GA Event Promises Tough Talk on Issues Dividing Israel and U.S. Jews – but Can It Deliver?

Critics from both the progressive and Orthodox side of the Jewish political map say annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America fails to deliver on its 'We need to talk' slogan

From left: Members of the Abayudaya community during their Birthright visit to the Western Wall / Members of IfNotNow and Rabbinical school students blocking traffic while protesting Trump's US Embassy move to Jerusalem / Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu / The Western Wall / Eritrean migrants wear chains to mimic slaves at a demonstration against the Israeli government's policy
Olivier Fitoussi, Gili Getz, AFP / MANDEL NGAN, Emil Salman, Oded Balilty/AP

“We need to talk.”

The title chosen for this year’s Jewish federation summit doesn’t beat around the bush: There is trouble in the tribe, it suggests in rather blunt terms, and it’s time to hold some tough conversations about the many issues dividing Israel and American Jewry.

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GA 2018 in Tel Aviv - live

To be sure, there is no shortage of topics to fill a three-day gathering devoted to the crisis in Israel-Diaspora relations. Critics, however, charge that the actual program for the annual General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America – which kicks off Monday and will be held this year, for the first time ever, in Tel Aviv – doesn’t live up to the promise of its title.

The choice of venue guarantees a good showing from both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed, at last count, the mega-event was expected to draw close to 2,500 participants, split almost evenly between Americans and Israelis.

But how can a gathering that promises to put everything on the table – ask critics from the progressive side of the map – ignore some of the most divisive issues threatening Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry such as Israel’s continued occupation of the West Bank and its discrimination of Reform and Conservative Jews, who account for the vast majority in the United States? And how, according to critics from the opposite side of the spectrum, can such an event ignore the voices of the small but increasingly influential Orthodox community?

T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group based in New York (whose membership consists mainly of non-Orthodox rabbis), had proposed organizing a tour to the West Bank, a day before or after the GA, for participants who might be interested in seeing the occupation up close. “There wasn’t any openness or interest though,” lamented Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of the organization.

A Palestinian man argues with an Israeli soldier during clashes over an Israeli order to shut down a Palestinian school near Nablus in the occupied West Bank October 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman
\ MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

T’ruah also prepared a pamphlet on the occupation, she says, and offered to pay to have it distributed in the GA conference bags. According to Jacobs, that request was also rejected. “What we were told is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not on the agenda of the JFNA and never has been, and there was concern that people would be upset if they opened their bags and found this booklet,” she said.

“Our goal was to give participants in a conference titled ‘We Need to Talk’ the opportunity to learn about the occupation, which is after all the major reason American Jews, particularly young American Jews, are increasingly walking away from Israel.”

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During the GA, T’ruah will share a booth outside the main session halls with two other liberal Zionist organizations – the New Israel Fund and J Street – where they will distribute information about the nation-state law and its threat, as they see it, to Israeli democracy.

Asked for comment on why T’ruah was not allowed to put its pamphlet on the occupation in the conference bags, the spokeswoman for the Jewish Federations of North America, Rebecca Dinar, said: “We are pleased that T’ruah is a sponsor and encourage them to distribute information from their booth.”

'Disillusioned and disappointed'

Hagit Ofran, director of the Settlement Watch project at Peace Now, expressed similar frustrations with the lack of attention in the program to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “The program rightfully underlines the growing divide between Israeli and North American Jewry,” she said, “yet fails to address the elephant in the room – Israel’s policy toward and military rule over the Palestinians.”

It’s no secret, she added, that the Israeli government’s opposition to a two-state solution has left many American Jews “disillusioned and disappointed with the Jewish institutions claiming to represent them.”

“If the JFNA wants to engage in meaningful dialogue on the fate of the Israel-Diaspora Jewish connection,” Ofran said, “it must not ignore the tectonic political issues driving the communities apart.”

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Logan Bayroff, director of communications at J Street, said he was also disappointed that the new nation-state law, which detractors say downplays Israel’s democratic character, was not up for discussion in the program. “The GA, as a major gathering of American Jews, should not in any way be shying away from those subjects and should be making them a major component of their program,” he said.

Over the past year, mainstream Jewish organizations have been extremely vocal in their criticism of the Israeli government’s treatment of asylum seekers. For that reason, Tamara Newman, a Tel Aviv-based advocate for asylum seekers, had hoped to see the issue addressed at the GA summit. Hence her deep disappointment.

