Late last month, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations voted to reject the application of J Street, a rejection which speaks to the current state of discourse in the American Jewish community. The Conference represents an establishment that elevates right-wing and entrenched establishment stances over the efforts of younger, more progressive voices. Rachel Cohen, the Southeast representative to the J Street student national board, likened the decision to that of an “old boys’ club,” as it sends the “loud and unambiguous message” that the voices of young Jews critical of the occupation are unwelcome.
The extent to which the Jewish community is or is not open to critical debate on Israel has been subject to intense scrutiny in the past few months, both here in Washington and nationally. That discussion did not begin with the Conference of Presidents vote, nor would it have ended there. The rejection of J Street, however, signifies not just the exclusion of a group of young Jews, but also the rejection of the peace process. Further, it rejects the necessary and difficult compromises needed to achieve a two-state solution.
Critics of J Street’s application bid have defended their position by calling J Street “an extremist group hostile to Israel” for publicly disagreeing with the Netanyahu government. Right-wing groups such as the Zionist Organization of America have vilified J Street for standing by the challenging compromises necessary to achieve an equitable two-state solution, such as dividing the city of Jerusalem. In sum, because compromise makes them uncomfortable, they reject J Street’s continued dedication to the future of negotiations.
Even among the supporters for J Street’s bid, there seemed to be some discomfort with its fundamental message. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, for example, explained that he voted for J Street “not because we agree with them, not because we support their views, but in order to ensure the integrity and credibility of American Jewish advocacy and of the Conference of Presidents.” Foxman’s support is very much appreciated, and I am glad he was able to put aside his differences to take action on behalf of the community. This is the kind of leadership we need to see in order to move forward.
But regardless of whether one is willing to tolerate J Street’s presence, statements of vague disagreement with its policy do beg the question: just which part of J Street’s commitment to both Israeli and Palestinian security and viability does everyone find so disagreeable? American Jewish support for American-led negotiations is necessary now more than ever, as peace talks fall apart and more and more international observers place the blame on Israel. But too many groups pay lip service to the two-state solution without taking any real action, or committing to any real compromises. With that in mind, rejecting J Street sends the wrong message at the wrong time. Ambivalent statements of support, even from outstanding leaders like Abe Foxman, will not be enough to actualize the two-state solution.
We must put aside baseless criticisms and the dogmatic debate which focuses on J Street as an organization rather than the overarching commitments of the American Jewish community. Young leaders are recognizing that if we are serious about loving Israel, then the Jewish community needs to show leadership and demonstrate responsibility to ending the conflict. We do not have to agree on everything – we are Jews, after all — but we cannot continue to cover our ears to block out the noise.
And when it comes to young leaders, the fact of the matter is that we are a generation that is more progressive and more critical of Israel than our parents. While we want to be included in our community’s dialogue – and welcome the debate on pluralism and the multiple perspectives allowed under a “big tent” – this is about more than our desire to feel “welcome” and “heard.” Our real desire is to be listened to. Being “welcomed” is not enough to accomplish our real goals: to end the occupation and resolve the conflict.
The institutions of our community need to come to grips with the fact that young Jews advocating for these values are not a radical fringe. And as Morriah Kaplan, a J Street U leader at Washington University in St. Louis, recently wrote in the New York Jewish Week, we do not instigate debates simply to debate what is debatable, and what is palatable in Jewish institutions. Rather, we encourage the kinds of debate which inspire action, because “we have a vision for Israel and it does not include long-term military occupation.”
Morriah, Rachel and I have a vision for a Jewish and democratic Israel. The Conference had the chance to consider or to reject this vision; they chose the latter. The result damages not just the morale of young Jews, but the future of Israel itself. For these reasons, I sincerely hope they reconsider.
(Maddie Ulanow is a Potomac native and a junior at Carleton College, where she serves as educational programming co-chair for J Street U and president of the chapter.)