On The Meaning of Consensus

The Conference [of President]’s actions represent an elitism and hubris that is rotting the American Jewish Community’s strength and vibrancy from within.


by Marty Levine

Wednesday The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations voted to reject the request by J Street to have a seat at the table.

In the Conference’s own words its “… present membership … includes (50) organizations which represent and articulate the views of broad segments of the American Jewish community and … 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.”

An interesting claim when we know that more than half of the American Jewish community is not affiliated with even one of the voting member organizations of the Conference! An interesting claim when the voting process itself provides one vote per organization irrespective of the organization’s size and reach. And it is interesting to reflect on the very process used by the Conference as it votes, an anonymous process where the vote of each organization is secret. Interesting that this vote which was seen by a range of mainstream new outlets as worthy of coverage but not important enough to be featured on the Conference’s own web site.

The Conference’s actions represent an elitism and hubris that is rotting the American Jewish community’s strength and vibrancy from within. When those at its table see their struggle for survival and relevance as best expressed by keeping others out of room it makes a mockery of who we are and who we can be as a Jewish community. It avoids having to directly confront the reality of a changing Jewish world, one that is qualitatively different from the world many of the members of the Conference grew up in.

As a Jewish community, we have focused on the declining vitality of the Jewish organizations which grew to meet the challenges of the 20th Century. This vote tells us that many still refuse to see the Emperor as he/she really is … unclothed and vulnerable. The significant number of American Jews who have seen J Street as reflective of their beliefs and vision of the way to a safe and vibrant future for Israel have been told they are not part of the community. The action of the Conference says clearly you are outcasts. Is this how they define consensus and community? And for those who have visions about Israel or other aspects of modern Jewish Life that do not fall within the traditional mainstream, the message is that they should not bother to engage with the organized community. What a way to build our future!

17 organizations had the courage to support creating a 51st seat for J Street. These 17 deserve our admiration and respect. But for them the challenge is to not be satisfied with the righteousness of their vote. They must swiftly radically change the nature of the Conference or they must leave it behind and search for a new mechanism to express the “…consensus of the community on important national and international issues.”

Will they be willing to risk their seats at this table for the sake of what is right? Or will we see that voting is easy and action is hard?

It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Marty Levine is a life long Jewish communal professional. He served as General Director of JCC Chicago until his retirement in 2013. He now consults to nonprofit organizations. 

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  1. Steve - NYC says

    Time to change the name of the organization to the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations that support Likud. They require a loyalty to the government of Israel, not to Israel itself. Anyone at all familiar with Israel knows there is great diversity of opinion within the country, and blind support for the government is not the same as love of the country.

  2. Sammie says

    By pointing out that most American Jews aren’t affiliated with “even one” of the organizations around the Conference of President’s table, Levine shines a light on just how marginalized the CoP is in terms of Jewish life. It’s a throwback to another time and era long past. The J Street vote should be a wake up call to organizations in CoP that it might be time to leave and seek more relevant, vibrant ways to unite!

  3. paul jeser says

    I hope that you will carry an op-ed with a different point of view.

    The JStreet vote was a correct one. JStreet is dangerous to Israel and the Jewish People and does not belong under the tent.

  4. Bob Hyfler says

    I would heartily agree that the decision of the COP to deny J Street membership may have been procedurally legal under it’s by laws but a communally bankrupt one nevertheless. The remedy I would suggest is not to expend undo energy on reform within the COP but for those organizations outraged by the decision to come together and foster a robust and open conversation on substantive issues. As we prepare to celebrate Yom Haatzmaut let us commit to the same diversity of informed viewpoints here in America that exists and is legitimized in Israeli society.

  5. Alan Woronoff says

    This is a very interesting piece, Mr. Levine. Here in Philadelphia a month or so back, there was a Federation sponsored city-wide “pro-Israel” rally which was really a “bash J-Street” rally, showing a film highly critical of J-Street and featuring Alan Dershowitz, Sara Greenberg of Harvard, and Charles Jacobs, producer of said film. There was a quote in the local Jewish newspaper saying that this rally was intended to show the way to be pro-Israel (as if there is one way only).

    The accusations against J Street are vigorous and my big problem is that they are always made in forums in which J Street cannot defend itself. The Conference (and the federations) need to open their eyes and see what is happening on campuses. Shutting people up and excluding them only serves to alienate and separate. We now have “Open Hillel” movements, as distasteful as some may find them, and Jewish teens and college students are showing with their involvements that their version of Pro-Israel is different than the “establishment”.

  6. says

    Why would JStreet want to be included in an organization that many do not see as relevant. JStreet is edgy, there’s a place for them, but it seems that it’s not amongst a voting body such as the Conference of Presidents.

    Did JStreet think they had a chance, or was this a strategic move?

    Does JStreet need to join this group? Will it keep them from being banned on campuses?

    Somewhat rehtorical questions: Why was the #CYJP created if not partially for this reason?

  7. says

    The Conference of Presidents needs to decide if it is a consensus driven organization or a representative one. If it is consensus driven, it will be silent on the vast majority of issues, including issues related to Israel and others considered traditional Jewish concerns, because there is no consensus among American Jews on most of these issues. If it is representative, it must include all Jewish organizations regardless of ideology or program.

  8. Karen Kramer says

    J street loses the vote 22 – 17 and now they want to take their marbles and go home. They voted and JStreet lost the vote. J Street needs to grow up and if they really want to join this organization, they will go out and build relationships and win people over with their merits rather than whining and crying about it.

  9. Dovid Eliezrie says

    It’s strange how the losing side is now attempting to create a debate that the process is unfair. Facts are is both the Reform and Conservative movements have four votes each-with their affiliated groups. Those eight votes were just under 50% of the support J Street earned. It’s doubtful if most members of these groups support the position of their leadership. Also there are large numbers of Orthodox Jews who are Haredie who are not represented at the conference. Nor are the hundreds of thousands active in the close to a thousand Chabad Centers who are traditional. The claim by reform and conservative leaders that represent the consensus of American jewry is simply not reflective of the present reality of Jewish life.

    The real issue is J Streets positions. Supporting Goldstone, advocating dialogue with Hamas while they shell innocent civilians and in its charter call for “the destruction of Israel and a war against Jews world over.” Most dangerous of all their efforts to encourage the American government to force Israel to make concessions that many Israeli citizens believe will endanger israel. Essentially they are doing an end run around Israeli democracy.

    The issue of a big tent is irrelevant. It’s about one thing, will giving J Street a Heksher give it validation so it can continue these dangerous policies.