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Reform Jews offer no proposal to end occupation, says Jewish Voice for Peace

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Joshua Heschel, left, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, left, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The fight is breaking out between liberal Zionist and non-Zionist Jews, at last.

The Presbyterian vote to divest from three companies doing business in the occupation last week had the active support of the non-Zionist organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, which then made it on to the front page of the New York Times.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the former head of the Reform Jewish organization, has now singled out JVP for an attack in Haaretz. Yoffie’s spiteful tone is evident in the headline: “How a radical anti-Israel Jewish group colluded with the U.S. Presbyterian Church.” A group of “young people in black T-shirts” had led the Presbyterians “astray,” alienating it from the Jewish community, Yoffie said. “Like virtually all Jewish leaders, I am not too happy with the Presbyterian church.”

I am not any happier with Jewish Voice for Peace, a small Jewish activist group that was only too happy to help the Presbyterians along…

none of this would have worked without the collusion of Jewish Voice for Peace, which has a tradition of cloaking extremist principles in ambiguous language.

Now Rebecca Vilkomerson and Donna Nevel of JVP have responded, with a great letter to Haaretz saying that the Reforms have walked away from their own legacy of supporting equal rights during the American fight against Jim Crow. The crushing sentence here is their statement that the Reform Jews offered not one concrete suggestion during the weeklong Presbyterian assembly about how to end the near-50-year-long occupation. No, the Reforms just urged the Presbyterians to meet with Israel’s rightwing prime minister.

Vilkomerson and Nevel:

Rabbi Eric Yoffie refuses to grapple with the reality of the occupation or to address the role Jewish American institutions play in repressing concrete actions to end Israel’s ongoing human rights violations against Palestinians. How sad, and revealing, that instead of engaging with the deeply critical message and moral issues being raised by the Presbyterian vote to divest, he resorts to ad hominem attacks against Jewish Voice for Peace and the Presbyterian Church.

We honor the deliberate and thoughtful process that led the church to vote to divest from three American companies, in accordance with their ethical investment principles. We were proud to play our part in supporting their process, but the decision was their own. To suggest otherwise is insulting and indicative of Yoffie’s approach to interfaith partnerships.

Throughout the weeklong General Assembly, no one from Yoffie’s movement made a single concrete suggestion about how to end the occupation — the growth of the settlements, the daily indignities or the structural violence against Palestinians. Instead, they used their voice to attempt to threaten and bully the Presbyterians into voting against their conscience.

The Union for Reform Judaism prominently displays a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on its website. The Reform movement is justifiably proud of taking action during the civil rights struggle. How sad that the leadership of the Reform movement today finds itself defending inaction, and therefore promoting injustice. Is the movement’s only response to the Presbyterian vote to attack Jewish Voice for Peace rather than recognize the merits of heartfelt and fact-based deliberations?

Despite Yoffie’s protestations, Jewish Voice for Peace is increasingly attractive to more and more Jewish Americans, including many within the Reform movement. In fact, we welcome new members daily. How beautiful to see so many Jews want to be part of an organization that supports equal rights and justice for Palestinians, Israelis and all people — in the best of Jewish tradition.

JVP’s greatest offense here was getting into the New York Times, i.e., edging into the mainstream. The viciousness of Yoffie’s attack reflects the fact that it is essential for the Israel lobby to be a monolith, to speak in one voice, so as to maintain U.S. support for a project that Americans can’t be trusted to support without pressure. That’s why there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between J Street and AIPAC these days. Once Jews speak in opposition on this issue, politicians will get to take different sides. You’ve got to close ranks. And smear JVP.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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26 Responses

  1. seafoid on June 26, 2014, 10:05 am

    Rick Jacobs is Reform too, isn’t he ?

    One of the problems with Judaism in the US is that all the major orgs are Zionist and they all toe the hasbara line . They were all cleared of whatever moral opposition to YESHA existed a long time ago by donor pressure and careerism. At the time it perhaps looked as though history was over and that everything would work out.

