The Exclusion of J Street and the Denial of Ourselves

Organizations are not simply web sites and platforms – they are also composed of people.

by Robert Hyfler

In a 2012 article I relayed what I described as “a real life midrash”:

  • Early in my career, I worked at the Memphis Jewish Federation. At the time the most beloved community volunteer was Lewis “Red” Kramer, a secular Jew, regional Vice President of the Workman’s Circle and yet the membership chairman of what was then the largest Orthodox congregation in America. Red was fond of telling the following story related to a split that occurred in the 1920’s in his native community of Atlanta between Jewish Socialists and Jewish Communists. Separate self help organizations, separate burial societies and fraternal associations were formed (from what one can only imagine was a pretty small population to begin with.) The only common activity to remain was the Yiddish choir. “After all”, as Red would tell with a big smile and in his best Southern drawl, “there was only so many soprano’s, alto’s and tenors to go around”.

I would never describe myself as a political activist. While my strongly held personal views cohere with that of the Zionist left and center, during my long tenure in Jewish communal life I always believed that my role, and perhaps particular virtue, apart from defender of Zionism and Israel’s legitimacy and safety, was to foster unity, dialogue and mutual respect. Conferences and rallies I played a major role in reflected a diversity of opinion and as a community planner in the 90’s I was meticulous in reaching out and to include in the communal discourse all segments of the Washington DC community, right to left, yeshivish to secular humanist, those in interfaith relationships and members of the GLBT community.

However today we live in difficult and troubling times. To say that consensus has been challenged is an understatement. To say that both the Jewish right and the Jewish left see the issues around what is unfolding as a matter of first principles and life and death is a truism. There may be no easy and obvious intellectual compromise to satisfy either side and the phrase “agreeing to disagree” rings hollow. And that is why I found the decision by the Conference of Presidents to deny membership to J Street a communally bankrupt decision.

Organizations are not simply web sites and platforms – they are also composed of people. When we exclude from our global kehillah organizations we are excluding the flesh and blood human beings who populate its boards and committees, who donate to its treasury and see themselves reflected in the positions and actions taken. When we are rejecting an organization for membership in the Jewish collective we are rejecting Jews.

I went back and looked at the names on the J Streets web site – its board, staff, board of advisors and Israeli supporters. I saw the names of individuals I knew from their young leadership days in Milwaukee and Memphis; philanthropists I worked closely with on wonderful and exciting projects of great import; an individual I worked with to plan the Washington memorial service for Yitzhak Rabin z”l; A fellow graduate of the Yeshiva of Flatbush and a fellow counselor at the legendary Camp Massad Aleph. I saw friends and past colleagues I have had dinners with over which the full range of Jewish issues and concerns were discussed; academics I have agreed with and some with whom I had crossed swords. I saw people who came to my communities, in their “day jobs”, and ennobled us with their teaching, insights and calls to action on a myriad of issues few of which could be described as “political”. I saw an individual I sat next to at my brother’s seder table and persons who served on boards I had staffed. I saw Rabbis I had davened with and consulted and yes, Rabbis whose shuls “I would never daven at”. In short, I saw a cross section of my life, my Jewish life, and a rather establishment one at that.

When we exclude a J-Street in the conversation and at the decision making table we are denying and diminishing the collective wisdom that will help us get through the coming challenges – with our lives intact, our values intact and our sense of who we are as one people intact. We are denying a piece of ourselves.

Bob Hyfler can be reached at

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  1. Mara Koven-Gelman says

    Excellent and meaningful words Bob. A reminder to all members of the Jewish community of the definition of Klal Yisrael. Wasn’t this one of the reasons so many of us were attracted to Jewish Communal Service (lay or pro) in the first place?

  2. paul jeser says

    Just the opposite – when I review those same names, some with the same connections, I come up with a different response. My response is that of sorrow and anger. Sorrow that those people have joined an organization that, its rhetoric aside, not only is not pro-peace, but whose actions have proven time and time again to be anti-Israel. Anger that too many Jews have not learned the lessons from the 1930s – too many Jews are afraid to face the realities of the day.

    JStreet does nothing but strengthen those who wish to destroy Israel. Its actions make it proper that it inot be allowed under the tent.

  3. Bob Hyfler says

    Paul, my suggestion is that you develop for us the criteria by which we can decide who gets to sit at the table and who does not. I was young and now I am old(er) and still don’t think there is good or sustainable answer for that one.
    Mara, thank you for your comment and it is a serendipitous honor that my piece appeared on the same day as your great defense of community planning. Reshit maaseh Machshavah techilah – Jewish thought leads to action and the conversation cannot be limited to the few.

