“The Conference is the preeminent forum where diverse segments of the Jewish community come together in mutual respect to deliberate vital national and international issues.”
Now that’s a mission statement for an organization I’d like to be a part of. Too bad the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations failed to live up to this statement – which is its own mission statement -with its vote to exclude J Street from membership.
No, last week the Conference of Presidents essentially voted to remove “diverse” from its mission, at least when it comes to Israel. And in doing so, it did nothing but make itself smaller.
A young man of my acquaintance used to sit in his high chair and cover his eyes defiantly when he was mad at me. I think he thought I’d go away, but he soon learned that I love him too much, and eventually he realized that his magical thinking had failed him. When he took his hands away from his eyes, I was still at the table.
For all the hullabaloo in the media in the past several days, that’s all the Council of Presidents did. They put their hands over their eyes. That’s also what a group of my fellow Jews did when they stood outside Jewish Federation of New York blowing the shofar to protest the inclusion of New Israel Fund and B’Tselem in the upcoming Celebrate Israel Parade.
This was the week when a select group of pro-Israel organizations thought they could make other pro-Israel organizations go away, just by covering their eyes.
Here’s the unvarnished truth: the vast majority of the American Jews of all ages I encounter at my synagogue, in NFTY, and at Jewish summer camp are pro-Israel, pro-peace, anti-settlement, and anti-BDS. They support a diplomatic solution to the challenge posed by Iran.
Some of them are long-time supporters of the groups that voted to put J Street in cherem, asserting that their views – most of which, by the way, are heavily echoed among many other member organizations in the Conference – are beyond the pale.
On the other hand, in groups like NIF and J Street many of the Jews I know have found Zionist voices they never thought they’d have – progressive, visionary, growing voices that asked for nothing more than to sit at the table where they thought important, expansive, conversations about the future of the Jewish people were taking place. These Jews, like me, often have felt that they don’t belong in so-called pro-Israel settings – in forums and rallies where the message is often “Israel – right or wrong.”
The message of these settings has been that if you’re ever critical of Israel, you’re a hater – or worse.
J Street, NIF, and others have a different message: when you love someone passionately, you don’t always agree with them; you want them to strive to be the best version of themselves, to aspire to their own self-proclaimed values. You can disagree with someone you love, and still love them.
This message – that you can be a passionate lover of Israel and also work and advocate and give for its betterment – is a message that has brought large numbers of American Jews closer to Israel. For all the aspersions cast on J Street and other groups, that’s what they actually are doing. In the American Jewish community, we must be able to have a nuanced dialogue about our hopes and dreams for Israel, or we will lose so many Jews who are being pounded with the message that their love of Israel is not welcome.
So when a respected group like the Council of Presidents excludes up-and-coming organizations like these, it is doing nothing other than shrinking its own influence and harming its own legacy.
Here’s the real newsflash: Jews who support a Jewish and democratic Israel with generosity and passion through organizations like J Street and the New Israel Fund are not going to stop supporting Israel because of the Council’s exclusionary vote. They are not going to stop advocating for the vision of an Israel that lives up to its Declaration of Independence. And they are not going to stop attracting the support of a large percentage of the American Jewish community, because American Jews, by and large, agree with the views of these groups.
All that can come from a vote like this is that a less-powerful Conference of Presidents will represent a smaller, less diverse segment of the Jewish people.
To the 22 groups that thought they could solidify their vision of what it means to be Zionist by covering their eyes, I say that Jews who love Israel, and who are at the same time taking an active role in helping to make it ever more a light to the nations, are not going away.
On the occasion of Israel’s 66th birthday, we are proud to affirm that we love Israel too much just to disappear because we weren’t invited to this party.
If there’s a seat next to you, we’d love to sit with you in mutual respect. If not, the table of Zionism is obviously bigger than you think it is. We’ll bring our own chair.