Yesterday I did a post on the decision by a selection committee of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations not to recommend membership in that leadership organization for the liberal Zionist group J Street because it has been critical of Israel. And I asked why liberal Zionist groups Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu remain in the Conference alongside so many rightwing organizations.
In response to your post on J Street’s membership application and the Conference of Presidents in general, I would like to share Ameinu’s perspective.
First of all, we strongly support J Street’s inclusion in the Conference of Presidents as they are certainly a major American Jewish organization and meet all of the membership criteria. Since the Membership Committee has designated the application for consideration by the general membership at the end of the month, I am going to respect the process and restrain from additional comment.
You ask why we remain in the Conference, sitting with representatives of right wing Jewish organizations, “breaking bread” with them. You also ask whether we should be “past this kind of tribal allegiance’ and whether “access” to a senator or two makes it worthwhile.
We get meetings with elected representatives and policy makers in both the United States and Israel on our own and as part of other coalitions, but we feel it is also important that politicians on both sides of the ocean meet us as part of an American Jewish leadership delegation. We present our liberal Zionist perspective in those settings, whether the meeting is with someone with whom we agree or not. If we are not there, only a more right wing position is heard, creating a false impression of the range of opinions in the community. In addition, we can only have impact on the “moveable middle” in the organized Jewish community, both in formal and informal ways, if we are members of the club and inside the tent.
You also asked whether we “are bound by the Conference’s apparent understanding that you can’t criticize member organization AIPAC and ZOA?” We have publicly criticized both AIPAC and the ZOA on policy differences and we have never hesitated to issue our own positions, often at odds with Conference of Presidents’ statements. We have addressed policy, not individuals or personalities, and have never heard from Conference leadership attempting to limit us in any way, so I think there is a misunderstanding around the Conference’s civility guidelines.
Is it uncomfortable at times being part of an organization where the official position is often at odds with ours? Absolutely, but political progress isn’t accomplished by only hanging out with people with whom you agree. Umbrella organizations like the Conference is one venue where Ameinu tries to move the dial in the American Jewish community and Israel in a progressive Zionist direction.
And here is the note from Dan Fleshler:
I am on the Boards of Ameinu and APN [Americans for Peace Now] but am expressing my own views here. The “Presidents Conference” (that’s what we call it in my world) is recognized by America’s political establishment as one of the key addresses of the organized American Jewish community. As long as that is the case, it is a good idea for J Street to join the Conference, and for Ameinu and APN to remain.
The main reason the Conference gets at least some attention in the corridors of power is that it is a large umbrella organization that is supposed to express “the consensus” of a very contentious community on issues. The point of anti-occupation groups being there is not to “break bread” with the right wing, as you put it (although I don’t see anything wrong with that, because, unlike some of your fans, I don’t think all right wing Jews are evil incarnate). The point is to try to ensure that our voices are heard both inside and outside the community, and by politicians here and in Israel. That does not prevent us from staking independent positions, disagreeing (sometimes vehemently) with the Conference or AIPAC, and building alternative political blocs on key issues.
The Presidents Conference has taken some public stances that have infuriated me over the years. Trust me on this one: there have been other, worse stances that it would have taken publicly if its leaders had not been restrained by moderate forces within the Jewish organizational world. From time to time, liberal Jewish leaders have become so frustrated with the Conference that they’ve discussed breaking away to form an alternative. Their conclusion was that a Conference of Presidents of Minor American Jewish Organizations might make its members feel better, but would have less impact.
Similarly, the Democratic party and Democratic presidents have taken stances that have infuriated me. But I’m still a Democrat because I don’t see what could possibly be gained by fleeing from that tent, either.
You remind me of progressive friends who urged me to help Ralph Nader in 2000, and not to support Al Gore. What did they accomplish by deserting the Democrats instead of working to change the party from within? Well, they helped to usher George W Bush and the neocon zealots into the White House. I blame the Naderites for the Iraq War as much as I blame Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. They did MUCH more harm than good by fleeing from the tent.