J Street, the controversial lobby group focusing on Israel, has been overwhelmingly rejected for admission to America’s most prestigious and mainstream Jewish body, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The secret ballots, once counted, yielded only 17 votes in favor of admitting J Street to the Conference of Presidents and 22 against, with three abstentions, according to an informed source not authorized to speak for her organization.
Hence, J Street did not even achieve a simple majority. Admission to the umbrella group of 50 leading Jewish organizations would have required 33 of 50 voting member groups—more than twice the number J Street garnered.
The acrimonious vote came as American Jewish groups increasingly begin to define their mainstream. Criticism and defense of J Street’s application has been intense, with challenges to its non-Jewish funding and positions on the peace process competing with the communal impulse to include a spectrum of dissent in a so-called “open tent.”
"There is more tolerance for dissent in Israel than in the Jewish community,” Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League told the JTA’s Ron Kampeas at the ADL’s annual Washington conference. Foxman added, “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.” Conversely, late on the night before the vote, Zionist Organization of America president Mort Klein told a reporter that he was working tirelessly to convince fellow organizations that J Street should be rejected because of its extreme views.
During a one-hour debate, each organization was allowed only 90 seconds to speak. The time limits were rigidly enforced. One east coast organizational source stated that despite the acrimony of prior days, the debate before the vote was orderly and respectful.
No staff members of the Conference of Presidents would agree to comment or provide any details during the run-up to the vote. Most close observers were unaware the vote would even be held this afternoon. But by 6:30 p.m. on April 28, 2014, advanced counting revealed that a quorum would indeed assemble today.
The Conference of Presidents did issue the following statement: “After a lengthy and thorough process, the full membership of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations convened to consider the application for membership submitted by J Street. The process included three meetings of the Membership Committee, including one at which representatives of J Street made a presentation and answered questions. Membership Committee representatives held additional meetings with J Street representatives. After a full discussion, a vote was held. J Street did not receive the affirmative vote of two thirds of the fifty member organizations as required by Conference rules.”
“Who voted for or against will never be totally known,” stated a source familiar with the vote. The source indicated that the ballots are being kept in a secure place that cannot be accessed. One organizational representative said he was encouraged to vote “no” precisely because the vote was kept secret. A number of organization executives expressed a fear that J Street would attack them publicly if the vote failed.
As part of it public statement on the vote, Chairman Robert G. Sugarman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman/CEO of the Conference, stated: “The Conference meticulously followed its long established Process and Procedures Guidelines in considering J Street’s application. … The present membership of the Conference includes organizations which represent and articulate the views of broad segments of the American Jewish community, and we are confident that the Conference will continue to present the consensus of the community on important national and international issues as it has for the last fifty years.”
Edwin Black is the award-winning author of the international bestseller IBM and the Holocaust. This article is drawn from his just-released newsbook, Financing the Flames: How Tax-Exempt and Public Money Fuel a Culture of Confrontation and Terrorism in Israel.