controversy over Israel, it’s important for all nonprofits to think hard about the message the public receives when an influential coalition of charitable organizations takes a stand against openness and tolerance.
J Street was established six years ago precisely because the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its conservative Jewish allies, a powerful lobbying force in Congress, did not reflect the views of a growing number of reform and liberal Jews who were willing to criticize Israel when it took views they opposed. Through its moderate, balanced policies, it has subsequently gained an impressive following and public respect.
Critics of J Street were elated by the outcome of the conference’s vote, claiming that the liberal organization was not part of the mainstream and presented a potential danger to efforts to promote and protect the state of Israel.
As The New York Times reported, Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, said of J Street: “On virtually every single issue, their position is contrary to that of anything that would be considered pro-Israel, and they don’t represent the rank and file of the Jewish community in America.”
That statement is palpably not true. While critical of some Israeli policies, such as those on settlements and the Gaza Strip, J Street has been supportive of Israel’s right to exist, defend itself, and prosper. It is also wrong to characterize the organization as some far-out group that doesn’t represent a substantial part of American Jewry. Indeed recent polls show that a majority of American Jews support some of the positions of J Street.
The rejection of J Street flies in the face of what all nonprofits stand for, but it is also hard to avoid pointing to the irony and hypocrisy of major Jewish organizations rejecting discussion and debate within their own ranks after the long history of discrimination against Jews and their views. Israel has survived because it became a democracy, tolerating divergent views and criticism from within.
Dissent is an important aspect of American democracy. Who is to say that it can no longer be tolerated? What kind of legacy would that be to leave to our younger Jewish generations.
Many Jewish leaders should be ashamed of themselves. They are becoming an embarrassment both to American Jews and to our society at large.
A strong J Street as a member of the conference is the best way to ensure that this country is a true friend to Israel. It’s time for another vote.