There was much outrage and embarrassment across a swath of American Jewish leadership last month, following the vote to reject J Street's bid to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The new calls to hold the Presidents' Conference accountable are breezing past and colliding with the recycled allegations that J Street is some anti-Israel puppet of billionaire George Soros. Ideologues on both sides have been empowered, leaving the mainstream majority alienated and bewildered.
Though it may be quickly overtaken by diplomatic and political events in Washington and Israel, the J Street controversy adds to an image of American Jewry not engaged where and when it truly matters.
As the Jewish right and left wings rush to their respective corners, those of us in the relative center of the community have a right to feel excluded and frustrated by the Presidents' Conference decision. And especially so, at this precarious moment in the path toward guaranteeing a secure and democratic Jewish state for future generations.
Those Jews who are not ready to embrace all of J Street's strategies and tactics, while also regretting its rejection by the Presidents' Conference, still need to take a stand. How do we respond to the call for greater U.S. pressure, and how do we as a broader community accommodate and nurture the genuine commitment and Zionism of J Street's youthful and growing membership?
We express our anger and resignation about an ossified and decreasingly relevant umbrella like the Presidents' Conference, and call out its leadership for rejecting J Street, but how are we offering an alternative process? And why aren't we demanding that the Conference, and AIPAC, and major organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (which publicly supported J Street's bid) do more -- or anything -- to help realize a two-state solution, beyond merely repeating that mantra often enough as to believe that's sufficient?
Isn't it time we started demanding more from our community bodies, and from ourselves?
General statements of support for a two-state solution should no longer be accepted at face value. Anyone who "supports" a two-state solution should be able to demonstrate such commitment by advocating U.S. funds to Palestinian security cooperation and economic development, joining public awareness campaigns in that direction, and launching their own awareness projects. Maybe we can't expect that from every individual Jew, but "major" organizations ought to have the resources and reach to generate calls to Capitol Hill, Israel missions focused on a two-state solution, and congregational and community education projects. In short, put up or shut up.
If Israelis and Americans who actively oppose a two-state solution -- and would enable a one-state non-democracy -- are allowed to address Jewish "umbrella" bodies and Hillel students, then we should also tone down the thought-police demonization against any speaker who dares associate with the reckless boycott of Israeli products, let alone left-wing and pro-Israel representatives of J Street. We need more difficult conversations, not fewer.
If J Street is considered too far to the left, then the Presidents' Conference should apply comparable standards to right-wing organizations -- and to community leaders -- who raise money for outlying settlements and buying up property in Arab areas of East Jerusalem, or lobbying to undercut Israeli-Palestinian cooperation toward a two-state solution. At the very least, such individuals and organizations should not be referred to as supporters of peace or classified within the "Jewish mainstream."
Beyond actualizing this consensus of American Jewish support for a two-state solution, and efforts to advance it, organizations that claim to be "representative" should be able to demonstrate that representativeness, with transparent and verifiable numbers of membership and chapters. Groups that claim to be Israel's lifeline to Washington should be able to deliver on that access, in real time, regardless of which party controls the White House.
Realistically, few of the Major American Jewish Organizations have any real input into White House policy on Israel, which is presumably all or part of their raison d'être. Even when meetings are convened and phone calls returned, the "dialogue" with Administration officials is limited to complaints from New York and apologies from Washington. There is little effective cooperation or trust, let alone actual influence on policy. The same was true under the previous administration, despite the Conference's frequent visits and reputedly solid Republican ties.
No one should be claiming to "speak for American Jewry," unless we are all agreed on what that means. And we need to start being more transparent and unambiguous in what we are saying.