Almost four years to the day after the national lobbying organization J Street was founded, it's once again at the center of a local brouhaha — revisiting the question of who is permitted inside the pro-Israel tent and who's out in the cold.
At issue was a private meeting held earlier this week at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City with Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street's founder and executive director, and a group of 18 local rabbis from across the denominational spectrum.
The April 17 meeting was organized by J Street, but the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia had forwarded an email to its members publicizing the discussion. That act was enough to prompt some donors to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia — which doesn't directly fund the board but provides logistical support — to voice objections.
Ultimately, Federation CEO Ira M. Schwartz weighed in with a widely distributed email.
"Federation does not support or endorse any program funded or run by J Street, nor do we endorse or support J Street's mission or policies," Schwartz wrote. "It is an unfortunate incident and we have already communicated our position and disapproval to the Board of Rabbis."
While many Jewish groups profess to support the Israeli government, J Street is not shy about criticizing Jerusalem from the left flank and offering its own prescriptions on how to achieve a two-state solution.
For his part, Ben-Ami told the Jewish Exponent before the meeting that he's "disappointed that it appears there are a handful of people across the country who are still having that conversation" about what to make of J Street.
"I would say that the overwhelming majority of the Jewish community has moved well past that conversation and recognizes the importance of a really vigorous and wide debate when it comes to Israel," said Ben-Ami, who also held a private meeting with Schwartz during his recent stop in Philadelphia.
Neither Schwartz nor Ben-Ami would comment on that meeting, though Schwartz did say that "J Street is 'in the tent.' They were never kicked out, pushed out, etc.
"They decided on their own to not sign on to the community statement regarding BDS," Schwartz added, referring to a statement opposing the boycott, divestment and sanctions conference held earlier this year at the University of Pennsylvania.
J Street was founded as a counterweight to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most powerful Washington lobbying organizations, which enjoys broad bipartisan support. J Street's raison d'etre has been to pressure the White House and push for robust Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
At times over the past three years, the Obama administration has seemed in line with J Street's approach, but this year the Iranian nuclear threat has taken precedence on the White House agenda over the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
J Street — which has its own political action committee and gets involved in supporting congressional candidates — has tried to create the perception of itself as a mainstream group, albeit with a liberal bent. But J Street often has found itself out on a limb, such as when it criticized Israel's military action at the start of Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in December 2008, or when it initially opposed more stringent sanctions against Iran.
The Board of Rabbis flap is reminiscent of a scenario that played out here two years ago when J Street founded a Philadelphia chapter, and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia took a good deal of heat for choosing to rent out its space for the launch event. (Hillel stated that it did not endorse J Street's policies but thought it had a right to be heard on campus.)
Gary Erlbaum, a real estate developer and Jewish communal leader, had been among the most ardent critics of Hillel's decision to host J Street and he was equally stinging in his criticism of rabbis choosing to meet this week with Ben-Ami.
"There is a tent and they are outside the tent," Erlbaum said, arguing that J Street is now endangering Israel once again by publicly arguing against a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. "It is for the government and the people of Israel to decide what is in their best interests."
Since J Street's somewhat bumpy start in Philadelphia, the group has become more integrated into the local pro-Israel scene and usually has a staff member present at monthly Israel advocacy meetings run by Federation.
But tensions resurfaced over how best to respond to the national boycott, divestment and sanctions conference at Penn in February, in which some of the speakers expressed opposition to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
After a good deal of back-and-forth negotiations, J Street opted not to sign on to the communal statement that decried the conference and the BDS movement, arguing that BDS supporters are working against the two-state solution.
J Street opted to release it's own statement that also expressed opposition to the BDS movement but also placed the blame for the ongoing conflict on both sides.
"The ongoing occupation, diplomatic stagnation, and the rise of rejectionist extremism on both sides has led to great frustration on the part of many who are deeply troubled by the conditions under which Palestinians live," the statement read in part.
J Street's decision to go it alone was akin to rubbing salt in the wound to some local Jews.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Elisa Goldberg, the Board of Rabbis president, said she had no part in organizing the meeting with Ben-Ami and simply forwarded on an email advertising the event to her colleagues. After Schwartz's email, the board put out its own statement, emphasizing that the body exists to bridge religious and political differences.
"Our strength as a community of rabbis comes from our ability to recognize these differences and respect colleagues who represent perspectives with which we may disagree," the statement read in part.
Last year, Rabbi Jill Maderer, a J Street member, hosted Ben-Ami for a similar meeting at her synagogue, Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad St., which drew little notice. Maderer said J Street adds a valuable voice to the American-Jewish conversation about Israel.
Rabbi Ira Stone of BZBI, the Center City synagogue that hosted Ben-Ami on Tuesday, is an AIPAC supporter who said he agreed to this week's meeting because he believes in open discussion.
"I don't support J Street but I was interested to hear what they had to say firsthand," he said. "You don't tell the rabbis who they can speak to and who they can't speak to."
But Rabbi Joshua Kalev of Tiferet Bet Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Blue Bell, said he skipped the gathering on principle.
"Their approach has been so divisive and so critical of Israel and the support hasn't been there at the time when it really needs it," he said. "Whenever we show up to something, it is showing support in some way, and I just wasn't willing to do that."