    Now they are in a bind. Even the right on ones like the Reform crowd have to turn around and support torture and home demolitions.

    Whatever they thinks marks them out is irrelevant in the bigger moral picture.
    “There are things we don’t stand for. Once, when I was leading a bar mitzvah service, a very traditional group of people walked in wearing black fedoras — Orthodox Jews walking into a Reform synagogue — and one of the guys said to me, “Would it be OK if we just ask the women to sit on this side and the men on that side?” And I said, “I actually can’t do that.” I can give you a hundred examples of where we will not compromise who we are”

    Living off 60s activism while ignoring the great evil of today

    “RJ: We’ve been the backbone of social justice in America. One of my predecessors, Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, carried a Torah scroll with Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. Barack Obama spoke to our Biennial in D.C. two years ago and said, “I would not be the president of the United States were it not for the Religious Action Center that helped to blaze a trail. …” So we’ve been leading. And that’s not just talking about our role within Judaism — that’s our role in the community and in the world. When people say, “I want the Reform movement to stay focused on religion and not do all the political stuff,” I say, “You want to pull out social justice from Judaism? You can, but you basically don’t have Judaism left.””

    You basically don’t have Judaism left if it can’t support human rights for Palestinians.
    And give me a sweaty but honest and decent Orthodox any time over a Reform hypocrite.

    • clenchner on June 27, 2014, 9:40 am

      “They were all cleared of whatever moral opposition to YESHA existed a long time ago by donor pressure and careerism.”
      If you think the Reform movement is pro YESHA than you are quite ignorant of Reform movement politics.
      Unless YESHA donors and funders are happy spending their way to stuff like this:

      The NRA is America’s curse. And the settlements are Israel’s NRA

  2. seafoid on June 26, 2014, 10:20 am

    Rick is such a rich source of hypocrisy

    “If you’re not vulnerable in the world, and you don’t open your heart and feel the pain and say, “Is there anything I can do to help that pain?” then you’re not alive.”
    Certainly someone who is morally frozen is not alive, but neither are they dead
    They are in a third state – hasbara biostasis is the term I would use to describe it …

  3. piotr on June 26, 2014, 11:14 am

    Is Judaism today like Shinto before 1945? Of course, not all followers believe in the ideas of The Way of A Warrior, but the same was probably true in Japan.

  4. Xpat on June 26, 2014, 11:37 am

    This is a major endorsement for Jewish Voice for Peace. Rabbi Yoffie is still one of the top rabbis in America. And he credits JVP with pushing the Presbyterian vote through.
    Per Yoffie,where would the Christians be without the Jews?

  5. jon s on June 26, 2014, 11:44 am

    The photo caption should be Abraham Joshua Heschel, and it would be appropiate to add “Rabbi”. Likewise, for Martin Luther King, “Rev.”

    • Xpat on June 26, 2014, 11:51 am

      Good catch. He is known by his full name as Abraham Joshua Heschel. I wouldn’t insist on clergy titles though. Both men transcended that.

      • Peter in SF on June 26, 2014, 12:49 pm

        Peter Beinart has this story:

        After the talk, a woman asked Obama to sign his autograph for her two sons. While he wrote, she began sounding out their names: “Meyer, M-E-Y-E-R,” she spelled, and “Heschel, H- . . .” Obama interrupted her. “Like Abraham?” he asked.

      • wondering jew on June 26, 2014, 2:48 pm

        How is it that Phil doesn’t know Heschel’s first name?

        The history of Jews includes many who do not know who Heschel was/is. Jews who seek to assimilate and to leave the past behind. They are part of the history of the Jewish people particularly in America and particularly in central and western Europe ever since Mendelsohn translated the Bible into German and his grandson converted so as to be accepted into the salons. Assimilation is not a dirty word. Neither is it everyone’s choice.

