Our Brothers, Ourselves

Will American Jews be able to continue to support Israel if it maintains its current political, social and religious orientations? Yes - and no - it depends on whom you ask

Nobody expected a routine political discussion in Newton, a wealthy suburb of Boston, one-third of whose residents are Jewish, to become the talk of the town among the American Jewish community. About four months ago the rabbi of a local Reform synagogue organized a discussion with the participation of J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami. Events of this type - political debates, public discussions and lessons in Jewish topics - take place daily in synagogues all over the United States, and the rabbi of Temple Beth Avodah, Keith Stern, didn't think there was any cause for concern. "The understanding was that it was going to be what I considered to be an honest and open conversation with a liberal Jewish organization," he explained to The Boston Globe after the fact.

Shortly after announcement of the event, "a small, influential" group from the community, as Stern described it, began to express firm opposition to hosting the head of the left-wing Jewish lobby. The synagogue's administration met with representatives of the group in an attempt to find a compromise, but in vain. At the last moment, the discussion was transferred to a nearby elementary school. This time the protest erupted from the other side, with claims of bullying and prevention of open discussion. The dispute "threatened the fabric of the congregation," said Stern, explaining his decision to cancel the encounter.

Jews New Jersey

For weeks afterward there were articles and columns about the subject in the Jewish press and on blogs. Some were angry at the synagogue, others at J Street, and most of all, there was a sense that Israel has become a fraught and very complex subject for American Jewry. The fact that a discussion about Israel threatened the congregation "says more about the congregation than it does about J Street," wrote Jesse Singal, a contributor to The Boston Globe, summing up the affair on the newspaper's website.

The incident in Beth Avodah prompted such widespread reverberations because it represented a growing phenomenon, especially in the Reform and Conservative parts of the community: a genuine difficulty in talking about Israel. In certain synagogues, the boards or the rabbis have reduced their scope of Israel-related activities, for fear of crises that will threaten the community.

There have also been genuine political conflicts between various Jewish organizations, including boycotts, threats and even violence. A few months ago the Anti-Defamation League published its list of the "Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in America," including one called the Jewish Voice for Peace (see box ). Furthermore, so as to prevent Israel's fiercest critics from using its on-campus facilities as a forum, the Hillel association of Jewish students issued guidelines concerning which organizations and speakers are considered acceptable. Plus, a few months ago posters were affixed to the home of a Jewish activist in Los Angeles, declaring that he is "Wanted for treason." And so on.

Jewish magazines and newspapers have carried articles accusing Jewish journalists and bloggers who criticized Israel of anti-Semitism and self-hatred - and equally harsh responses to them have also been published. Everyone interviewed for this article spoke of instances in his own milieu where discussion about Israel escalated to the point of strident remarks or worse, or where people specifically were asked "not to mention Israel at the table."

One of the most dramatic incidents took place about a year and a half ago surrounding the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the oldest and most important cinematic event in the American Jewish world. Among the 70 films that were screened at the festival was "Rachel," about the life and death of Rachel Corrie, an activist in the International Solidarity Movement, who was killed in Gaza in 2003 when she was hit by a bulldozer during the demolition of a house in Rafah. What ignited the atmosphere was the invitation to Rachel's mother, Cindy Corrie, to join the discussion following the screening. The Israeli consul in the city called the invitation a "big mistake," and two large foundations that support the festival published an ad accusing the organizations behind the event of anti-Semitism. Jewish newspapers and organizational leaders were flooded with protest letters; on the other hand, Jewish peace activists protested what they saw as prevention of free speech and censorship concerning anything connected to Israel.

As a compromise, a representative of the Israel advocacy organization Stand With Us was invited to the discussion, but according to journalists in the audience, he found it difficult to talk because of the boos and shouts from both camps in the crowded hall. The uproar led to the resignation of the president of the festival administration along with five board members.

"The furor is much larger than this one film or this one speaker," summed up Peter Stein, the executive director of the festival, in an article in the SFGate (a website). "It reveals a rift in our community."

Another victim

A similar but smaller blowup occurred last month, after a performance at Theater J in Washington, D.C. of the play "Return to Haifa" by Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater. The play, written by Boaz Gaon and based on a novella by Ghassan Kanafani, who was a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is about a Palestinian couple from Ramallah who return to their home in Haifa after 1967 to discover a Jewish woman and her soldier-son there; they believe the young man may be the son they abandoned in 1948. The performance caused several donors to discontinue their donations to the local Jewish Federation, which supports the Jewish theater.

Michael Steinberg, one of the donors, explained to The Washington Jewish Week that "Theater J has begun to stage 'a truly vile series of anti-Israeli plays.'"

That was not the end of the affair: The Federation was angry at publication of the item in the Jewish Week - which it owns; according to reports, the editor paid for that with her job. The debate over Israel claimed another victim.

"Israel has become a very polarizing subject for Jews in America," says Rabbi Sheldon Lewis of Palo Alto, one of the veteran, well-known rabbis in the San Francisco and Silicon Valley area, which is home to about half a million Jews. Lewis served as a congregational rabbi there for 33 years, retiring four and a half years ago. Since then he has been devoting his time to a program designed to teach the local Jews how to conduct a political discussion about Israel without losing control.

