Liberal American Jewish orgs break with Israel over UN vote, settlements

on 13 Comments

Yesterday brought important news of open dissent within the official Jewish community over Israeli policy. While these breaks do not approach the sort of Jewish apostasy that this website offers, they represent a significant fracture in an American Zionist community that has been afraid to openly criticize Israel, and the news is already echoing widely.

First, the New York Times devoted a lengthy article on its front page to the fact that leaders of B’nai Jeshurun, a legendary liberal synagogue on the Upper West Side with Zionist commitment, sent out an email applauding Palestine’s new nonmember state status, voted at the UN last Thursday.

“The vote at the U.N. yesterday is a great moment for us as citizens of the world,” said the e-mail, which was sent to all congregants. “This is an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition.”

The statement, at a time when the United Nations’ vote was opposed by the governments of the United States and Israel, as well as by the leadership of many American Jewish organizations, reflected a divide among American Jews and a willingness to publicly disagree with Israel…

Note that the B’nai Jeshurun email very Zionistically likens the Palestinian vote to the struggle to gain a Jewish state, granted in 1947. But the Times says the email has jarred the congregation. And the Times quotes two members of the congregation who are angered.

And the Times piece reports fractures within the Reform Jewish community:

Gary Rosenblatt, the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week, the largest-circulation Jewish newspaper in the country, said, “I think the sense of a need for a unified front in the American Jewish community is breaking down.”

In White Plains, a group of synagogues from different branches of Judaism — Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist — sent an e-mail to congregants after the United Nations’ vote expressing cautious optimism about Palestine’s new status.

Meanwhile, the official Reform Jewish organization in the US has now bucked Israel on its latest settlement program. Haaretz:

In a move certain to generate controversy and public debate, America’s largest Jewish movement, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), has formally adopted a resolution that publicly denounces Israel’s decision to increase settlement activity, “especially in the E-1 area”. …

The URJ resolution, adopted at a meeting of its North America Board of Trustees in St. Petersburg, Florida, states that the Israeli decision “makes progress toward peace far more challenging, and is difficult to reconcile with the Government of Israel’s stated commitment to a two-state solution.” 

…Although leaders of the Reform movement have been harshly critical of Israel in recent years on matters concerning religious pluralism and democratic freedoms, they have largely refrained from openly disputing Israeli government policies on security matters. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent decision to respond to the UN recognition of Palestine as an observer state with the construction of 3,000 new apartments, especially in E-1, has elicited widespread criticism in liberal Jewish circles, which until now was expressed only in private conversations, not in public proclamations.

These are important convulsions because the American Jewish community has been so loath to criticize Israel openly. Given the overwhelming support for Israel inside the Jewish community, these steps took courage and could lead to a cascade aimed at Netanyahu (full disclosure: I bet a friend that he’s gone by March). And, fingers crossed, this could be a doorway for more affiliated Jews to discover the Nakba and question the Zionist myths.

Update: Note that B’nai Jeshurun showed Jews for Racial and Economic Justice the door 9 years ago when it gave an award to Adam Shapiro and his parents for their brave stance in support of Palestinian human rights.

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13 Responses

  1. just
    December 5, 2012, 10:00 am

    Good news.

    May the cascade continue, and let the doorway open wide.

  2. pabelmont
    December 5, 2012, 10:09 am

    Perhaps (dissident) Synagogues will lead the way toward an (American) call for the removal of all settlers, all settlement buildings, and the wall. After all, the settlers, generally, the settlements generally, and the wall — in its entirety — are violations of international law and also important impediments toward peace.
    They can “cut their teeth” complaining about the E-1 business and then realize their own strength and also the silliness of protecting the old impediments to peace and illegalities whilst protesting (only) the new ones.

    Then they could write an enlightening letter to Mesdames Clinton and Rice.

  3. Avi_G.
    December 5, 2012, 10:20 am

    These so called fissures are meaningless in terms of achieving justice and equality.

    The simple truth is that the above organizations are critical of Israel because it has made the two-state ‘solution’ impossible.

    But when one takes these positions to their inevitable conclusion, what emerges are groups that would like to see Israel remain Jewish and, allegedly, democratic. That is why they vehemently support the two-state fiasco.

    Herein lies the rub; these organizations are content with seeing the 20% minority of Palestinians in Israel living in a Jewish state that by default disenfranchises them — unless those organizations believe said minority should be moved to the newly formed Palestinian state.

    So, as you can see, Phil, the recent pronouncements by these organizations are the same old nonsense.

    Just because a Jewish organization is criticizing Israel, it doesn’t mean that the criticism is meant to promote real peace and justice.

  4. Les
    December 5, 2012, 10:46 am

    Thanks Phil. It appears that some Jews are genuinely concerned that Reformed Judaism is slipping into becoming Deformed Judaism.

    • Les
      December 5, 2012, 12:18 pm

      In support of the above comes this comment about Haaretz’s report on B’nai Jeshurun:

      “Do we really need Rabbi’s that support the “enemy” instead of supporting Israel? No, we do not. They should spend more time studying Torah and less time making inflammatory statements.”

      Rather than good Jews burying their heads in the sand, it is recommended that good Jews bury their heads in the Torah.

      • seethelight
        December 5, 2012, 2:22 pm

        Exactly. Bury their heads in the writings of the Old Testament prophets, too: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and others. They spoke mightily in support of justice for all people.

  5. Chu
    December 5, 2012, 10:49 am

    Sounds like Israel is going to have to stay on the defense for a while. The inspection of the nuclear program is on the table at the UN.
    “Meanwhile, it was reported today that “Britain and other European countries will consider ‘further steps’ if Israel refuses to reverse its plans for settlement expansion after a wave of diplomatic protests.” And then finally, we have this, from Monday [emphasis added]:

    “The UN general assembly has overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling on Israel to open its nuclear programme for inspection.

