How Many Are Thy Tents, O Jacob?
Given the ideological bedlam often seen even within individual Jewish organizations, just imagine trying to get an entire community of Jewish organizations together to sign a several-paragraphs-long statement reflecting a single position -- and to do that within a matter of weeks.
That miracle almost happened recently, when the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia gathered practically every Jewish organization in the Philadelphia community to send a message of strong disapproval to an anti-Israel coalition known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which is holding a three-day conference at the University of Pennsylvania on February 3-5. But the "almost" is necessary because one significant local group refused to join in. Understanding who, and why, reveals important lessons that must be taken to heart.
Penn BDS was thrown together by a single undergraduate student with the goal of luring the BDS conference to the University of Pennsylvania campus. BDS is a global, largely unsuccessful but widely publicized menace with the ultimate goal of demonizing, demoralizing, and destroying the state of Israel. BDS proponents claim that their methods constitute a tool to achieve justice for those oppressed by Israel; they take their cue from the effort to overthrow the racist South African government during the 1980s. But BDS is, in fact, merely a thin mask over enmity against any effective haven for the Jewish people.
Last month, when the Penn Hillel leadership learned that the BDS conference was to take place on their campus, the Philadelphia Jewish leadership was alerted, as was the Israeli Consulate. A broad spectrum of at least nominally pro-Israel local organizations was quickly called together with the goal of creating a strong communal response.
Mainstream local groups such as the Jewish Federation, the Anti-Defamation League, and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East -- as well as those on the far left of the spectrum, such as the New Israel Fund and J Street, and those on the right end, such as Z STREET and the Zionist Organization of America -- were included in this call to action. Several decisions were reached: there would be a communal statement of solidarity condemning the BDS conference; there would be an event showcasing communal support for Israel just prior to the conference; and, to counter the campaign of boycotting Israeli goods, there would be a concerted effort to encourage people to purchase Israeli products.
The crafting of the communal statement took two rounds of drafts and delicate negotiations with each organization involved. It fell to David Cohen, the senior associate for Israel and Middle East Affairs at the Philadelphia Federation, to ferret out each group's rock-bottom red lines, then artfully craft changes to avoid crossing any of those lines, and finally to come up with a document that avoided all the pitfalls but still clearly condemned the strategy of BDS generally, and the holding of the BDS conference at Penn specifically.
I was present at and participated in the meetings as the Z STREET representative. In response to the first draft, I told Cohen that Z STREET objected to an emphasis on the ubiquitous "two state" mantra. We think the one clear goal of the peace process should be peace for Israel. Z STREET believes that the pro-Israel community disserves that goal by adding an additional goal which may not -- and in our view, clearly does not -- ensure that such peace will be attained. While disappointed to see the "two states" language as part of the final version of the community statement, we decided that a show of community-wide solidarity is important. More than two dozen other organizations felt the same, with each no doubt making its own ideological compromises so that the Jewish community could say something with one voice.
But there was a conspicuous absence from the Philadelphia Community Statement's list of signatures. Although its representative was present at the community-wide meeting and was included in the community phone calls, J Street refused to be a part of the community and would not sign the joint statement of condemnation. Instead, J Street Philly issued a separate statement -- one very different from the community's in title, in tone, and in apportionment of blame. As the local representative stated clearly, J Street wanted to "maintain the integrity of our values" and their "unique position on this issue."
Whereas the Philadelphia Community Statement is officially one of solidarity with Israel and of condemnation of the BDS Conference, J Street's is neither.
The Philadelphia Community Statement unequivocally condemns boycotting Israel, disinvesting from its companies, or sanctioning it. J Street's statement criticizes the BDS tactics but explicitly recognizes, validates, and agrees with the underlying sentiments expressed by those advocating BDS, which include "the ongoing occupation and diplomatic stagnation" and the "legitimate and warranted" and shared "concern about the present and future of the Palestinian people."
Of particular concern to J Street was a broad condemnation of BDS -- one that lacked "nuance," such as making exceptions for boycotting goods made in Judea and Samaria. Also, J Street refused to criticize Penn, even subtly, for allowing the conference to be held there. J Street was unwilling to include its voice in stating that "the outrageous claims of BDS campaigns do not stand up to the rigors of academic inquiry and as such, go against the sophisticated civil discourse that is a core element of the University of Pennsylvania."
Worse, J Street seems to have issued even its own tepid statement with not even enough enthusiasm as to post it; the J Street statement does not appear on the J Street Philadelphia website or on J Street's Facebook page. J Street also refused to be one of the more than thirty co-sponsors of the "We Are One With Israel" event with Alan Dershowitz.
Much has been written about why and whether J Street is allowed in the "big tent" of Jewish communal organizations. The argument in favor, of course, is the desire to expand the marketplace of ideas, to be as inclusive as possible, and simply to give a respectful hearing even to those with whom one disagrees. But we now know what happened when J Street was unquestioningly welcomed into the Philadelphia community tent. When given the first opportunity to stand as one with the community and speak with one voice from one tent, J Street snuck out the back and pitched its own tent instead.
Lori Lowenthal Marcus is president of Z STREET and chair of the National Conference on Jewish Affairs executive committee.