In Historic Shift, Jewish Federations Representatives to Visit Israeli Settlements

JFNA and its predecessor organizations have had a longstanding policy of not officially traveling beyond Israel’s 1967 borders. In reality, however, representatives have already done so.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York
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An illustrative photo shows a guide and tourist atop a West Bank hilltop.
An illustrative photo shows a guide and tourist atop a West Bank hilltop.Credit: Moti Milrod
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

Top leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America held a secretive meeting Wednesday to approve changing its policy of not traveling into the West Bank to visit Jewish settlements or Palestinian communities.

The conference call was led by JFNA Chairman Richard Sandler, who is executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation in Los Angeles. Participation in the call was limited only to voting JFNA trustees, according to a memo sent by JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman to those board members, because “the issues under discussion are deemed privileged information.”

JFNA is the umbrella of 151 U.S. and Canadian Jewish federations and 300 small Jewish communities that don’t have Jewish federations. The powerhouse fundraising group raised $338 million last year, according to JFNA’s 2015 U.S. tax filing. Part of the money is disbursed for overseas needs through the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and, in Israel, primarily through the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Wednesday’s meeting was prompted by JFNA’s relatively new management of the Israel Action Network, a pro-Israel organization that works to counter the boycott movement and other forms of anti-Israel activity. IAN was, until six months ago, run by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The IAN runs an occasional trip for groups of rabbis and Christian ministers to Israeli and Palestinian communities and sites in Israel and the West Bank. The second such trip for IAN’s interfaith program Partners for Peace departs on Sunday.

A part of the trustees’ phone call, according to Silverman’s memo, was dedicated to authorizing “the entry of JFNA missions, including federation community missions planned through JFNA, into Israeli-controlled territories beyond the Green Line (e.g., Ariel or Gush Etzion, etc.).”

This had some worried. As the federation insider who tipped Haaretz off to the meeting said, “I’m worried about them normalizing the settlements.”

JFNA and its predecessor organizations have had a longstanding policy of not officially traveling beyond Israel’s 1967 borders, known as the Green Line. In reality, said one JFNA trustee involved with the meeting, JFNA’s practice has been to travel to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

“JFNA has taken missions over the Green line. I went on one which went to Gush Etzion,” said the JFNA trustee. “The idea of missions is fact finding and education. Everybody gets emotional about their political views on the territories. But we’ve done it before. Technically, if you go to the Kotel you just went over the Green Line.”

Following Wednesday's meeting, the organization released a statement saying that “Today the JFNA Board of Trustees approved a number of appropriate and necessary protocols to support the advocacy and education trips of the IAN. This vote ensures that IAN will continue to travel to Israel and the surrounding areas, not historically visited by JFNA staff. We are pleased the board reaffirmed the ability of IAN to continue this mission-critical work.”

The trustee who spoke with Haaretz and who wished to remain anonymous said that “We’re now responsible for IAN’s trip and we want to make sure it complies with all the protections and protocols.”

In the IAN program, ministers – mainline Protestants and Evangelicals, including local pastors and leaders of seminaries – are paired with rabbis. They commit to supporting two states for two peoples, and together they study and participate in social justice work around the issue in their local communities.

“It’s a way of healing the fractured conversation [about Israel] at the local level,” IAN director Ethan Felson told Haaretz.

Some of the rabbi-minister pairs travel with IAN to Israel and Palestinian-controlled territory. The first such trip was in March 2015.

“It took a lot of us by surprise that JFNA had a policy of not going into the West Bank. It seemed anachronistic,” said Felson. And, while Americans can hear Palestinians and Israelis speak in synagogues and churches around the U.S. from groups like the Parents Circle, which brings together people whose children have died as a consequence of the occupation, it is a totally different experience meeting them on their own land, he added.

“A Jew living in the West Bank will stand on a field and say ‘this is the land where Abraham lived.’ And a Palestinian will say ‘this land is my family’s farm.’ It changes the dynamic to say ‘this tent is where women from the Palestinian village and the Jewish settlement meet,’" he said. “You have to touch it. It’s the core of the conversation we want people to have if we want them to be peace builders.”

The IAN trip will visit Ramallah, Rawabi and Bethlehem, and meet with Palestinian leaders, as well as Jewish leaders in Israeli communities, said Felson.

In 2002 JFNA’s predecessor agency, called UJC, changed its policy to permit funding to Jewish communities in distress over the Green Line. The move, which occurred in the aftermath of terror attacks there, was quite controversial.

Some are now concerned that the shift in policy means that JFNA-run or organized missions will begin visiting Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The change in policy “is pretty shocking, because historically the Jewish organizations or federations themselves have so frequently had to defend their practice of not allocating resources beyond the Green Line and facing withering criticism whenever the Jewish National Fund or World Zionist Organization would expend funds to benefit the settlements,” said Richard Wexler, the former chairman of a part of JFNA’s predecessor organization.

Now a non-voting board member of JFNA, Wexler is known as a vocal critic of many JFNA endeavors. Speaking to Haaretz, Wexler said that “I imagine the criticism from the significant liberal element within the Jewish community will be very strong. Many will think this is some tacit recognition of the settlements.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is one of them. Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, recently ran a successful campaign compelling the JNF to disclose how much of the money it raises goes to fund projects over the Green Line.

“If a JFNA group visits Ariel and doesn’t also have the opportunity to visit Palestinians, that’s very much a missed opportunity,” Jacobs told Haaretz.

“When you visit the settlements it’s important to say they are settlements,” said Jacobs. “It would be a problem to visit Ariel and not mention that it is in an area under military occupation, and the impact on Palestinians, how Ariel’s location is a major challenge for the two-state solution, and the differences in the way Israel provides infrastructure.”

She offered to make sure that JFNA delegations see the whole picture when they visit over the Green Line.

“T’ruah has a program to bring Jewish groups to Palestinian communities together with Breaking the Silence. I would be very happy to organize a trip like that for any JFNA group that wants to go to see the impact on Palestinians and also Israeli soldiers who risk their lives to defend the occupation.”

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