Last month, the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council faced an agonizing dilemma.
The umbrella coalition of some 40 local organizations that advocates on behalf of Israel, voted on whether to remove two groups — J Street and the Workmen’s Circle — from its policymaking council.
At issue was whether those two groups were sufficiently pro-Israel — or pro-Israel at all.
“It’s important who sits around our table,” said Bill Gabovitch, president of the JCRC of Greater Boston. “We are the only table in the Jewish community that has all of these organizations coming together.”
One organization at that table, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), challenged the JCRC membership of the Workmen’s Circle — a secular Jewish group with a liberal domestic agenda — because it had rented its facility to another group that did training on divesting from, boycotting and sanctioning Israel (the “BDS movement”).
CAMERA also challenged J Street’s JCRC membership on procedural and ideological grounds, according to Gabovitch.
Boston’s JCRC’s members, including rabbis from each denomination and others from across the political spectrum, analyzed whether the two groups met a set of criteria that would allow them to remain on the council. One criterion required each group to “advocate for a democratic, secure, Jewish state of Israel,” Gabovitch said.
The JCRC was “very unhappy” that Workman’s Circle rented its building to a BDS training group, according to Gabovitch.
“Support for any delegitimization of Israel, including support for BDS, is outside our tent,” he said. “With BDS, you’re putting Israel on the same plane as Iran, and saying it is not a legitimate state. No government is perfect, but Israel is certainly a legitimate state. BDS — severe, drastic action reserved only for rogue nations — is certainly not appropriate.”
But because Workmen’s Circle itself had not taken a position on the BDS movement, he said, it was allowed to remain on the council.
As for J Street, CAMERA claimed that group was not pro-Israel because it has taken money from critics of the Jewish state, and because it invited an activist who supports divestment from companies that do business in the West Bank to speak at its annual conference.
But the JCRC vote allowed J Street to remain at the table as well, finding that the liberal group does support Israel as a legitimate, democratic, Jewish state, and that it does not support the BDS movement.
The question the Boston JCRC found itself facing is one that is increasingly pushing itself into the Israel debate in Jewish communities across the country: What does it really mean to be “pro-Israel?”
Does it mean supporting the Israeli government’s actions unquestioningly, or is there room for criticism? And if there is room for criticism, how far can it go?
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While 25 years ago, it might have been easy for most Jews to agree on what “pro-Israel” meant, today’s political climate has changed along with the situation in Israel itself. Jewish communal organizations are forced to grapple with defining the term “pro-Israel” — in effect deciding ideologically who is in, and who is outside of, the tent.
Those questions recently cropped up in another national debate when the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest synagogue organization in North America, named Rabbi Rick Jacobs as its next president. The response was swift and visceral, with supporters defending Jacobs’ love of the Jewish state, while others pointed to his affiliation with the J Street rabbinic cabinet and Jacobs’ own participation last summer in demonstrations in Jerusalem orchestrated by the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, a group which opposes Jewish home construction in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. Opponents say the movement opposes the idea of Israel as a national home for Jews.
Jacobs’ supporters defend his selection, saying he is a friend and lover of Israel in word and deed, just not afraid to speak his mind about the situation there.
Whether it’s Jacobs, JCRC membership, or some other issue, the “who is pro-Israel?” question — much like the “who is a Jew?” question that surfaced years earlier — is not going away.
“Our community is still working through these issues of what is ‘pro-Israel,’” the Boston JCRC’s Gabovitch said. “We’ve built a community based on inclusion. J Street is supportive of the Jewish state. But a group that is supportive of the BDS movement would get kicked out [of the JCRC].”
“There is big tent,” Gabovitch continued, “but the tent has walls. You have to stand for something.”
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So far, Pittsburgh has not had to confront the “pro-Israel” question head-on, but that doesn’t mean people here don’t feel passionately about the subject.
Unlike the Boston JCRC, the Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has not formally acted on what groups are or are not “pro-Israel,” according to its chairman, David Ainsman.
“We convene the community,” Ainsman said. “We have people that represent the entire spectrum of the community on opinions regarding Israel, regarding politics, and hopefully regarding different aspects of Judaism as a religion. We have people from the far left and the far right, and everyone in between.”
While different organizations are not formally represented on the CRC, individuals from a wide range of groups convene to form consensus on policy for the community.
“Our discourse is very respectful and insightful,” Ainsman said. “There would be a great dialogue in our meeting if we were attempting to define what being pro-Israel involves.”
According to Ainsman, criticism of Israeli policies would not necessarily put an individual or a group outside the CRC tent.
“I don’t think it is anti-Israel to be critical of Israel,” he said.
The leadership of the local chapter of J Street is comfortable with the CRC’s approach, said Nancy Bernstein, co-chair of J Street Pittsburgh.
“I think the CRC is definitely interested in a representation of different voices in the Jewish community,” Bernstein said. “Rabbi Art Donsky is on the CRC, and he is a member of J Street. I think level heads have prevailed in our community on the importance of a diversity of opinion.
