Today, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will vote on the J Street lobby’s application for membership. The question has split the Conference with more conservative pro-Israel groups expressing opposition and left-wingers and centrists seeming to favor it. If, as some expect, J Street wins the vote, it will probably be interpreted as a victory for “diversity” of thought about Israeli politics. More to the point, the group and its allies will spin the ballot as proof that its brand of left-wing politics and support for U.S. pressure on the State of Israel to “save it from itself” has gained legitimacy in the American Jewish organizational world.
But both celebrating J Streeters and opponents who will mourn its growing acceptance should calm down. The fact is, joining the Conference as just one more not particularly influential member among a long roster of generally well meaning but politically insignificant groups is actually a huge step down for J Street from where it started a few years ago. The best thing that could happen to J Street would actually be to lose this vote.
J Street burst upon the public scene at the end of 2008 hoping to capitalize on the victory of Barack Obama. At that point J Street’s ambitions soared as high as the new president’s popularity. Its goal was nothing less than to challenge and then replace AIPAC as the voice of American Jewry on Israel. More sober observers always thought this was a pipe dream and today it seems not so much over-ambitious as it does ridiculous. But at the time the J Street crowd was drunk on the Obama victory and convinced that the traditional overwhelming support in the community for the Democratic candidate meant that most American Jews shared Obama’s desire for pressure on Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians in order to achieve peace. Since they wrongly believed AIPAC to be a right-wing dominated clique rather than a bipartisan consensus-driven umbrella coalition, J Street thought its appearance on the scene would shove the older group aside and establish the newcomers as the go-to organization for American Jews on Israel. It was, they thought, the perfect opportunity at the perfect time for a group whose raison d’être was to take Obama’s side against the Israelis.
To say that these hopes were quickly dashed is the understatement of the 21st century. AIPAC shrugged off the J Street challenge without missing a step. The left-wing group quickly proved that it was out of step with even most liberal supporters of Israel by opposing its counter-attack against the Hamas terrorist base in Gaza and went downhill from there. Not only did J Street soon find that it had little influence in Congress in comparison to AIPAC’s across-the-board support but it also rapidly began to comprehend that even its friends in the Obama administration were not interested in boosting it at the expense of its mainstream rival. Even worse, every time Obama picked a fight with Israel’s government to the cheers of his J Street fans, he eventually always disappointed him by backing down. By the time of his 2012 election-year Jewish charm offensive, the president was not only seeking to please the very people J Street despised, he was appearing at AIPAC and taking a tough stand on Iran that left-wingers opposed.
Though J Street has survived these disappointments and has enjoyed some moments of triumph during Obama’s second term as the president once again found himself at odds with Israel on both Iran and the peace process, it remains a noisy but marginal group. While it can count on support from the New York Times, it is still out of step with mainstream Jewish opinion (as its support for engagement with the Hamas terrorists proved again last week) and its positions are completely at odds with the views of a majority of Israelis.
The arguments against J Street’s acceptance are not without merit. The group’s positions are, at best, unhelpful to Israel and by seeking to undermine efforts to isolate anti-Zionist organizations like Jewish Voices for Peace it has hurt rather than helped the fight against the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on the Jewish state. But so long as J Street adheres to a position of support for Israel’s existence and opposition to BDS, the rationale for keeping them out of such a non-exclusive and diverse group like the Conference is a tough sell.
Were J Street to be denied entry to the Conference it would, however, be a huge public-relations coup and allow it to milk the situation for sympathy and depict its critics as seeking to silence a voice for peace. But its potential entry into the Conference would be confirmation that rather than a significant force on the Jewish scene, J Street is just one more insignificant Jewish group among a welter of such organizations whose infrastructure consist of little more than a staff and a mailing list.
To say this is not to criticize the Conference which, under the leadership of Malcolm Hoenlein, has done great service to the community by helping to mobilize support for consensus positions on the issues. But joining it will be proof that rather than challenging AIPAC, all J Street has accomplished is to attain the dubious distinction of being the leading left-wing sparring partner for the Zionist Organization of America and its leader Mort Klein.
The point here is that rather than signifying its acceptance, today’s vote is merely a sign that J Street failed in its mission to overturn the Jewish consensus on Israel. A seat in what is, for all intents and purposes, a debating society–most of whose members are little known even among American Jews–strikes me as a poor consolation prize for such a defeat.
J Street’s application to join the Conference was rejected. My take on the vote can be read here.