African migrants demonstrate against the Israeli government's policy to forcibly deport African refugees and asylum seekers from Israel to Uganda and Rwanda, outside the Rwanda embassy on January 22, 2018 in the Israeli city of Herzliya.
JACK GUEZ / AFP

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that the engagement of world Jewry on this issue saved thousands of lives,” said Newman, director for international relations and development for the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants.

“But just a few months later, literally two weeks before the start of the GA, the Israeli government has announced that they will deport the few hundred asylum seekers here from the Congo. Some of them have been in the country for 20 years. There are teenagers who were born here, who read and write and dream in Hebrew, and in 90 days they are going to be deported to a war zone and never be able to return. We need to talk about that, too.”

It’s not only the left that feels left out. An Orthodox Jewish-American group called Am Echad – Preserving One Jewish People charges that the community it represents appears to be unwanted at the biggest Jewish-world event of the year.

“Unfortunately, while they speak about the importance of dialogue and understanding, the voices at the General Assembly are limited in their variation,” the organization said in a statement. “It is the voice of the American Reform and Conservative, the voice of the liberal American who values Israel’s democratic nature over its Jewish nature, that dominates the conference.”

“Where are the other voices in the dialogue?” the group asked. “Where are the voices of those with the natural, vibrant, everyday connection to Israel and its people? Where are the voices of those who, with their minimal intermarriage and assimilation rates, are poised to become the dominant face of American Jewry within the next few decades?”

Everybody but the Orthodox

A look at the program reveals that critics from both sides, indeed, have grounds for their grievances. Orthodox voices are nowhere to be found and issues that have caused outrage and angst among progressives Jews – who still account for the overwhelming majority in America – are not specifically addressed in the program.

So what is? For the most part, it seems, issues of consensus. That includes, for example, the success of Israeli high-tech (to which several sessions are devoted), the need to support and empower Holocaust survivors, and the importance of integrating ultra-Orthodox Jews into Israeli society.

American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City, 2016.
Sebastian Scheiner / AP

There’s also a session on the importance of fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (but not one on whether it’s worth fighting or whether it’s being fought in the right way), and a luncheon, for invited guests only, devoted to female philanthropy. A session titled “Can We Talk? Peace Process Realities in Israel” holds promise of sparking some controversy, but the accompanying explanation indicates that the discussion will confine itself to feel-good stories about organizations and individuals trying to create coexistence and dialogue.

A session devoted to Israeli Arabs will similarly focus on the good work being done, in this case by the government, to assist this embattled minority. A session devoted to religious pluralism will spotlight various grassroots initiatives aimed at circumventing Israel's religious authorities and how federation funding is helping them – once again, an attempt to put a positive spin on a thorny issue.

Indeed, the only session that seems to hold some promise of delivering on the theme of the program is called “Tackling the Toughest Issues.” The accompanying explanation notes that participants in this dialogue forum, to be facilitated by the Jewish Agency, will be encouraged to speak their minds on issues such as the nation-state law, prayer at the Western Wall and conversion.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, is concerned that the Jewish Federations of North America may be squandering a unique opportunity. “I admire greatly the federation leadership, but to be truthful, they are trying to do something that is impossible, which is to create a very warm, positive groundswell at a time that there are very serious deep divides and debates,” he told Haaretz.

“I commend them for putting out a positive message, but we’ve got to be able to air hard issues in a thoughtful way – otherwise I think people will be frustrated that they came and that we didn’t get to the real crux of the matters.”

Asked to respond to allegations that the GA program avoids most of the hot-button issues in Israel’s relations with American Jewry – among them the occupation, prayer at the Western Wall, conversion, the nation-state law and treatment of asylum seekers – the JFNA spokeswoman said: “Our program was designed to offer GA attendees a chance to look behind the scenes of how life really is in two very different communities.

“By shining a light on issues like Israeli Arab concerns about minority integration, Haredi innovators working on social innovation, Federation leaders’ approach to interfaith marriage, and pluralistic Jewish expression, we hope that people will challenge their historic narratives about each other; and we hope to help grow the knowledge base about the variables involved in policy- and decision-making within Israel and among Jews communities across the ocean.”

She added: “In moderated discussions on the plenary stage, facilitated discussions in dialogue dens, and casual conversations held informally in hallways, I can guarantee that the policy differences that you listed will also be addressed.”