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.

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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.