Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, speaking at the J Street National Conference in 2018 (Photo/JTA-Michael Brochstein-SOPA Images-LightRocket via Getty Images)
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, speaking at the J Street National Conference in 2018 (Photo/JTA-Michael Brochstein-SOPA Images-LightRocket via Getty Images)

J Street unwelcome among increasingly right-leaning Zionist groups

J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group, withdrew its application to join the largest Zionist coalition in the United States last month after a series of eleventh-hour maneuvers by conservative groups sank its chance of being accepted.

The board shuffle that effectively prevented J Street from joining the American Zionist Movement (AZM), which has 36 members, comes seven years after the organization was barred from joining another umbrella institution, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Defenders of these institutions say that both decisions are related to higher levels of participation in the bodies among conservative Jews. Still, J Street’s leadership and other critics claim, the pattern of exclusion proves that communal groups are rejecting constituents they claim to represent.

“The American Jewish community continues to have establishment leadership and organizations that hold a set of views that are to the right of the median of the American Jewish community,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street. “There is something structurally wrong here.”

The American Zionist Movement is ostensibly open to any Jewish organization that agrees to a brief platform endorsing basic tenets of Zionism, and currently includes a socialist youth group, a neoconservative think tank and the international affiliate of an Orthodox Israeli political party. While the series of decisions that led J Street to abandon its quest for admission to the coalition stemmed from a conservative electoral victory last fall in the World Zionist Congress, some longtime Jewish leaders see more than a shift in political orientation at play. They claim that the new, hastily-installed board majority wants to exclude liberal Zionists from a key Jewish forum.

In the United States, which does not have a chief rabbi or the kind of governing boards that hold Jewish communities together in countries like Britain and France, maintaining a membership that accurately represents the Jewish population is left to umbrella organizations. Sarrae Crane, director of Mercaz, the Conservative movement’s Zionist arm, said that leaves them vulnerable to rightward shifts.

“Their strength is in their ability to get the whole community in,” Crane said. “And when they don’t, the question is, how does the Jewish community express itself?”

Richard Heideman, president of the American Zionist Movement.
Richard Heideman, president of the American Zionist Movement.

Liberal members of the Zionist coalition pushed hard for J Street’s membership, arguing that with political differences testing the bonds between Israel and Jews in the United States, a broad approach to Zionist advocacy has become even more important.

Increasingly, American Jews and some Jewish organizations have shown a willingness to express their disaffection with Israeli policy, particularly over its treatment of Palestinians. Left-wing organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow, which are not Zionist, have seen their membership boom over the last few years. Other, more mainstream Jewish groups, like the Union for Reform Judaism and J Street, also adopted a more critical stance toward Israel during the recent fighting in Gaza than they have during past conflicts.

And while the recently-released Pew Research Center report on American Jews found that 82% considered caring about Israel as essential or important to their Jewish identity, its authors also described Jews as “among the most consistently liberal and Democratic groups” in the country. Most surveyed expressed dissatisfaction with Israel’s governance, with 40% approving of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership and one-third believing that the Israeli government was sincerely attempting to make peace with Palestinians.


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The numbers are even more stark among young Jews. Twenty-seven percent of Jews between 18 and 29 say caring about Israel is not important to them, compared with 8% of those over 65 who say the same, and support for boycotting Israel — at 13% — is nearly double in that age group compared to older generations.

Kenneth Bob, president of the Labor Zionist group Ameinu, said that excluding organizations like J Street — which claims 200,000 supporters — makes it harder to present Zionism as a Jewish value that transcends ideology. He said this was a marked change from the AZM’s recent past, when it fostered freewheeling discussion between diverse groups.

“If the idea is to engage more people with the idea of Zionism, then you actually want to emphasize that you can be a liberal and Zionist,” said Bob. “An organization like AZM should make the extra effort to make Zionism accessible for all people.”

Though it is unknown to many American Jews, the coalition has grown by roughly one-third in recent years and includes all the major Jewish youth groups, as well as centrist organizations like Hadassah and B’nai B’rith International, allowing its educational programming about Israel and Zionism to reach a broad cross section of the Jewish population.

“It’s really important that the case for Israel is made in ways that can be heard by all sorts of different audiences,” said Ben-Ami. “We would have liked to have been a part of that thinking with them: how do we present the case for the national rights of the Jewish people to a progressive audience in the 21st century?”

But the unexpected ascendance of a right-wing Orthodox faction during last year’s elections for the World Zionist Congress, which the AZM is affiliated with, signaled a shift in the balance of power away from the Reform and Conservative movements, who along with progressive organizations like Ameinu support a form of Zionism more palatable to some progressives, joining sometimes harsh criticism of the Israeli government with support for a Jewish state.

(This reporter previously worked for the Union for Reform Judaism.)

Yet it may be difficult for the AZM to be a big tent for American Zionists when its membership is structured to be more representative of those engaged with the movement, individuals who tend to be more conservative. Most of the organization’s board seats are assigned based on the results of the World Zionist Congress elections and last year the Zionist Organization of America, which reports a membership of around 25,000, won 10,312 votes. Meanwhile, the Union for Reform Judaism states that it represents 1.8 million Jews in North America, yet its election slate earned just over 31,000 votes; a coalition of progressive organizations including J Street tallied fewer than 8,000.

Perhaps, suggest even some left-leaning leaders, liberal Jews bear some responsibility for their underrepresentation in groups they complain are excluding them.

A 2017 event in Jerusalem commemorating the 120th anniversary of the first World Zionist Congress.
A 2017 event in Jerusalem commemorating the 120th anniversary of the first World Zionist Congress.

“Make-up of the AZM is not done on a popularity contest or by a Pew survey — it’s based on elections,” said Rabbi Josh Weinberg, the Reform movement’s vice president for Israel policy. “If American Jews are so upset about it, where were the 180,000 members of J Street when it was time to vote in the Zionist Congress election? And my own movement, I would say I’m not proud of the result that we produced.”

Richard Heideman, president of the American Zionist Movement, said that J Street’s failed attempt to join the organization is not a sign his organization has shunned ideological diversity. Instead, he blamed the recent spat on ultimately failed tactics employed by the Reform movement and its allies.

“What has created the divide was not their application but it was the political maneuvering,” Heideman said. “I can tell you there’s been great disruption and it’s a shame.”

Arno Rosenfeld
Arno Rosenfeld

Arno Rosenfeld is a reporter at the Forward. He is a former J. intern and has worked as a correspondent for JTA and The Times of Israel.

Forward

Content reprinted with permission from the Forward.