      • Xpat on June 26, 2014, 5:50 pm

        I first encountered Heschel through his scholarship. Most American Jews who know the name first encountered him in the context that Phil references him. Hechel’s memory is used to inspire “social justice” today, but also as an icon of the sacred pact between the Jew and the Black man in the 1960s. This is highly political and manipulative. It blocks out the many Jews and Jewish institutions who were worked against Blacks and benefitted from their misery 50 years ago.
        I don’t see why you place value on which Jew is and which Jews is not familiar with a name from the 60s. I’d be suspicious of anybody who was too conversant in Abraham Joshua Heschel and his march with Martin Luther King.

      • wondering jew on June 26, 2014, 7:39 pm

        Elliot- What should a 60 year old Jew be conversant in? A 50 year old? A 40 year old? A 20 year old? Name 7 20th century Jews that a Jew should be conversant in? You’d be suspicious of anybody who was too conversant with the photograph(not this one) of Heschel with King. In the terms that Max Blumenthal is suspicious of kipot in his audience? In the terms that Mark Ellis prefers Jews who have zero connection and thus carry no baggage predisposing them towards Zionism?

        By the way: which Jewish institutions benefited from the status quo in the 60’s and worked against the movement? Maybe you’re referring to the United Federation of Teachers or albert shanker and the nyc teacher’s union? i can’t tell by your broad statement.

      • Xpat on June 26, 2014, 10:06 pm

        I don’t play the game of what a Jew should/should not know. Seems pointless to me. There are so many different types of Jew and there is no one size fits all. I’m much happier with Jews who care about justice. I’m happier with anyone who does. It’s not just about Zionism, certainly not in American terms.
        Regarding your inquiry, I don’t know about N.Y, but I don’t suppose it was so different to Chicago. After all, the same interests were at stake. Beryl Satter in Family Properties documents the resistance of the Jewish establishment in Chicago to Rabbi Marx and his progressives. The establishment Jews were no different to the WASP establishment and the Daley machine who closed ranks against Martin Luther King in 1968. So now, for the spiritual heirs of that Jewish establishment to parade King as if none of this ever happened is to mock King’s battles.

      • wondering jew on June 27, 2014, 2:04 am

        Elliot- Thanks for pointing me to Beryl Satter’s book.

        The upshot of your suspicion of someone who knows about Heschel and King and your refusal to name even one person that a Jew should know about, is that in your view of the world, a Jew can know too much but a Jew can’t know too little.

      • annie on June 27, 2014, 3:29 pm

        How is it that Phil doesn’t know Heschel’s first name?

        How is it you make assumptions about what Phil does and doesn’t know based on one photo caption?

    • Woody Tanaka on June 26, 2014, 12:02 pm

      Really? In an article pointing out the failure of Reform Jews to provide any guidance in solving the problems created by the Crimes of the Occupation — crimes which are, right now, this very second, destroying the lives of millions of people — the concern of you, oh man on the “Israeli left,” is whether it was wrong not to include religious honorifics in the label of two men who’ve been dead for forty years?? That’s where your concern lies?

      • jon s on June 27, 2014, 1:39 am

        Elliot, I think that there is significance to what a Jew knows/ doesn’t know. For myself, what I dislike most is ignorance. Even to “reject” – you need to know what you’re rejecting, what you’re rebelling against.
        Rabbi A.J. Heschel was one of a handful of Jewish thinkers and spiritual leaders active in the 20th century USA who had any influence . I know of people whose lives changed profoundly under the infuence of his words.
        In recent years, at least here in Israel, his works have been “rediscovered” . New translations of his works have appeared as well as new studies:

      • Xpat on June 27, 2014, 8:05 am

        Jon and Yonah,
        Outside a tight-knit religious denomination, no one is in charge of a core Jewish curriculum, so it’s meaningless to insist on this or that knowledge. So insisting on it is really just one more way of labeling who is and who is not “one of us”.
        In my experience, those Jews who have heard the name “Heschel” know him only for his booklet on the Sabbath and, of course, his march with King.
        Hardly a robust grasp of who the man was.

