Israel and USA flags face to face, a symbol for the relationship between the two countries.

Jewish Americans ask: What does it mean to be 'pro-Israel'?

Israel and USA flags face to face, a symbol for the relationship between the two countries.

Israel and USA flags face to face, a symbol for the relationship between the two countries.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Who speaks for the American Jewish community?

On most any topic, there is no single answer. But on Israel, the U.S. government has come to rely on one group: the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. But today that  group, charged with presenting a united front, looks anything but unified.

Created at the request of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who wanted to hear a single Jewish-American voice on the newly founded Jewish state, the conference includes the heads of some 50 Jewish denominations, philanthropies and political organizations.

On April 30, the conference rejected, by a 22-17 vote, the membership bid of J Street, a growing pro-Israel group, but one that is more dovish than the conference as a whole.

In response, the head of the congregational arm of the Reform movement, representing more American Jews than any other, threatened to pull out of the conference because it “no longer serves its vital purpose of providing a collective voice for the entire American Jewish pro-Israel community.”

The J Street dispute plays out against a backdrop of long-standing resentment among some more liberal Jews over the outsized influence of the smaller Orthodox movement, especially In Israel, where Orthodox Jews control the religious establishment.

There, only Orthodox rabbis may preside over Jewish marriages and conversions; only recently were a few non-Orthodox rabbis added to the state payroll. The J Street debate seemed to underscore for more left-leaning and less traditionally minded Jews that their fight for respect in Israel must also, at times, be fought at home. 

Theodore Sasson of Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies said “it’s unclear whether the Conference of Presidents can reconstitute itself and provide an umbrella for the full range of perspectives embraced by American Jews.”

“If it can’t,” he continued, “it means that the organized Jewish community will devolve into rival factions and lose its capacity to express a united viewpoint.”

But those who opposed admitting J Street warn against blowing the vote and its aftermath out of proportion.

“I don’t believe this was a crisis for American Jewry,” said Rabbi Leonard Matanky, head of the Rabbinical Council of America, a leading Orthodox group. “This was a case where people with strongly held feelings wanted a vote to go one way but did not succeed. For them to call into question an entire organization is unfair.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

Rabbi Rick Jacobs is president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the congregational arm of the Reform Jewish movement. Photo courtesy of Union for Reform Judaism

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Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the conference must grow more inclusive or risk losing Reform Jews, and that he’s hopeful that an agreement can be reached. Jacobs and like-minded Jewish leaders talked Tuesday (May 6) to brainstorm ways of reforming the conference from within.

Nonetheless, Jacobs said there is “backbone” to his threat that the URJ might leave. Reform Jews, according to the Pew Research Center, account for more than a third of the 5.4 million adult Jews in the U.S. -- 1.9 million people.

There are places within the Jewish community where Jacobs says he sees “an intolerance and a narrowness and at times even an arrogance that there is one authentic way for Jewish practice to be expressed, or for love of Israel to be expressed, or for one’s theology to be expressed.”

“That’s never been the hallmark of our people,” Jacobs said.

That tension between more liberal and more traditional Jews is now focused on the J Street membership application. Founded in 2008 as an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has dominated pro-Israel lobbying, J Street bills itself as devoted to the Jewish homeland, but not supportive of every Israeli government policy.

Though J Street boasts more than 180,000 online supporters, it has rankled some Jewish Americans who say it works too closely with harsh critics of Israel and is too critical of other Jewish groups. J Street, for example, like many Jewish organizations, rejects the tactics of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement to remove Israel from the Palestinian territories and agrees that the movement is tainted by anti-Semitism. But unlike many Jewish organizations,  J Street allows BDS proponents to participate in its events.

While J Street did not garner the necessary two-thirds vote of conference members to gain admission, Jacobs and others said the rules unfairly allow right-leaning groups, representing a minority of American Jews, to predominate.

He noted that all the member organizations of the Reform and Conservative movements, “which encompass the overwhelming majority of American Jews,” had voted to add J Street. They were joined by, among others, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League and the left-leaning Americans for Peace Now and Ameinu, or "our people" in Hebrew.

Like Jacobs, several presidents said that while they don't agree with J Street on every issue, it deserves a seat at the table because it supports Israel and meets all membership criteria.

But Matanky, of the Orthodox RCA, said that even without J Street, the conference reflects a wide spectrum of Jewish opinion and practice. “It’s probably the most diverse, the most representative Jewish organization that exists in America today,” he said. “The diversity has many voices, and there are voices that many would consider to the left of J Street.

“I would like to believe that if the vote had gone the other way, that I would not be calling for a revisit to the representative nature of the conference of presidents,” Matanky said.

Rabbi Steven Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, wishes the vote had gone the other way. Even though he disagrees with some of J Street's tactics, he said it belongs in the conference because it represents a growing voice in the Jewish community.

But either way, J Street wins, Wernick said.

“If they got into the conference, then they were at the conference,” he said. “If they didn’t get into the conference, then they are able to do what they are doing now, which is to claim that the establishment is out of touch.

“I think there’s some truth to that,” Wernick added.