Hard Times On J Street

Last week, J Street’s bid to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations was rejected. Michael Scherer argues that this illustrates how American Jews still think about Israel in starker, more existential terms than Israelis themselves do:

J Street … has as its mission an effort to “expand the very concept of what it means to be pro-Israel.” In practice, this means J Street is more closely aligned with the Israeli Labor party than the Likud Party; that it supports greater Israeli concessions to bring about a two-state solution; that it is more critical of Israeli history than most American Zionists; and that it does not share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hawkish views on Iran.

By a vote of 22 to 17, the American Jewish community’s largest umbrella group has decided that these views, which are widely debated in Israel, should not be allowed as a part of mainstream American Jewish identity. In short, the American Jewish community is still not ready to embrace the messiness of a real Democratic debate. To disagree over the best policies for Israel is, for a slight majority of American Jewish institutions, still an act of opposition to the nation itself.

You might imagine that some would see the entrenchment of apartheid-like rule on the West Bank, the dead end of the peace process, the potential rapprochement with Iran and the growing strength of the BDS movement, especially in Europe, as requiring a re-think with respect to blind support of anything Israel does. But you would be wrong. Yehuda Kurtzer calls the decision “an attempt to sustain a polity that no longer exists, and to imagine a firm dividing line between internal community dissent and external public debates”:

The fact that J Street wanted in to the establishment meant that in spite of policy differences with many of its members, they were ostensibly willing to try to belong to and perhaps even help sustain the declining Jewish consensus; the fact that they are kept out, essentially told to keep doing their work outside the framework of the normative community, actually reinforces the very breakdown of the communal structure from which Conference of Presidents is now a relic.

If once upon a time Jews held a line not to hang our dirty laundry in public, the American public square has become a Jewish Laundromat – all with the tacit endorsement of what was once the community’s mouthpiece and most influential instrument.

Joe Klein laments what he terms “a decidedly un-Jewish development”:

Where I come from–the outer boroughs of New York City–Jews were known for, and entertained ourselves by, arguing about everything. Nothing was ever off the table. But I’ve noticed a tendency of the neo-conservative Jews to denigrate those who disagree with their extreme right-wing positions. They bully. They refuse to engage in a serious debate. They have a cult-like devotion to the party line. They call groups like J Street “anti-Israel,” when it’s possible, perhaps even probable, that COPOMJAO’s hard line will compromise Israel’s ability to thrive in the future.

The CPOMJAO rejection will work well for J Street. It will be “good” publicity, especially among those Jews who have been dismayed by those who claim to Judaism’s official leaders in America. COPOMJAO, meanwhile, seems as silly as its name. It needs reform, including a new identity: I would suggest The Jew Crew as a replacement, but that would imply a lack of self-righteousness and openness to diverse opinions that COPOMJAO doesn’t seem to have.

But Jonathan Tobin argues that J Street, not the conference, is the divisive one:

The Conference was created to provide a way for a diverse and cantankerous Jewish community a single structure with which it could deal with the U.S. government. The point was, though its members have often disagreed and true consensus between left and right is often impossible, the Conference still provides Congress and the executive branch an address through which they can reach a broad and diverse coalition of Jewish organizations. Adding one more on the left wouldn’t have changed that but unlike other left-leaning groups, J Street has never had any interest in playing ball with rivals or allies. Its purpose is not to enrich and broaden that consensus but to destroy it. And that was something that groups that had no real ideological fight with J Street rightly feared.