01 May 2014

Let J Street In

When I was Hillel director at NYU, I was honorarily inducted in to the Jewish fraternity AEPi.  This was a particular honor since the organization had been founded at NYU in 1913.  Though my father and uncles were members of Jewish fraternities at UW-Madison in the 1940s and 1950s (where, like in the case of social discrimination on campuses across the country, frats and sororities for Jews were a kind of social necessity) I was never a member.  By the 1980s, universities and colleges across the country had opened up to Jews (with still poor records on advancement for African Americans) and Hillel was the place where I went for Jewish learning and nourishment, charitable work and service.  In fact, while a young professional at Hillel in Madison, we had to intervene on a couple of occasions with ZBT, another Jewish fraternity, who had obnoxiously sponsored a racist celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday.  Working with the Dean of Students, Hillel brought discipline against the chapter and forced sensitivity training, with the hope of changing the minds of these young impressionable students.

My induction into AEPi was part of a secret ceremony, the contours of which I simply couldn't reveal.  Fraternities, like most private organizations, have their ceremonious rites, after all.  And so with a wink and a nod, I occasionally meet someone who was in AEPi, share the secret handshake, and that is about the extent of my involvement in the cloaked world of Jewish privilege.

Speaking of cloaked worlds of Jewish privilege, I was disheartened and bemused by the confidential vote yesterday to deny membership to J-Street at the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.  A well-known and well-positioned player on the national scene and a vocal proponent of the two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, Jeremy Ben Ami unquestionably leads a "major Jewish organization," certainly as major as AEPi, the American Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, Workmen's Circle, the Women's League for Conservative Judaism or any of the other organizations, listed HERE, that sit and deliberate on all matters Jewish.

But unlike fraternities, which are run as charitable but ultimately closed and sometimes (wink, wink) secret organizations, the Conference of Presidents plays an important diplomatic role, in national and international politics as well as in the media, representing broad Jewish views to the Jewish community as well as the greater world.

A cursory glance at the list of member organizations and a quick survey of media appearances, activity on Capitol Hill, and influence among young Jews on campuses across the country, would seem to mitigate toward placing J Street at the table of leaders of major Jewish organizations.  Jeremy Ben Ami, whether or not you agree with him, is undeniably a major voice on the issue of peace and security for Israel and the two-state solution.  He commands the attention of politicians, synagogue membership roles, and college students across the country.  And his positions consistently line up with where American Jews are in regards to Israel in poll after poll.

That J Street is denied a place at the table, by dint of a secret ballot, as reported in the Forward and elsewhere, seems to lack the kind of transparency that we have come to expect at this stage in the ongoing evolution of Jewish civilizational ideas.

For goodness sakes.  Even yesterday's vote in the Senate against the Minimum Wage (unjust and cruel, if you ask me) was transparent enough for us to see the Ayes and Nays so that we might prod, cajole and advocate further for some alleviation to economic inequality in our fair land.

Equal transparency is owed to us by the leaders of the Conference of Presidents.  Show us the vote.  Explain its justification.  Let us call the leaders who voted to deny entry to J Street.  Behind closed door deliberations in 2014 to deny a seat at the table for an American Jewish leader who has the ear of thousands is bad policy.

Jews young and old:  if you don't like the vote, let your voices be heard.  Call and Tweet the Conference.  Let them know how you feel.

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