If the Tent Shrinks Too Much, It May Collapse

I had the occasion recently to think about social movements, big tents, and how any diverse community can be weakened, and ultimately delegitimized by the exclusion of unpopular voices. I got drawn in recently to a Facebook discussion around the vote to exclude J St. from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an organization that dates back to the time of President Eisenhower. My initial thoughts were sparked by a sharing of this article. , which was shared by a Facebook friend.

Upon reading of the vote to exclude, it struck me that the surest way I know to undermine the legitimacy of one’s own positions is to stifle dissent. No one seriously argues that J Street does not represent the point of view of a significant number of Jews, including the one I most commonly espouse, though I surely do not agree with them on everything. As such, they are part of the Grand dialogues at the heart of Jewish identity since at least 70 CE. To those holding opposing views, the Jewish way to prevail is to counter and refute, not silence and exclude. I urge even my friends who disagree vehemently with J Street to condemn this vote. Change our minds with the well-structured arguments supporting your views, lest a majority attempt to silence broadly held dissent lend question to the existence or soundness of those arguments.

This opening salvo led to a flurry of discussion of what constituted major. I discussed the point with several friends who disagreed strongly, and, realize that while I was not certain how to precisely define major, no numerical definition would have legitimized the current makeup of membership. By way of example, as informally counted on May 1, 2014, J Street’s rabbinic cabinet numbered 705 rabbis, including many leading Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis (and, apparently, my dad and many of my friends). That is almost half the size of the RA (1648), more than 70% the size of the RCA, (1000) and over twice the size of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Assembly (300). The numbers for the CCAR were not readily available to me. Each of these bodies are members, and, unlike them, J street has lay membership as well. On Facebook, I challenge to those who agreed with the vote to define “major”?

No one took me upon this challenge, precisely, the one commentator did suggest that the issue might be with the descriptor Jewish and not the descriptor major. We agreed that, though on different parts of the political spectrum, neither was wanted to touch the Pandora’s box of defining which organizations were legitimately Jewish. My friends continued to push on the question of majority, so in the face of some vitriol against an organization that I was not even trying to support in my writings, I tried to explain again that this was not an issue of agreement. I explained that the bigger question for me is, how does the fact that you vehemently disagree with an organization affect the debate on whether or not the group is “major”?

I explained the I am passionately opposed to every item on the agenda of the National Rifle Association. My opposition rises to a holy passion. Still, if someone asked me if they represented a major American point of view, I would have to concede that they did. Similarly, if I were creating an umbrella organization representing all stakeholders in the national gun debate, I could not see myself excluding them, though I would regularly argue to my utmost to keep their view from carrying the organization. If I exclude them, and yet claim to be an umbrella organization on the issue, rather than an umbrella of only those organizations that think as I do, the only thing that I have really done is delegitimize my claims to speak for all stakeholders. It says nothing about the NRA and everything about me. This is my point. I do not know if I changed any minds, but I hope I at least made a point.

The next day, some of my concerns would be made real. Writing in response to the vote, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), said the URJ would be reconsidering its membership in and the role of the conference.

Upon reading this article I agreed with rabbi Rick Jacobs conclusions about the implications of this vote. I do hope, however, that the end result is a restructuring and not a withdrawal. This dispute has highlighted the need for greater Jewish dialogue, and, though we will always have disagreements, a greater sense of siblinghood among B’nai Yisrael. Let’s have our disagreements over the conference table, lest invective like what I’ve seen in the discussions on this topic become the first shots from ideological bunker as, buoyed by the identical sentiments us, we come to see our fellow Jews not as our brothers and sisters with whom we might disagree, but as enemies in a war of ideas. The conference voted to shrink our tent as a people. My big concern is that shrinking our tent may be a quick path to collapsing it. I am curious in the comments what people think on this question, and what people think about issues of exclusion in other social movements. In the disability world, we often face issues of great passion. I have been in conversations where people who believe strongly in community inclusion and people with strong attachment to existing institutions can barely speak civilly to each other. We may vehemently disagree, but what happens on any issue when we take voices away from the table, coercing rather than convincing, silencing rather than collaborating?


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