    “The resolution, approved by a vote of 174 to six with six abstentions, calls on Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) ‘without further delay’ and open its nuclear facilities to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Those voting against were Israel, the US, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. . . .

    “The vote came as a sequel to the cancellation of a high-level conference aimed at banning nuclear weapons from the Middle East. All the Arab nations and Iran had planned to attend the summit in mid-December in Helsinki, Finland, but the US announced on 23 November that it would not take place, citing political turmoil in the region and Iran’s defiant stance on non-proliferation. Iran and some Arab nations countered that the real reason for the cancellation was Israel’s refusal to attend.”

  6. doug
    December 5, 2012, 1:35 pm

    It’s still the fringes Phil. Here’s a quote from Andy Bachman from his 11/30 musings:

    “A continual finger in the eye, two brothers, still wrestling, jabbing, poking and fatefully ignoring the radical gesture of bowing generously to one another in the land.

    What else can you do right now, but laugh”

    Still living in Denial, I’m afraid.

  7. piotr
    December 5, 2012, 4:26 pm

    There is a certain logic behind the shift to Zionism in Reform Judaism, but not very compelling. In the same time, Israel is a theocracy, and the rabbinates that control many aspects of life hate Reform as heretics. So Reform Jews can make Aliyah to experience religious persecution.

    Cristol wrote eloquently about brothers joined at the hip, apparently with duct tape and baling wire.

  8. W.Jones
    December 5, 2012, 5:58 pm

    Is J Street really bigger than AIPAC?
    I read:

    PAC distributes $1.8 million to federal candidates, making it nation’s largest pro-Israel PAC again.

    JStreetPAC emerged from the 2012 election as the nation’s largest pro-Israel PAC and with 50 percent more endorsed Members of the House and Senate than last cycle.

    Less impressive for me is the reasoning in an article celebrating J Street at 972 Magazine:

    J Street’s opposition to Palestinian UN bid is a smart move

    Like all nationally influential leaders, parties or organizations, (effective policy) means moving toward the center to build broader coalitions among constituents and gain strategic leverage for future bold moves. President Obama has done exactly this, and beyond health care, many of us are still waiting for his future bold moves.

    Finally, there was the following sentence [In J Street’s statement]: “J Street remains dismayed at the track record of bias against Israel in the General Assembly and in other UN bodies and agencies.”

    This… acknowledges where there are genuine flaws in the approach to Israel – which are so crudely, but effectively, exploited by the right. Such acknowledgments can go a long way towards assuring people who agree with J Street in principle but loathe knee-jerk anti-Israelism – which, unfortunately, does exist. It’s time to acknowledge that, and it may free up those people so they can start listening.

    What do you think?

  9. Les
    December 5, 2012, 7:28 pm

    AIPAC includes among its silent partners the entirety of our big print and broadcast media. Their propaganda based coverage of Israel/Palestine is donated labor which doesn’t have to be accounted for on anyone’s balance sheet. How much do you think that is worth compared to the income J Street may claim to have?

    • W.Jones
      December 6, 2012, 10:58 am


      If J Street’s views are pretty close to AIPAC’s on the questions the media portrays (like “culture of hate”, UN “bias” etc.), perhaps this is an unaccounted “donation” “shared” by both PACs.

      Second, if J Street is really much bigger and financially stronger than AIPAC, how could it turn out that AIPAC itself that would be stronger? Perhaps J Street is stronger, but people with AIPAC’s views are stronger than J Street or AIPC itself? In any case, J Street does seem to be a very important player.


  10. Henry Norr
    December 6, 2012, 2:00 pm

    Update re B’nai Jeshurun, from JTA:

    N.Y. shul’s rabbis ‘regret’ email praising U.N. Palestine vote
    December 6, 2012
    NEW YORK (JTA) — Rabbis at B’nai Jeshurun are expressing “regret” over an email sent out by the prominent New York synagogue praising the United Nations vote to elevate Palestinians to non-member state status.

    The rabbis of the Manhattan synagogue sent a note Thursday to congregants saying that their email last week endorsing the U.N. action had been sent prematurely and mistakenly listed several other synagogue officials as signatories.

    “While we affirm the essence of our message, we feel that it is important to share with you that through a series of unfortunate internal errors, an incomplete and unedited draft of the letter was sent out which resulted in a tone which did not reflect the complexities and uncertainties of this moment,” the rabbis, Rolando Matalon, Marcelo Bronstein and Felicia Sol, wrote in their followup email.

    The rabbis also wrote that they “regret the feelings of alienation that resulted from our letter.”

    The latest email was first reported by The New York Jewish Week.

    The original email, sent last Friday, drew both praise and outrage from members of the nondenominational Upper West Side synagogue, which is known for its liberal politics and lively services. The email and ensuing controversy drew significant media attention, including a front-page story in The New York Times on Wednesday.

    “The vote at the U.N. yesterday is a great moment for us as citizens of the world,” the original email stated. “This is an opportunity to celebrate the process that allows a nation to come forward and ask for recognition. Having gained independence ourselves in this way, we are especially conscious of this.”

    In their followup, the three rabbis wrote that they are “passionate lovers of Israel” and are “unequivocally committed to Israel’s security, democracy and peace.”

    They also wrote that the original email was a letter from them and that the synagogue’s cantor, board president, executive director and director of Israel engagement were listed mistakenly as signatories.

    Wonder what happened – did the right wingers threaten to break their kneecaps? kill their kids? or just pull their funding?

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