The self-aggrandizingly and inelegantly named Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week voted to bar J Street from membership in the umbrella organization.
There are 50 full-fledged members of the Conference and four adjunct members, representing a wide swath of ideology, from American Friends of Likud to Workmen’s Circle and American Friends of Peace Now. But no J Street. One might think that the criteria for membership in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations might simply be that the organization is American, Jewish, major and has a president. Not so.
In an oblique statement after the vote, the Conference said it would continue to represent the “consensus” viewpoint of American Jewry. But that consensus may be crumbling. Opinion polls suggest half of American Jews do not believe Israel is doing enough to hasten peace. And more significant are the congealing of attitudes of younger American Jews.
Formed just six years ago, J Street has leapt into the conversation about Israel, seeking an alternative position to the longstanding AIPAC. J Street has often been critical of Israeli policies and sympathetic to Palestinian initiatives. Generally perceived to be a left-leaning entity, J Street has flourished especially among young American Jews, with 60 campus-based chapters now in existence.
Jewish young people in North America do not subscribe to the circle-the-wagons and don’t-make-trouble strategies of their parents and grandparents. As indicated by the Open Hillel movement, among other recent developments, young Jews demand less fettered discussion on topics of importance to them and to Israel.
The Conference may have made a very short-sighted decision that risks alienating more than just the swath of Jews (however large they may be) who subscribe to J Street’s ideology. They risk alienating Jews who subscribe to a more basic and profoundly Jewish precept: free-flowing debate. This is arguably a far larger demographic.
For some Jews, there is plenty to disagree with in J Street’s platform, as there is in the philosophy of many of the member organizations. Yet J Street, despite the wide spectrum of religious and political voices included under the Conference umbrella, is uniquely set apart for exclusion.
The vote reinforces the stereotype that the (North) American Jewish community is insular in its ideology and unquestioning in its allegiance to the policies of the government of Israel. This is a stereotype that is belied, on the one hand, by the range of ideologies already reflected in the Conference and by the diversity of debate nurtured in these pages and forums like it. Yet it is a statement of intolerance and narrow-mindedness, perhaps also of fear and parochialism, that the diverse voices under the Conference umbrella could not tolerate the voice of J Street.
The vote also negates the wholly pragmatic possibility that engaging with J Street could draw them closer to what the Conference claims are the mainstream Jewish American values. After all, J Street wants to be a part of the organization that claims to be the voice of the Jewish consensus.
Just as the uproar was reaching its crescendo, an utterly bizarre thing happened. On Monday, the Conference ran full-page ads in the New York Times and USA Today marking Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s 66th birthday as a state. The costly ads were funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Far be it for us to speak ill of the dead, but under the circumstances there was something delicious about the funding for this print media extravaganza. Leona Helmsley, who passed away in 2007, was a notorious and widely reviled New York hotelier dubbed by tabloids “The Queen of Mean.” In the 1980s, she was sentenced to 16 years in prison for more than 30 counts of tax fraud, mail fraud and other corruption offences. (She served 18 months.) During the trial, a former housekeeper reported that Helmsley had said, “We don’t pay taxes. Only the little people pay taxes.”
On her death, Helmsley left a $12 million trust fund to her Maltese dog, Trouble. The Helmsley Charitable Trust, which paid for Monday’s newspaper spreads, was estimated at her death to be worth between $5 and $8 billion and was to be allocated largely to the care of dogs.
It may seem a diversion to draw the dead hotelier into this debate, no matter how Cruella de Vil-lian she may have been. Yet under the circumstances, it speaks to the judgment of the Conference.
At the very moment when they are at the centre of a firestorm over their capricious determination of who and what constitutes “mainstream” American Jewish values, they make one of their most visible public pronouncements ever, in the process demonstrating their willingness to be associated in the broadest American public mind with the corrupt, notorious Leona Helmsley, but not with the “pro-Israel, pro-peace” J Street.
This is the consensus voice of Jewish America?