        The insinuation is that Mondoweiss’s mislabeling of the Heschel photo casts doubt on the validity of this Jewish discourse. Ipcha mistabra, the opposite is true. This is THE Jewish discourse of our times. Phil and the rest of us here are becoming better educated than all those well-educated Jews who reel off quotes from Bible to Buber.

      • jon s on June 27, 2014, 10:29 am

        When I pointed out the mislabeling, I really wasn’t insinuating anything beyond correcting an error.
        I also thought that, out of respect, the title “Rabbi” would have been appropriate. Just like we all refer to “Rabbi Akiva” and not “Akiva”, or Rashi or Rambam (where the title is already included).
        Of course no one is officially “in charge” of Jewish knowledge, which means we’re all in charge of doing what we can to reduce ignorance. That’s the point I was making in my second comment: even if you don’t keep kosher, you should know what the rules of kashrut are; you don’t have to live according to halakha (I certainly don’t ), but you should be familiar with the term.
        You sort of proved my point by using the phrase “Ipcha mistabra”. You assumed that Yonah and I wouldn’t be ignorant of the meaning.

  6. jon s on June 26, 2014, 12:00 pm

    Way off-topic: I wonder if Phil Weiss is rooting for Germany.

  7. seafoid on June 26, 2014, 12:36 pm

    Selling what Reform Jews did in the 60s while backing apartheid today is no different to white South Africans back in the day mentioning their part in the fight against fascism in WW2 while running apartheid in the 1980s.

  8. DICKERSON3870 on June 26, 2014, 2:01 pm

    RE: Reform Jews offer no proposal to end occupation, says Jewish Voice for Peace”

    IF I CORRECTLY UNDERSTAND THIS: So, Rabbi Eric Yoffie (the former head of the Reform Jewish organization who, we can only assume, has been authorized by its current leadership to speak on their behalf as to divestment/BDS because, we can logically assume, its current leaders lack the chutzpah, or at least the moxie, to speak for themselves and Reform Judaism as to the issue of divestment/BDS) is willing to mouth the words “two-state solution” (as even Netanyahu sort of finally did along with a boatload of qualifiers back in one 2009 speech, and despite Netanyahu’s many actions to the contrary since that speech), but at the very same time Rabbi Eric Yoffie (apparently speaking for the Reform Jewish organization) opposes any practical measure that would help bring an independent Palestinian state into existence. Dare I suggest that the establishment (the officials) of Reform Judaism might be “two-state fakers”*. Oh, dear me, I suppose I just did. How dreadful!

    * SEE – “Flotilla 3.0: Redeeming Obama’s Palestine Speech with Gaza’s Ark”, By Robert Naiman,, 3/25/13

    [EXCERPTS] There’s a half-empty way and a half-full way of looking at President Barack Obama’s Jerusalem speech about the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.
    The half-empty way of looking at it is: This was Obama’s white flag of surrender.
    To everyone around the world who for decades has been assuming that at the end of the day, the president of the United States would lead the way to resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama was saying: Don’t look at me. Just because the United States is the principal military, diplomatic and economic protector of the Israeli government, doesn’t mean that I, as the president of the United States, will do anything about the military occupation of millions of Palestinian human beings. Bibi doesn’t want an independent Palestinian state; Bibi’s government doesn’t want an independent Palestinian state; AIPAC doesn’t want an independent Palestinian state; and Congress – which defers to AIPAC – doesn’t want an independent Palestinian state. Of course, many of them mouth the words – not Bibi’s government, they don’t even do that – but those who mouth the words oppose any practical measure that would help bring an independent Palestinian state into existence. They’re “two state fakers.” Settlement freeze? Impossible. UN membership for Palestine? Can’t be done. No, according to the two state fakers, the only option on the menu in the restaurant for the Palestinians is to return to negotiations without a settlement freeze, negotiations that for 20 years have brought more land confiscation, more settlements, more restrictions on Palestinian movement and commerce, more oppression. And so, Obama was saying, my hands are tied. Don’t look at me.
    The half-full way of looking at it is this: It was a great speech. If you “price in,” as the markets say, acceptance that the US government isn’t going to lead on this, it was a great motivational speech. President Obama made a very compelling case that someone else should do something. . . [and now Yoffe has made it clear that it’s not going to be Reform Judaism ~ JLD]


