WRMEA, August 2014, Pages 48-49

Israel and Judaism

Presidents Council Rejection of J Street Generates Strong Backlash Among U.S. Jews

By Allan C. Brownfeld

Right-wing American-born Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer (second from left), former speechwriter and chief aide to Prime Minister Binyamin (“Bibi”) Netanyahu, receives the Champion of His People Award at the World Jewish Values Network second annual gala dinner in New York, May 28, 2014. In 2007 Dermer said Jerusalem Post reporter Larry Derfner was “mistaken in calling Bibi a bigot. He is only a Zionist.” (THOMAS COEX/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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.

Based in Washington, DC, 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 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.

The backlash over the rejection of J Street provides additional evidence of how unrepresentative the Presidents Conference is of American Jewish opinion.

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’s membership 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.”

In its own statement, J Street stated: “We are especially disappointed that a minority of the farthest right-wing organizations within the Conference has chosen to close the Conference’s doors to this emerging generation of inspiring and passionate young leaders. In the long run, it does a grave disservice to the American Jewish community to drive some of our brightest young people away and to tell them that there is no place for them in an ever-shrinking communal tent where the conversation on Israel’s future is limited.”

In Washington, where AIPAC and the Presidents Conference have long wielded political clout because they presented themselves as representing the views of the American Jewish community, the realization seems to be growing that these groups really speak only for themselves.

A March survey of Washington political insiders reveals that AIPAC is losing steam, opening the doors for more moderate Middle East voices to get a chance at influencing U.S. policy.

The poll was conducted by Zogby Analytics for Avaaz, an online activist organization that is critical of AIPAC and supports Jewish peace groups. According to Avaaz official Ian Bassin, the poll “shows a growing number of the Washington establishment see a damaging, partisan lobby on the decline.”

The poll quizzed Capitol Hill staff members, NGO and think tank leaders, journalists and government officials. Zogby found that 31 percent said AIPAC has more influence than it should, 27 percent said it was “just the right amount,” and only 8 percent said it has less influence than it should have. Some 33 percent had no opinion. More insiders thought AIPAC’s influence is falling rather than rising.

The survey found that of those expressing an opinion, three times as many believe that AIPAC has more influence than it should—a possible indicator, writes Paul Bedard in the March 6 Washington Examiner, “that Washington may be tiring of decades of hard-line U.S. negotiating tactics on behalf of Israel...The group’s influence has been questioned...especially after it got in a tussle with Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic Party.”

According to the Examiner, “About 45 percent said they have at least once seen a member of Congress take a position on an issue that was not in the public interest because of AIPAC’s influence. More than 50 percent of those expressing an opinion agreed with the statement, ‘AIPAC is the NRA of U.S. Middle East policy.’ The poll also found evidence of a perception of AIPAC’s political bias, with respondents seeing it aligned with the GOP more than Democrats by a 2-1 margin.”

The realization that there is great diversity in American Jewish opinion is growing. In its Feb. 14 religion column by Mark Oppenheimer, The New York Times highlights a group of men and women it describes as “devoted to Jewish observance, but at odds with Israel.”

One person Oppenheimer profiles is Stefan Krieger, who teaches law at Hofstra University. He refrains from work on the Sabbath, keeps kosher, and studies pages of the Talmud every day. When it comes to Israel, he recalls that, “My parents were very sensitive to the issue of Palestinians. My mom had a book called They Are Human Too, and my memory is she would take it off the bookshelf, as if this was some sort of scandalous tract she was showing me, and show me pictures of Palestinians in refugee camps.”

Krieger, who supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, will not rise in synagogue for the traditional prayer for the state of Israel. “I think nationalism and religion together are toxic,” he said. “I was worried it would destroy some relationships. I don’t think it has yet.”

Corey Robin, a regular at a Conservative synagogue in Brooklyn, writes a blog about his opposition to Israeli policy. “There are lots of ways to be Jewish, but worshiping a heavily militarized state seems like a bit of a comedown from our past.” Adds the professor of political science at Brooklyn College: “I love being Jewish. I just don’t love the state of Israel.”

“Skepticism toward Zionism used to be common,” Oppenheimer points out. “Before World War II, Reform Jews tended to believe that they had found a home in the United States, and that Zionism could be seen as a form of dual loyalty. Orthodox Jews generally believed, theologically, that a state of Israel would have to wait for the Messiah’s arrival (a view some ultra-Orthodox Jews still hold). In the 1930s and ’40s, the persecution of European Jews turned many American Jews into Zionists...When Hillel was founded it took a clear non-Zionist position, said Noam Planko, who teaches Jewish history at the University of Washington. ‘What you see is a shift in the American spectrum: from non-Zionism with a few Zionists, to a situation by the 1960s, where the assumption is that any American Jewish organization is also going to be clearly Zionist.’”

As the 21st century proceeds, Oppenheimer says, that assumption is more and more open to question. The retreat from Zionism among American Jews is growing—as evidenced by the widespread opposition to censorship within Hillel, to the backlash against the Presidents Conference rejection of J Street, to polling data which indicates growing alienation from the idea of Israel as “central” to Jewish life on the part of younger people. And more and more prominent individuals who once identified themselves with Zionism are rethinking their position.

David 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. Now, 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.”

Writes Rothkopf: “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 openly 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.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.