Opening Up Our Community

May 1st, 2012

J Street believes that open, vibrant debate about Israel within the American Jewish community is vital to the health of the Jewish community and to the long-term bond between Jewish Americans and Israel. We oppose the adoption of all but the most limited restrictions on speakers, programs and events related to Israel in Jewish communal organizations.

J Street was established, in part, to lobby for a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a means to ensuring Israel’s future as both a Jewish home and a democracy and, in part, to ensure a broad and open discussion within the American Jewish community when it comes to Israel. We pursue both goals in accord with our sense of Jewish values and with a deep commitment to the future and security of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people and to a vibrant American Jewish community.

The relationship between American Jews and Israel is long and complex, dating back to well before the creation of the state of Israel. For over 100 years, there have been loud debates in the community – both public and private – about Israel and Zionism.

Still today, American Jews find themselves wrestling individually and as a community with their relationship to Israel. The issues now are as serious and complex as ever and opinion within the American Jewish community as diverse. It is understandable that Jewish communal organizations (Federations, JCRCs and others) are struggling with the question of how much of this debate and discussion should be welcomed in their halls with official sanction or with funding. Some are creating guidelines regarding the content of programs they will sponsor and the views of organizations or individuals they will fund and/or welcome into their institutions as guests.

J Street urges Jewish community organizations that deem such guidelines necessary to approach their adoption with certain guiding principles in mind:

  • First, debate and discussion about Israel in the official institutions of the Jewish community should be as inclusive and open as possible. Voices and views should be heard and welcomed that may not accord with official institutional policies and positions. Vigorous debate and dissent are good for the health of the community, and we firmly believe that the best answer for speech some may not like is alternative speech, not exclusion from the debate.
  • Second, institutions should distinguish between guidelines for organizational funding on the one hand and for events and programming on the other. Funding decisions, of course, reflect the explicit policy goals of the funders and appropriately can be based more on content. However, when it comes to sponsoring events and opening facilities to events, J Street believes limits – if there are to be any – should be narrow in scope and exceptional in their use.
  • Third, we recognize that all organizations establish lines – either in writing or in practice – that govern the inviting of speakers and scheduling of programs, and that arguing for there to be no limits or lines is unrealistic. We urge, however, that Jewish community organizations establish guidelines with a presumption of inclusion, excluding only the rare few viewpoints that clearly violate communal norms and standards – for instance, outright anti-Semites or Holocaust deniers, those who incite violence or engage in race-hate speech – and not those whose policy positions are unpopular with or vary from those held by communal leadership.
  • Fourth, we believe it is unwise to single out specific individuals whose association with an organization leads to the exclusion of an entire group from community space. Groups should be judged based on their organizational positions, and they should not be held accountable for the views of one or two individuals associated with them. Similarly, individuals should not be excluded based on their association with one group.
  • Fifth, community organizations should ensure that the execution of their policies on these issues lives up to their intent. Explicitly stating that guidelines are intended to foster a “big tent” in the introduction to a set of guidelines should not be allowed to provide cover for a policy that is actually exclusionary in practice.
  • Finally, we urge communities to apply guidelines in an ideologically neutral manner. Much discussion in the community currently focuses on groups on the political left – in particular those engaged in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. J Street opposes the BDS movement, but that does not mean that the voices of those who support it should not be heard – and countered – in the Jewish community. We are very concerned that content guidelines may be applied only to those on the left of the political spectrum. We believe that there are equally important challenges to Israel’s long-term security and legitimacy coming from the right, and the challenge for communal organizations is to develop and apply guidelines that provide equal freedom to be heard to those on the left as to those on the right.

Wrestling with these issues is likely to remain sensitive and contentious for the Jewish community for quite some time. We would urge those considering the adoption of written guidelines on these questions to hold open hearings and public meetings at which a full range of viewpoints are respectfully welcomed and heard. How the community deals with this issue can make the community stronger rather than sharpening divisions or driving people away. At a time when there is so much focus on Jewish continuity and so much concern about shrinking membership and participation in Jewish communal life, ensuring that the communal tent is as big and as welcoming as possible would seem to be an important consideration, even when it entails accepting public disagreement on tough issues related to Israel.