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Presidents Conference Rejection of J Street Generates a Strong Backlash

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2014

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted by a wide margin at the end of April to deny membership to J Street, an increasingly influential group which often challenges Israeli government policy, particularly with regard to its occupation of the West Bank.  
J Street was formed six years ago as a counterpoint to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has steadfastly supported Israel’s right-wing government and its reluctance to move toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, said the vote sent a “terrible message” to those who have concerns over aspects of Israeli policy. “This is what has been wrong with the conversation in the Jewish community,” he said. “People whose views don’t fit in with those running longtime organizations are not welcome, and this is sad proof of that. It sends the worst possible signal to young Jews who want to be connected to the Jewish community, but also want to have freedom of thought and expression.”  
There is every indication that J Street not the Presidents Conference or AIPAC is more representative of American Jewish opinion. A poll conducted last year by the Pew Research Center found that a plurality of American Jews did not believe the Israeli government was making a sincere effort to reach a peace settlement.  
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, declared that the rejection of J Street “made clear what many have known, but not said publicly. That the Conference of Presidents is captive of a large number of small organizations that do not represent the diversity of views in our community … the Conference … as currently constituted and governed no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community.”  
Prof. Theodore Sasson of Middlebury College, who is also senior research scientist at the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, notes that the vote on J Street came “in the context of broader efforts by right-wing activists and donors to limit who can speak about Israel in Jewish communal settings. Their targets have included federations, Jewish community centers, Hillel organizations and synagogues … A vote against J Street would be widely viewed as evidence that the Jewish establishment has joined in the crackdown on dissent.”  
The realization that there is great diversity in American Jewish opinion is growing. Consider the case of David Rothkopf.  
Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine, grew up in a Zionist family in New Jersey and has been a long-time supporter of Israel. As a student at Columbia University, his roommate was Michael Oren, who later abandoned his U.S. citizenship and became Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. Late in 2013, Rothkopf visited Israel for the first time. In a public exchange of letters with Oren, he expresses the view that as a religious and garrison state, Israel has “passed its sell-by date.”  
Rothkopf writes: “I find the response of Zionism (to modern historical challenges) to be exactly the wrong one … Reflex was my first instinct for supporting Israel. But it is not sustainable if you have a truly Jewish mind — a mind linked to a tradition of ‘struggling’ with even the Highest Power. Ideas and beliefs have to be tested against a reality. Today there are other safe places for Jews in the world, notably America. Today there are other ways for Jews to live and be true to their traditions that don’t involve the harsher realities of a garrison state.”  
Now, Rothkopf declares, “Israel’s needs should not have a greater claim on outcomes … than those of Palestinians … History is the story of the human catastrophe that results when states promote religious ends or use religious criteria to guide their governance … It is exclusionary. It is about finding a way to achieve cultural and ethnic ‘purity.’ It is an idea that should be more anathema to Jews, given our history, than to any other group.”  
AIPAC and the Presidents Conference may claim to represent American Jewish opinion. All of the available evidence, however, points to a far different conclusion. •

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