In 1956, developing American Jewish organizations were working hard to find their voice in public matters. At the same time, the State of Israel, not yet a close ally of the United States, was looking for every possible way to make its needs known to the U.S. government. And the Eisenhower administration was looking for an authoritative American Jewish voice, so it wouldn’t have to navigate the intricacies of intra-Jewish politics.
Out of those needs, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations came into being. Through the participation of its 50 voting member organizations, the Conference of Presidents acts as the consensus spokesman of the Jewish community, particularly about Israel. “The Conference is the pre-eminent forum where diverse segments of the Jewish community come together in mutual respect to deliberate vital national and international issues,” reads a statement on its website.
Just whether the Conference’s members actually believe in diversity and consensus, and recognize “that common interests and goals far outweigh differences” (again the website), was raised in last week’s 22-17 (with three abstentions) vote against admitting left-wing pro-Israel group J Street as a member.
We have concerns about J Street. We have issues with many of the positions J Street has taken. And we don’t believe that J Street’s ongoing public criticism of Israeli government policy is in Israel’s best interests. But J Street’s views on Israel and peace have a significant following in the Jewish community and are similar to organizations that are already members of the Presidents’ Conference, such as Americans for Peace Now and the Union for Reform Judaism. Just as significantly, groups that disagree with J Street — among them the Anti-Defamation League — nevertheless voiced support for its inclusion, because it would “ensure the integrity and credibility of American Jewish advocacy and of the Conference of Presidents,” as the ADL national director explained last week.
Although some organizations announced ahead of time how they would vote, the membership ballot was secret, which raises questions of transparency. There is also the question that has always dogged the Conference: Namely, how representative is it? Large, well-established organizations have the same single vote as smaller, sometimes relatively obscure organizations. And many of the Conference’s existing “major Jewish organization” members are not well known to even those active in American Jewish life.
We understand the position of the majority of voting members who cast a “no” vote on J Street. But is that vote really faithful to the stated purposes of the Conference’s existence? Love it or hate it, J Street has demonstrated that it is a player on the American Jewish scene.
While the Jewish community is no longer terra incognita to American leaders — and Israel has no shortage of advocates — we nonetheless see value in an organization that serves as the consensus voice of the many different voices within the American Jewish community. If the Conference of Presidents no longer fulfills that role, is it time to consider alternatives?