  4. PAUL JESER says

    Bob – glad you asked (criteria). Not sure who said it first, certainly not me, but something like… I don’t know how to define it but I know it when I see it…

    My response is based on specifics, not on a philosophy.. For instance, when well known liberal and major supporter of Israel (and critic at times) Alan Dershowitz comes out against JStreet (watch his video) then I know that JStreet doesn’t deserve to sit at the table.

    When a SF bred liberal BU student writes a column ‘JStreet – pro-war’ (Times of Israel) that details JStreets abhorent actions, then I know that JStreet dosent deserve to sit at the table.

    When JStreet backs Kerry’s absurd aparthaid statement and doesn’t back off even when Kerry does, then I know that JStreet does not deserve to sit at the table.

    When JStreet finally admits to accepting $ from Soros, then I know that it doesn’t deserve to sit at the table.

    When JStreet calls on the US administration NOT to veto an anti-Israel UN resolution, then I know that JStreet does not deserve to sit at the table.

    When JStreet backs the Goldstone report, and doesn’t back-off even when Gladstone backed off, then I know that it does not deserve to sit at the table.

    I could go on and on, but you get my drift.

    No generalized criteria, just specific actions should determine who does and does not sit at the table.

    I supported APN’s inclusion. I support JStreets exclusion.

  5. Bob Hyfler says

    Actually Paul you are quoting Justice Potter Stewart in the pornography case Jacobellis vs Ohio. He regretted the comment as ultimately indefensible and reversed himself in a later case Miller vs California. Allan Dershowitz would know the case well as he was clerking for Justice Goldberg at the time of the Jacobellis case.

  6. Joel Schindler says

    Bob – Justice Stewart’s definition is well known and despite Stewart’s regret, is still routinely used as a metaphor for exactly this type of context. There are plenty of alternatives – if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck……. One could easily extrapolate that if an organization behaves anti-Israel and supports anti-Israel, it is anti-Israel. JStreet qualifies. In the name of full disclosure, i served as President of NCSJ, which is a member organization of the Conference of Presidents.. In my capacity at that time, I represented NCSJ on the Conference of Presidents. I believe that more importantly, this issue underscores what i believe is the broader issue of not who belongs at the table but whether everyone belongs at the table. They don’t. Yes, it’s a big tent and inclusion is good but there are parameters. If “Jews for Jesus” petitioned for membership to the Conference of Presidents, there would be no uproar over its exclusion. JStreet’s behavior excludes it. Perhaps they can atone.

  7. Bob Hyfler says

    Joel, I think it’s time for that cup of coffee we’ve been talking about. Ducks or pornography the argument is still tautological since no criteria is offered. And when people play the Jews for Jesus card you know they are jumping the intellectual shark. However does not the civilty of OUR discussion argue that the inclusion of one more dissenting voice in the room will not be the end of Jewish life as we know it?

  8. Alan Woronoff says

    With due respect Mr. Schindler:
    Calling the “Jews for Jesus” card is out of place and is in no way comparable to J Street. Jews for Jesus, as I understand it, is a religious movement. Judaism’s basis is the belief in one G-D, with many varieties of observances but based on the 613 mitzvot. Belief in another G-D or deity is in direct contra-distinction with Jewish religious belief.

    J Street is neither a religious movement nor a religious philosophy. It is a strictly political movement with views of the Arab-Israel conflict that do not coincide with a majority of members of the Conference or less broadly, AIPAC and ZOA. Their views may be appalling to some in the Jewish and/or Pro-Israel community, but these are not religious views. Is it any different than Tea Party views being opposite spectrum as far-left Democrats?

    As far as the COP: have its members defined that being Jewish (or being a recognized Jewish organization) requires being a certain kind of pro-Israel? Though most of the worldwide Jewish communities are pro-Israel, is only certain support of Israel essential to being Jewish (or being part of Jewish community)? Does a certain political stance vis-a-vis Israel deny you membership of Jewish community? What would this type of society think of the Israeli protest group Women in Black? What would this type of society think of people at the Kotel who wish to pray together?

    Excluding J Street based on a set of personally defined criteria for being “pro-Israel” is the opposite of what Mr. Hyfler is calling for in building community and listening to each other on equal footing. I neither support nor reject J Street–I am not supportive of some of their language (such as Ben-Ami’s embrace of the term “apartheid”) but I also do not reject them according to some litmus test that is vague at best not to mention judgmental and impossible to meet

  9. paul jeser says

    Alan – no litmus test needed. And, no formal criteria possible. Just look at their actions (well documented). You can not build a community with people who, by their actions, are helping to destroy the community as does JStreet. It is simple: good versus evil; right versus wrong. JStreet’s actions prove, time nad time again, that they are wrong and evil and should not be invited to the table.