  9. piotr on June 26, 2014, 2:13 pm

    “… it is essential for the Israel lobby to be a monolith, to speak in one voice …”

    But that is not really possible. I described it here as Zionism piano (Forward, pianissimo, J-Street, piano) and Zionism forte (ZOA, Boateach). For example, observe that when Eisner of Forward recited her shiboleth of concern about Presbyterians, she threw in a gratuitous insult against Netanyahu (gratuitous in the sense that she did not explain why Netanyahu argument was clumsy). The Zionist right both here in American and in Israel detests Obama, Kerry, and basically all non-ultra-Zionist Democrats (including Debbie Schwartz), which cannot but dampen the liberals’ zeal in doing their share of work for the lobby when it most clearly contradicts Administration policies (say, on Iran and Syria). We have old schema of the liberal wing viewing the right wing as idiots who, if educated, wasted their college years and just got worse as the years go by, and the right wing viewing the liberals as elitist traitors to the cause.

    For example, once again Netanyahu is pushing for Iran policy that would be totally at variance with American national interest. I expect another round of recriminations, and lobbying by right wingers alone.

  10. DICKERSON3870 on June 26, 2014, 2:52 pm

    RE: “That’s why there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between J Street and AIPAC these days.” ~ Weiss

    MY VERY WEAK ATTEMPT AT A REPARTEE: Yeah, and I’d like to throw all their Gucci briefcases in the “Poetoemack”, y’all!

  11. wondering jew on June 26, 2014, 3:07 pm

    J street wants into the tent and it is being a good soldier in the current fight against BDS. Reform Judaism wishes to earn Ruby Rivlin’s assent (despite derogatory things he has said about Reform Judaism). The only way they know how to do that is by being good soldiers in the fight against BDS. These days of the post kerry peace process will continue in this phase until the end of the Obama administration. To demand that J Street needs to define itself during this phase as being in the same boat as Larry Derfner is a bit much. That’s not what J street was created for and right now it is on ideological life support until the next phase begins and clarifies what role it may play in the future. At this moment there is not a dime’s worth of difference, but they hope that during the next phase they will discover their role and there will be a dime’s worth of difference. (or a dollar’s difference).

    • Shmuel on June 26, 2014, 3:20 pm

      right now it is on ideological life support until the next phase begins and clarifies what role it may play in the future

      Meanwhile, J Street’s European sister organisation, J Call, has issued an appeal to European governments to get the Israelis and Palestinians talking again (while blaming both sides for the breakdown of the Kerry process). Beyond the usual liberal Zionist 2-state positions, I noticed that they had basically incorporated Netanyahu’s relatively new demand that Israel be recognised as the state of the Jewish people (although couched in slightly different terms).

  12. annie on June 27, 2014, 3:23 pm

    from Yoffie in haaretz:

    The Presbyterian leadership is not naïve. It has been working with the Jewish community for decades on a range of issues and has been engaged in dialogue with Jews on divestment concerns since 2004. It knows how the Jewish community is organized. It knows who has a grassroots presence and who does not. And any suggestion that there is significant Jewish support for divestment or that Jewish Voice for Peace represents any more than a tiny sliver of Jewish opinion is simply preposterous.

    you better start paying attention to that ‘sliver’ Yoffie, because ” the Jewish community” is not organized as one monolithic group. in fact, that sliver you mention, has thousands and thousands of members.

    just yesterday morning jvp sent out a form letter asking for signatures. by the time i got to it about 5 hrs later there were over 17k signatures on it and it was hours old.

    they pack a punch, so move on over.

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