The surprisingly one-sided vote by the Conference of Presidents to reject J Street’s membership reveals three major fallacies in American-Jewish life, and provides us a moment — whether we revel or reel at this news — to learn something significant about our community.
The first major fallacy at play is the prevailing belief, suggested by this vote, that American Jews still constitute a polity whose consensus boundaries can be named and contained. Consider: When right-wing Jews protest publicly outside UJA-Federation in New York as they did last week, blowing shofars to protest the inclusion of progressive Israeli organizations like the New Israel Fund in the Celebrate Israel Parade, they are ironically acknowledging that Jewish policy debates can no longer be defined as the internal workings of a coherent community. Intra-Jewish tensions are no longer the province of the boardroom, but apparently belong out in public at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue.
The fact that J Street wanted in to the establishment meant that in spite of policy differences with many of its members, they were ostensibly willing to try to belong to and perhaps even help sustain the declining Jewish consensus; the fact that they are kept out, essentially told to keep doing their work outside the framework of the normative community, actually reinforces the very breakdown of the communal structure of which Conference of Presidents is now a relic.
If once upon a time Jews agreed not to hang our dirty laundry in public, the American public square has become a Jewish Laundromat — all with the tacit endorsement of what was once the community’s mouthpiece and most influential instrument.
The second fallacy is the belief that the Jewish communal debate on Israel necessarily becomes more contentious when competing voices are brought around the table, and that keeping ideas out of the room will succeed in suppressing them.
The debate on Israel and its policies is real, and ignoring or delegitimizing competing views that describe themselves as Zionist and pro-Israel — even if you think they are wrong — is both conceptually and strategically foolish. The theory behind keeping J Street out of the room is that its views are beyond the pale of reasonable debate, and that bringing it to the table will poison the consensus. In truth, the naysayers have now actually constrained their ability to participate in and manage a debate that is now far larger and wider than what goes on at the Conference.
No doubt the Jewish communal conversation on Israel needs a lot of work, though there are good initiatives under way (including by my own organization) that give room for optimism. But who thinks the conversation will improve when we reinforce the gravity of our differences rather than try to collaborate on areas of agreement? Truth is, J Street won this vote: They and their supporters have campaigned for years to change what they have described as the echo chamber of the Jewish establishment. If ever there was proof of the point they have been making….
The third major fallacy of the vote was the belief of Jewish organizational leaders that you can remain a leader and retain leadership while failing to respect and represent the views of those you are trying to lead. In the wake of the Pew study, the Forward asked major Jewish leaders about the growing chasm between the attitudes on Israel expressed by their organizations and those expressed by the majority of the Pew respondents. Their response was to create a hierarchy of authority privileging those who “know more” and “care more.”
As Rabbi Jill Jacobs and I wrote then, this is partly true: leaders do possess a moral responsibility to sometimes act autonomously in the best interest of the people they represent, even if those actions are at times at odds with the people’s own attitudes. But that approach is risky and must be managed carefully; to be credible, it must operate within the consensus of the community. Foolhardy is the Jewish leader who believes the people will stay behind an organization because it has a history, an acronym, or a history of successes even if it no longer shares the characteristics of the community of today.
One of the strange phenomena on the rise in the organized Jewish community is the belief that if people ask difficult questions, maintain dissenting views, or even violate norms, the most effective response by leadership is to lash out, attack the questions or the questioners, and close ranks.
Israel — like every other aspect of Jewish life today — is competing in the marketplace of ideas for American Jews. American Jews privilege their autonomy, and those who want to stay involved in Jewish life — especially younger Jews — are seeking honesty and authenticity from their leadership.