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May 8, 2014 By:
What’s Next for J Street’s Operation In Philadelphia
J Street’s out as far as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is concerned. But what about its place in the Philadelphia Jewish community?
Last week’s decision by the umbrella organization of national groups to reject the admission of J Street has touched off debate nationally about the role of the left-leaning J Street as well as the relevance of the umbrella organization.
But it also has intensified discussion locally. The vote comes as J Street in Philadelphia is hoping to stage an event featuring its executive director in dialogue with someone on the other end of the political spectrum.
J Street is seeking Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s sponsorship similar to that given an anti-J Street event titled “What It Means to Be Pro-Israel” held in March.
The proposal is being considered by the Federation’s Israel Advocacy Committee. The chair of the committee and several of its members say it is too soon to determine what the decision will be and whether the Conference of Presidents vote will have an impact or not.
Arlene Fickler, chair of the Israel Advocacy Committee, declined to share her own opinion on whether Federation should sponsor a J Street event but said the Conference of Presidents vote would be discussed.
Naomi Adler, the new CEO of Federation who started her position this week, said the national vote provides the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community a good opportunity to further the conversation about J Street. But, she added, “it may or may not influence us in our own actions.”
At the Presidents’ Conference, 17 groups, including the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union for Reform Judaism, supported admitting J Street; 22 voted against, including the college fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, and the Zionist Organization of America; 3 abstained; and 8 members were absent, according to the Forward.
Reacting to the decision, Rebecca Kirzner, J Street’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, said: “This whole situation illustrates why J Street was formed in the first place. There was a large segment of Israel supporters that felt they didn’t have a home or a voice within the structure of the traditional American Jewish community.”
J Street proposed the local event with its executive director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, after the announcement of the March event, which included screening the documentary, The J Street Challenge, and a panel discussion that featured only critics of J Street.
Rather than hurt J Street, Kirzner asserted, that event, which was also sponsored by Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, helped galvanize additional support in Philadelphia for the organization.
J Street has a strong presence on local college campuses, particularly at the University of Pennsylvania, and has sponsored local events such as a speaking engagement at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park with Dan Halutz, former chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
But the organization has also faced resistance locally.
After the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia publicized a meeting in 2012 between Ben-Ami and 18 local rabbis, a number of donors contacted Federation and expressed their objections.
Today, as then, there is not a consensus about J Street within the Federation or the community as a whole.
When the Federation announced that it was sponsoring the anti-J Street event in March, some members of the Israel Advocacy Committee — which does not include a representative from J Street — expressed dismay over the fact that they were not consulted.
“J Street is clearly ‘within the tent’ and is undeserving of public vilification,” Marc Zucker, a member of Federation’s board of trustees and its Israel Advocacy Committee, said at the time.
Describing the Presidents’ Conference vote as “counter-productive,” Zucker wrote in an email: “Particularly among younger members of our community, the conference vote is being interpreted as a bullying back-room effort to silence other voices.”
Lee Bender, co-president of the local chapter of the Zionist Organization of America and a member of the Israel Advocacy Committee, said the Presidents’ Conference was right not to include J Street.
It would have created “confusion within Congress,” he said, noting that the predominant pro-Israel lobby, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and J Street often take conflicting positions when it comes to American and Israeli policies and Iran.
It would have seemed as though the Jewish community was “speaking on both sides of our mouth,” said Bender, whose national organization lobbied other organizations in the Presidents’ Conference to vote against J Street on April 30.
Still, Bender said he is unsure what the committee will decide and that he would not necessarily oppose a panel discussion featuring Ben-Ami alongside people from other points on the political spectrum.
“The committee might still decide to have Ben-Ami as part of a four- or five-person panel. Then it doesn’t look like a program that’s based around J Street; that’s what we want to avoid,” said Bender.
J Street representatives met with committee members last month for several hours, said Linda Maizels, the Federation’s senior associate for Israel and the Middle East who staffs the advocacy committee.
Among them was a student who said that “students did feel slighted” by the anti-J Street event, which was held on Penn’s campus.
If the Federation does sponsor an event with Ben-Ami, organizers will make sure to target students, she said. Kirzner said she wasn’t sure if her group would go ahead with the program if it didn’t get Federation sponsorship.
“While there were people in support of the” documentary screening, “there were a whole lot of people that were bothered by the fact that Federation sponsored it and, to date, we are the only Federation in the country to sponsor that movie,” Maizels said. “If we are in fact supposed to be an open gate, a broad tent for the Jewish community, this is something we should do.”