Conference Of Presidents Out Of Touch


Six years ago, J Street was founded on the premise that a large component of the American Jewish community had a voice that wasn't being represented in our own traditional establishment organizations. Five years ago, I joined J Street's lay leadership in New York because I'd felt that sentiment personally. And as J Street went through the process of applying for membership to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, I was asked several times: Why even bother? You guys are the outsider voice by nature, so why try to get “in?"

My answer was that I had hoped that we had been wrong. Or, more accurately, I had hoped that, after seeing the growth and success of J Street, the existing establishment might recognize that the voice that we represent is actually a part of the community, and a significant part at that.

As it turns out, I've never in my life been sadder to have been right.

The fact that this vote proved how necessary it is for J Street to exist as an organization that gives voice to the voiceless is, in my mind, not a cause for celebration. According to many organizations in the Conference of Presidents, our voice doesn't deserve a say in the communal conversation about Israel. Those members seem to be content to ignore J Street's 180,000-plus-strong membership base. And they close their eyes to continuous polling data, including the recent and much-discussed Pew poll, that shows that a vast majority of American Jews support J Street's positions calling for strong U.S leadership in achieving a two-state solution. One might think that, instead of being members of a group called the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, they were in fact part of a cohort called the Conference of Presidents of Organizations That Think Along the Same Lines As We Do.

I take great comfort in the fact that the organizations that did vote for J Street's inclusion in the Conference of Presidents represent the majority of American Jews, and that, as the Rabbinical Assembly's Rabbi Julie Schonfeld said, J Street would have certainly won the popular vote had it been up for grabs. And it’s doubly comforting to see the shared level of disappointment and outrage that some of the organizations that supported our bid have expressed – including, most prominently, URJ President Rabbi Rick Jacobs’s statement of solidarity. But at the end of the day, the fact remains that our application was voted down in a system stacked against us.

The aftermath of the vote has provided moments of both confusion and clarity. The Orthodox community in which I was raised seems, sadly, to have been the predominant voice in opposing J Street's bid. In the days that followed our rejection, I had conversations with many of the friends I grew up with in that same community. Some of them, whether they agreed with J Street's positions or not, just couldn't figure out why we would be turned away. Others said, straight out, that they knew where they wouldn't be giving their hard-earned money in the future (hint: they were referring to the exclusionary right).

Yet it seems that, in the eyes of a majority of Conference of Presidents members, J Street was justified all along. I joined J Street because I believe that it offers the best path forward to secure the survival of the state of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people, not because I enjoy community divisiveness. But it is this very divisiveness, brought about by an old boys' club mentality that harbors a desperate desire to maintain control over an outdated conversation about Judaism and Israel, that will lead to the declining influence of those same old boys' clubs. Those trying to limit the voices of others will find their own voices limited in the years to come.

J Street supports a big-tent approach to the conversation on Israel. A vast majority of American Jews, particularly younger American Jews, recognize that we fall squarely within the pro-Israel tent's walls. Whether they agree with our positions or not, they see us as legitimate partners in a Jewish community that doesn't want to alienate future generations by disassociating itself with the values it professes to espouse. It's time for the right-wing establishment to recognize that fact, accept it, and incorporate it into the way they make their decisions. Because if they don't, today's younger Jews will leave them behind, and they will be left in a place where they have no voice at all.

Talia Benamy is the co-chair of J Street NYC, the New York City chapter of J Street. A native of Brooklyn, she has sat on the Executive Committee of the NYC chapter since its formation in 2010. Talia works full-time in book publishing.