Inside the Presidents Conference and the J Street Vote
The fractious public reaction to the rejection of J Street’s membership by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has been based on widespread dissemination of false information about the process, according to exclusive interviews with sources close to the Presidents Conference process. The sources declined to be named because, while fully conversant with all aspects of the J Street vote, they were not authorized to speak publicly. But they emphasize that J Street was rejected not by the “Left or Right” or a “right-wing minority” but by the overwhelming voting consensus of the 50-member organization. Moreover, the sources say, J Street supporters were in a smaller minority than initially apparent because just two voting blocs controlled many of the 17 "yes" votes.
By way of background, after a year of trying, the controversial lobby J Street was rejected by a wide margin for membership in the Presidents Conference, the umbrella group for 50 American Jewish communal organizations. The lopsided vote rang in at only 17 for, and 22 against in a process that required 34 yes ballots out of 50 voting member groups. But digging into the numbers reveals more than previously apparent about who voted "yes" and who did not, Conference sources say.
J Street bills itself as pro-Israel, but has engendered controversy among the pro-Israel community about its true intentions. Since its April 30, 2014 membership rejection vote, public vitriol by J Street and its supporters in the Conference and the Jewish media have been directed at the Conference as an organization, and, in a few instances, its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein, personally. The fallout included a threat by a Reform Judaism leader to break away as well as sarcastic jibes on J Street’s website, which are still live at press time more than a month after the vote.
One such J Street website remonstration declared: “Yesterday’s rejection of J Street's bid to join the Conference validates the reason for J Street: those claiming to speak for the entire Jewish community don't in fact represent the full diversity of pro-Israel views in our community. The Conference of President [sic] claims to be the [sic] ‘the proven and effective voice of organized American Jewry.’ Last night's vote removed that pretense. So join us in thanking Malcolm Hoenlein for clarifying this situation and revealing to all what we've long known: a new voice is needed to represent the true majority of American Jews — and non-Jewish supporters of an Israel at peace.”
Getting personal, the J Street rebuke included a mock thank you note: “Dear Malcolm: Thank you for finally making it clear that the Conference of Presidents is not representative of the voice of the Jewish community. We recognize the need for an open and honest conversation on Israel in the United States. We appreciate you being honest. Now we'll work on the openness.”
J Street’s initial public statement asserted the organization “is disappointed that our bid for membership to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has been rejected. This is a sad day for us, but also for the American Jewish community and for a venerable institution that has chosen to bar the door to the communal tent to an organization that represents a substantial segment of Jewish opinion on Israel. We are, however, most heartened by the tremendous support we received from many of the largest and most prominent organizations in American Jewish communal life who urged their fellow members to join them in building a robust and representative community body.”
In response to questions for this article, J Street vice president for communications Alan Elsner stated, “We regard the vote as a closed chapter. We were happy to receive the support from the very significant organizations that backed us; and we are heartened that the vote has prompted a debate and examination of the Jewish community’s ability or lack thereof to hear diverse views and to fully reflect the positions of American Jews.”
Hoenlein — and indeed all other Conference officials — repeatedly declined to be interviewed on the record for this article.
Nonetheless, the key Conference sources interviewed for this article did respond with a surprisingly upbeat message.
“I don’t think the Conference was subjected to a lot of criticism,” one source asserted. “Yes, there were some references, but it was not really personalized. Most people know that the chairman [Robert Sugarman] and the executive vice chairman [Malcolm Hoenlein] did not participate in the process at all. They didn’t vote, didn’t attend the meetings, they did not express themselves and have not — before or since — expressed a public view on the issue because the Conference wanted it clear that the vote was a decision of the members, and not directed from outside or from the inside.”
A key source added, “The vote speaks for itself. People have misinterpreted it in ways that have served their purposes. But they just need to look at the objective facts. J Street was given every opportunity in a fair and open process. Even by J Street’s own recognition, the process was fair and done the same way as every other application.”
The sources all asserted that the vote for J Street process mirrored any democratic election in the United States. One individual declared, “Of course, the vote is always conducted by a closed ballot. But not the process, not the discussion — that is open and people expressed themselves. However, people should be free to vote their conscience and not be intimidated.”
None of the key sources would reveal any vote specifics. “Members of organizations have the right to ask their organizations how they voted,” stated one individual. “They can choose to tell them or not tell them. But that’s an internal matter for each organization,” adding, the ballots are now locked away “in a safe place.”
Asked what the lopsided vote of rejection says about the Conference, one source replied, “This vote actually was not about the Conference. This was about J Street, and the proportion of the vote, I think, speaks to the fact that this was not one extreme or another. This was the expression of the majority of the members of the Conference. Had it gone the other way, I don’t know that people would have criticized. But it went against J Street, and some took the opportunity to grandstand.”