“I think it’s counterproductive to say who is in and who is out of the tent,” Bernstein added. “The tent should be as open and wide as possible. Most J Street positions also are taken by groups in Israel. There is nothing about what we’re proposing that is radical. There is nothing new here.”
Still, there are those in Pittsburgh who question whether certain approaches to Israel advocacy are really in the best interest of the community.
“I question some of the things J Street does,” said Stuart Pavilack, executive director of the Zionist Organization of America-Pittsburgh Chapter. “They are dramatically different from the ZOA. I would say that the way they go about showing their support for Israel often is more harmful than good.”
Citing J Street’s support of the Goldstone Report, as well as its hosting a BDS supporter at its national conference, Pavilack questioned whether all the group’s activities were in Israel’s best interest.
“There are certainly a lot of ways to support Israel,” Pavilack said. “Whether emotionally, financially, by making aliya. Locally, there are some wonderful, well-meaning people, but I think they are terribly disillusioned on things in the Middle East with Israel’s neighbors. History has shown that it (peace) is just not going to happen. J Street believes that if Israel negotiates land to create a Palestinian state, everything will be fine, but the Arabs have shown time and time again that it is not about the land; it’s about being Jewish. Their primary goal is the elimination of Israel, and not statehood.”
Being faced with establishing walls around the “pro-Israel” tent, CRCs in many cities are struggling with the parameters.
The Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the national umbrella organizations for the CRCs, including the ones in Boston and Pittsburgh — issues no formal guidance on what organizations qualify for membership, said Martin Raffel, JCPA senior vice president and Israel Action Network project director.
“But it wouldn’t make sense for us to include a group that doesn’t share the mission of the JCPA,” he said.
That mission includes: “To dedicate ourselves to the safety and security of the State of Israel,” according to the JCPA’s website.
“The generally accepted threshold position is that a group should be supportive of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” Raffel said. “If you don’t believe Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state, you have excluded yourself from the world of Israel advocacy.”
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While some communities are struggling with the issue of which organizations belong within local JCRCs, an entity in at least one community has questioned whether the JCRC itself is sufficiently pro-Israel.
In Indianapolis, a community of about 10,000 Jews, one group has splintered from its local JCRC to form its own Israel advocacy group.
In October 2010, members of a small Orthodox congregation, B’nai Torah, founded the Jewish American Affairs Committee of Indiana, and resigned its longstanding membership in the local JCRC.
Uncomfortable with the JCRC’s more liberal stance on gay rights, abortion rights and school vouchers — as well as its efforts to advocate for Israel — the fledgling JAACI has gone out on its own in representing a Jewish voice to the wider community.
“Their approach to garnering support for Israel I felt was lacking,” Elliot Bartky, president of the JAACI, and
former representative of B’nai Torah on the JCRC of Indianapolis, said of his former group.
“There were a number of things that were of concern to me,” Bartky said, “including the fact that when they (the local JCRC) were presenting Israel’s positions to other organizations, they presented all sides. Let the other side present those claims.”
“We’re not saying they (members of the local JCRC) are not supportive of Israel,” Bartky said. “We’re saying they are not aggressive enough. It is a critical time in history, and they are not giving their full-fledged support.”
The JAACI already has been called on by the Republican-led Indiana General Assembly to testify on the Jewish perspective on various issues, according to Bartky, and Jews in other cities who are dissatisfied by the representation provided by their own local JCRCs have contacted the group for advice.
The splinter group has caused divisiveness in the small Indianapolis Jewish community, said Marcia Goldstone, executive director of the Indianapolis JCRC.
“We are the public policy arm of the organized Jewish community here,” said Goldstone. “I have been here since 1977. In that time, no organizations have ever left the group.”
When the JAACI charged in an article posted on the American Thinker, a daily Internet publication, that the JCRC Israel advocacy programs also present the Palestinian perspective, Goldstone said the claim surprised her.
“We don’t do that,” she said emphatically, noting that pro-Palestinian positions are only presented in the context of training people how to effectively counter those positions.
“I regard the charge that we pair Israeli advocacy programs with Palestinian points of view as outrageous,” she added. “And nobody looking at our record of pro-Israel advocacy could accuse us of being meager.”
“It is unhealthy to argue who is pro-Israel, and who is not pro-Israel,” Goldstone continued. “This has not happened before in this community. I regret their decision to withdraw [from the JCRC].”
Goldstone believes that by isolating itself from the wider Jewish community, the splinter group has removed its own voice from community dialogue.
“If they’re describing themselves in opposition to the organized community, this synagogue has withdrawn itself from the community table around which these discussions are held,” she said. “There is a divide now.”
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Given the varied opinions on Israeli policy, divisions in Jewish communities may be unavoidable. Still, one Pittsburgh scholar urged reaching out to Jews with dissenting opinions on Israel instead of pushing them away.
“My tendency would be to try to embrace Jewish groups whose views I do not necessarily share and have that discussion with them,” said Barbara Burstin, who teaches Jewish Studies and the Holocaust at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh. “But that is not an absolute. It would depend on their leadership, and what, exactly, they are saying and doing.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)