By Rabbi Rick Jacobs
This week the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations will meet to consider the application for membership from J Street. J Street, which calls itself “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans,” has successfully completed all the administrative requirements for membership. The Conference – which exists to bring together the entire Jewish, pro-Israel community – now has to decide if it will create an ideological litmus test for membership. Doing so would undermine its very reason for existing.
The Conference of Presidents was founded in 1956, at a time of great growth in American Jewish organizations. At the time, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his administration wanted a streamlined way to consult with the American Jewish community, rather than having to reach out to or poll dozens of organizations. The conference established a unified voice for the community, one that government officials could consult on important matters.
If the Conference begins to limit its membership based on organizations’ views on specific policy issues, it ceases to represent the entire American Jewish community. The vote this week is, therefore, a referendum not on J Street but on the Conference itself.
I sometimes agree with J Street and sometimes disagree with J Street, much like every other member of the Conference. I think, for example, that their support for Secretary of State Kerry’s peace efforts has been smart and well-developed. I think they were largely wrong on the timing of Iran sanctions. I could offer a similar analysis of virtually every member of the Conference.
Most importantly, it simply does not pass the “smell test” to argue that J Street is outside the mainstream of American Jewish life. The J Street Rabbinic Cabinet, for example, comprises more than 800 rabbis, cantors, and rabbinic students, including five past presidents of the nation’s largest rabbinic organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
The questions for the Conference are stark. Does the “pro-Israel” tent stretch as far to the left as it does to the right? Is it the role of the Conference to enforce one political point of view, or to provide a forum in which different voices are heard? Will the Conference close its ranks or continue to serve as the central address for the Jewish community on Israel issues?
The Union for Reform Judaism will support J Street’s application for membership in the Conference of Presidents. We will do so because we believe in the role the Conference plays in our community. Excluding J Street would make clear that the Conference is no longer the voice of the entire American Jewish community on Israel issues. That would be a real loss to our community.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the URJ.