Point-Counterpoint: J Street and the Presidents’ Conference



 Conference’s Rejection of J Street a Shanda!

By Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

Wednesday’s vote by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to reject J Street’s application for membership made clear what many have long 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. As many of us argued before and at the meeting, yesterday’s debate was actually a referendum not on J Street but on the Conference of Presidents itself. As of yesterday, it is clear that the Conference of Presidents, as currently constituted and governed, no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community.

In the days ahead, Reform Movement leaders will be consulting with our partners within the Conference of Presidents to decide what our next steps will be. We may choose to advocate for a significant overhaul of the Conference of Presidents’ processes. We may choose to simply leave the Conference of Presidents. But this much is certain: We will no longer acquiesce to simply maintaining the facade that the Conference of Presidents represents or reflects the views of all of American Jewry.

We want to be clear: The Conference of Presidents followed its own procedures meticulously. It is, in fact, those procedures that all but dictated the result.


The member organizations of the Reform and Conservative movements, which encompass the overwhelming majority of American Jews, all voted to support J Street’s admission. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which represents 14 national and 125 local community relations agencies, voted “yes,” as did the Anti-Defamation League. Still this group was primarily “outvoted” by those that constitute the right wing of the North American Jewish community. To be sure, there is room for those at the table, but they should not be allowed to keep others from participating.

The Conference of Presidents’ membership procedures also give preference to older organizations over new ones. The threshold for membership is high — a new member requires a “yes” vote of two thirds of the current membership for admission. That challenge is exacerbated by the requirement that an applicant receive votes not just from two thirds of those member organizations in attendance at the decision-making meeting, but of the overall Conference of Presidents membership. That means any organization that cannot — or chooses not to — attend, is counted as a “no” vote. Moreover, there is no process by which to review the existing membership. How many of the Conference of Presidents’ current members would win the support of two thirds of the membership today?

One need not always agree with J Street to recognize that its constituency is young, energetic, fast-growing and activism-oriented. All of those qualities would be an asset to the important work of the Conference of Presidents. When I spoke last month at a J Street U Town Hall, I was impressed by the deep commitment of its leaders to the land, state and people of Israel. Shutting their voices out of our communal discussion only serves to expose how narrow that discussion has become.

No one is suggesting that J Street be given “veto power” over actions by the Conference of Presidents — just that they should have a place at the table. I have to wonder what those who voted against J Street yesterday are so afraid of.



Why I Voted Against J Street but Will March in the Parade

 by Rabbi Perry Tirschwell, executive director of the National Council of Young Israel

The definition of “free speech” for us in our relationship with our fellow Jews is different than it is in our relationship with other fellow Americans.

Falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater” is a famous phrase from Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s opinion on behalf of a unanimous Supreme Court, which ruled that it was a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917 to distribute flyers opposing the draft during World War I.

Justice Holmes wrote “falsely shouting fire,” because if there were a fire in a crowded theater, one is allowed, if not obligated, to shout “Fire!” Holmes argued for this limitation on free speech because such a situation presented a “clear and present danger” to others (i.e. people trying to exit being trampled).

In America, truth and falsehood are the factors which determine the limits to free speech. If what you are saying is true, it is protected by freedom of speech. If what you say is false, you may be sued for libel.

Midvar sheker tirachak” — the Bible tells us to distance ourselves from any hint of falsehood. Honesty and integrity are standards that G-d desires of all human beings in their interactions with each other.

However, we have an even higher standard when it comes to our dealings with our family. It is our responsibility to protect our spouses, children and siblings. In American law, a spouse cannot be compelled to testify against a spouse. In Jewish law, any relative or even close friend may not testify for or against their family or friend.

When it comes to free speech, the Torah tells us to treat all fellow members of the tribe as family. We are not permitted to speak badly (lashon hara) of other Jews even if it is true. Even praising them in a way which might be interpreted as a backhanded compliment is prohibited.

This is a high standard to aspire to, and which I personally fall short of. We all need to grapple with it every day.

Those who believe that the settlements are illegal and are the obstacle to peace are entitled to their opinions. I believe that it is appropriate for them to express their views in op-eds in Anglo-Jewish papers and to support projects in Israel that further their beliefs. One could argue that it is appropriate for them to support candidates in Israeli elections who share their worldview.

I understand that we live in a liberal age. I get “Generation Z.” To them, to oppose homosexual marriage is bigotry, and marijuana should be legal. I was a high school principal for the past 16 years, and I enjoy keeping up with our alumni, the oldest of whom turns 30 this year. Even in the Orthodox community, this generation is much more liberal than their parents. Though it does not represent the views of my community, I understand from where J Street comes.

However, it is not appropriate for Jews who oppose the Israeli government’s position to lobby their congressmen to put pressure on the Jewish State. AIPAC’s position is to support the Israeli government, as liberal or conservative as it may be. We happen to have a long standing conservative government in Israel. The pendulum will likely swing back, and AIPAC will support it just as vigorously.

I voted against J Street not because I disagree with their views, but because I disagree with their tactics. I am enriched by sitting with my Reform and Conservative rabbinical colleagues, even though our religious and political worldviews are so different. Behind closed doors, we can and do disagree. However, when it comes to dealing with the outside, certainly with the American government and its relationship with Israel, we are united. We let the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and AIPAC speak to national and world leaders on our behalf.

For the same reason, I do not believe that the JCRC of New York should allow the New Israel Fund, Partners for Progressive Israel and B’tselem to march in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York on June 1. These organizations are certainly entitled to their opinions. However, they are not entitled to use all tactics to further their worldview. To encourage Jews to boycott the businesses of other Jews is a page from the playbook of our enemies. For Jews to portray the Israeli army to a world filled with anti-Semitism as guilty of war crimes is unconscionable.

However, even if the JCRC does not change its mind, I will march in the parade. I would have continued to participate in the Conference of Presidents had J Street been admitted. It is important to keep in mind that what unites us is far greater than what divides us.

All families have serious disagreements at times and may not always treat each other like family should. However, at the end of the day, we are a family.


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