Asked if this is the first time the vote and the results have played out so publically, one source replied, “No. It could be about any issue,” adding, “There is a lot of ignorance. Our choice is not to engage in public confrontation over these issues. But people write things that have no relationship to what really occurred or to what the Conference’s deliberative engagements are, or what the Conference even does for that matter.”
As an example of false reports, one key source stated, “I just saw a piece today where somebody was writing about the Conference and it was completely wrong — about how votes are allocated. The reform movement and the conservative movement, for example, don’t have one vote each, as has been written. Actually, with their affiliates, they each have four votes. The reform movement affiliates are the Union of Reform Judaism, Women of Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and ARZA—the Association of Reform Zionists of America. The conservative movement also has four votes through their affiliates: the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, the Rabbinical Assembly, and MERCAZ — which is the Zionist Organization of the Conservative Movement. So it is has been disingenuous to keep saying their movements only had one vote when, in truth, they each had four votes. So now take those two movements — and then you have eight of the votes for J Street.”
In spite of the Conference source’s comment about the MERCAZ vote, a MERCAZ blog states the opposite, that the organization broke with the movement and voted against membership.
J Street only received 17 votes out of 42 present. If indeed, many were from the two synagogue movements combined, reform and conservative, then only about 9 among the others voted yes. One of those yes votes came from the Anti-Defamation League. “We will support the admission of 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,” ADL national director told the JTA’s veteran correspondent Ron Kampeas. In a countering view, Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, writing in the Jerusalem Post, assembled a litany of actions by J Street that his organization found worthy of a negative vote. One example Weiss cited in his article specified, “Just a few days before the Conference of Presidents vote on J Street, it became public that US Secretary of State John Kerry had been quoted as saying Israel could become an apartheid country, and that J Street defended Kerry’s remark.”
“So,” a key source commented, “It is incorrect to reduce it all ‘Lefties or Righties’ — it was actually the center.”
The key sources focused in on the public statements of the reform and conservative movement leadership. One stated, “Right now, there appears to be a lot of resentment within the conservative and the reform movements over what happened, complaining that leaders spoke for them without consulting. There has been a backlash against the leaders for going public and taking extreme positions in public statements. There was a public petition signed by members of the reform movement and conservative moment, and they published various full page ads in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the Washington Jewish Week and other newspapers. They said: Who did you consult in making a decision on how to vote? ‘You don’t speak for me voting for J Street.’”
During the public fallout following the J Street rejections, the Presidents Conference was frequently criticized for operating in a secret or shrouded fashion. But when asked about this criticism, one key source rebutted, “The only thing that was secret was the actual ballot. Everything else was done with full information provided to the members. The membership committee is broadly representative of the Conference. Obviously, you cannot have a committee of the whole. But like every committee, it tries to have reform, conservative, left, right, big organizations, and small organizations all represented. Believe me, if the conference goes off in a direction that is really not representative of the consensus, the whole world will hear it, because they rush to the press. You have some media that is always ready to exploit it.”
That source was asked again if anyone went out of their way to block or prevent J Street? “No — not at all,” that source replied, adding, “They were given — and J Street will tell you they were given — every opportunity. [J Street executive director] Jeremy Ben Ami was invited to speak to the committee and to answer questions — which he did. Remember, three presidents of member organizations [of the Conference] sit on J Street boards, so their point of view was represented.”
In the aftermath of the rejection, where does the Conference go from here? “Part of the brilliance of the founders of the Conference,” stated one source, “is that they didn’t set hard-core bylaws. Some twenty years ago, ‘process and procedures guidelines’ were prepared so that it would actually have some set rules. The ‘process and procedures’ committee will afford an opportunity to anyone who wishes to make suggestions or raise issues about the process or the issues that were raised. Many certainly would welcome it.”
When asked if, in recent years, any other organization had been turned down, one source replied, “More than a dozen groups have been turned down over the past 10 years. Many did not get a positive recommendation in the committee process, or did not meet the specific requirements that are spelled out in the by-laws. For instance, there were dozens of groups that were American Friends of — this or that. When a substantial part of their agenda is not actual advocacy but is really just fundraising, even though it is related to Israel, they did not get accepted.”
Reminded that the Presidents Conference does include American Friends of Peace Now, that source explained, “Yes. It also has the American Friends of Likud. But these groups were admitted before the membership decision was made more than 10 years ago. Otherwise, the Conference would have been flooded with new members.”
The Conference source identified one leading Jewish organization rejected at first. “Hillel also was turned down at one point,” the source stated, “but then admitted later.” The source explained, “Some groups were turned down because the Committee felt that their constitution wasn’t truly democratic or that it didn’t allow for clarity about their budget, about the membership, and about other considerations. These same questions were raised about J Street, by the way. Then, later, many of these other groups were admitted because of changes they made or other reasons.”
Asked point-blank, “Is J Street invited to reapply?” the source answered, “Everyone can reapply.”
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Edwin Black is the award-winning author of the international bestseller IBM and the Holocaust. His latest volume is the just-released news book, Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terrorism in Israel.