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Presidents, Relevance, and Naming Some Elephants

The surprisingly one-sided vote by the Conference of Presidents to reject J Street’s membership provides a moment to learn something significant about our community
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is the President of the Shalom Hartman Institute. Yehuda is a leading thinker and author on the meaning of Israel to American Jews, on Jewish history and Jewish memory, and on questions of leadership and change in American Jewish life. Yehuda led the creation of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America in 2010 as a pioneering research and educational center for the leadership of the North American Jewish community, and teaches


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. If once upon a time “Jews earned like Episcopalians and voted like Puerto Ricans,” we must now start to acknowledge – as was clear in the contentious Jewish debates about Barack Obama and Israel leading up to the 2008 and 2012 elections – that Jews no longer think of themselves as an ethnically contained voting bloc, but rather are now divided, as is the rest of the country, into Jews who happen to be Democrats and Jews who happen to be Republicans.

Voting for J Street to stay on the sidelines is an attempt to sustain a polity that no longer exists, and to imagine a firm dividing line between internal community dissent and external public debates. Consider: When right-wing Jews protest publicly outside UJA-Federation in New York as they did this week, blowing shofars and making noise against the policy of the Jewish community to include progressive Israel 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 now longer the province of the board room, 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 from which Conference of Presidents is now a relic.

If once upon a time Jews held a line 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, and outside the capacity of the Conference to control.

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 the areas of agreement? Truth is, J Street won this vote: they and their supporters have campaigned for years to change what they have implicitly 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 – as well as that of Evelyn Gordon of Commentary who came to their defense – 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 we 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 a broader context of consistent curation of the consensus of the community.

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.

All is not lost for Jewish leaders seeking to be out in front, as people will still follow in search of meaning, community, and all the other reasons why so many Jews still opt in to serious Jewish life. But 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 leading a community that no longer shares the characteristics of the community of today.

So the Conference vote is, frankly, something between a fiasco and a disaster. At best, the only thing we gained was a reality check on how the Jewish community and its leadership perceive itself in contrast to the realities in which it is living. Perhaps an outpouring of disappointment will help sway our leaders to understand this – maybe not to correct the vote, but at least to help them see things as they are and not hold on to some notion of what they once were. Otherwise, these fallacies become holes, and what use are umbrella organizations full of holes?

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