"Our communities have really been torn apart surrounding Israel," says Lewis. "People have attacked each other personally, friendships have ended, people have left synagogues because of it and have even disappeared entirely from the community. When I was a community rabbi I experienced that myself. The film festival may have been the most dramatic and well-known incident, but things have been going downhill for years."

Lewis himself maintains close ties with Israel and has led some 20 trips there for community members. Over the years he has had good relations with both left-wing groups and the Israeli consulate in San Francisco.

"We're all in favor of Israel, and we tried to initiate activities to represent the entire range of opinions," he notes. "Israeli journalists and representatives of the consulate in the city came to us, as well as right-wingers and people from Rabbis for Human Rights. But we were unable to find the balance that would prevent the rift. To this day there are people who won't speak to me - friends to whom I can't turn because of things I said or initiated." Sometimes, adds Lewis, the solution was simply not to talk about Israel at social events or large family meals: "We often simply preferred to avoid the subject."

"The discussion about Israel touches on the foundation of Jewish existence here," explains Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Los Angeles. "The debate about Israel is the debate about the future of the Jewish people. Israel symbolizes the Jews' hope and fears, and that's why emotions regarding it are so strong in both directions."

Torn from within

"I used to adhere to a personal rule: Never discuss Israel or Palestine with anyone," wrote American journalist and author Eric Alterman in an article in a recent issue of the Jewish magazine Moment. But then Alterman, a Zionist, violated this rule.

"I gave a lecture at a university a few hours outside New York City on the topic of 'American Jews and Israel: The Burdens of Irresponsibility.' My argument, an extremely moderate one backed up by statistics, I might add, was that substituting pro-Israel activism for religious study is not good for Jews, or even for Israel," wrote Alterman. But when he arrived in the auditorium a surprise was awaiting him: Instead of young students, the room was full of elderly Jews who had come to confront him.

"During my talk, audience members frequently interrupted to challenge my statements of fact. During the question-and-answer period, elderly Jew after elderly Jew insisted that I was completely wrong, misinformed and biased on pretty much every point ... Weeks later, these people were still trying to set me straight.

"I really meant it when I said I did not want to talk about Israel," says Alterman, a few weeks after his lecture. "When it comes to the Jewish community, and also when it comes to the anti-Zionist American left - no fact about Israel matters. Everything you say is framed within one of the narratives, and you end up just annoying people or strengthening their prejudices. I've never seen anyone saying, 'Yes, I've changed my mind.' On the other hand, I've attended many dinners that were spoiled because of a conversation about Israel."

Isn't this something that always existed within the Jewish community?

Alterman: "We always had problems. There was Sabra and Chatila. There were always things that broke our hearts. But as Jewish liberals, we have always thought that there is another Israel - that of A.B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, David Grossman. The Israel which we were attached to. But this Israel is getting smaller and smaller, and frankly, it seems that it looked bigger from the U.S. than it really is. 'Our Israel' is narrowing, and the real Israel is becoming a foreign place for us."

"These experiences - public controversies, endless debates in the Jewish media, quarrels within the family about Israel - are entirely typical of the Jewish community today," says Joel Schalit, a political scientist who is an expert on Israel and author of the book "Israel vs. Utopia," about the attitude of American Jews to the state. "It wasn't like that in the past, certainly not as intense. To a great extent Israel in recent years has been turning into what in California they would call a 'bummer issue.'

"It's happening more in the liberal community," Schalit continues, "although even in Orthodox and Conservative circles people are no longer happy to talk about Israel, unless everyone in the room shares exactly the same opinions. That doesn't necessarily mean that they're leftists, but simply that the subject is so sensitive that they prefer not to discuss it. Both on the left and on the right there's a similar feeling. American Jews are indifferent or angry about Israel today, and many of them have begun to see Israel less as something identified with hope and pride, and more as a problem. That's a tremendous cultural change, and that's why it arouses so many emotions."

"In the past, you could say to liberal friends who criticized Israel 'What would you do if you were in their place?'" says Alterman. "After all, no country would agree to undertake security risks [like] those that are required from Israel. But in recent years it's more and more difficult to say it. It's much more complicated to justify the raid on the Turkish flotilla, or the way Israel handled Gaza, or the attacks on human rights organizations. It looks like we we're reaching a point where liberal American Jews will be forced to choose between their values and their emotional attachment to Israel. And many, alas, are going to stick with their values. There's a sense of failure of an idea with regards to Israel. This is something very painful for me to say."

The debate about Israel typically takes place in the liberal wings of the community, and particularly among the younger Reform and Conservative generation. The Orthodox, who constitute about one-fifth of U.S. Jews, tend not to criticize Israeli policy, especially in public.

"For the elite of the non-Orthodox community, Israel has become a very complicated subject," confirms Prof. Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service; he is a sociologist specializing in the American Jewish community, who divides his time between New York and Jerusalem.

Cohen feels that "these Jews are torn between two instincts: They want to protect Israel from destruction and threats, mainly from the outside and occasionally from the inside, too; but many of them see many Israeli actions as undermining their basic values as Jews, as Americans or as human beings. Israeli policy seems to them xenophobic, chauvinistic, ultra-religious, non-pluralistic and discriminatory toward foreigners. And the identity of these people is progressive, Reform or Conservative, feminist, internationalist. In every area that defines them as human beings, Israel seems to be opposed to them, and even insults and hurts them. They're torn between their concern for Israel in terms of security, and their ethical concerns. The result is that the communities are unable to reach a consensus. You see it all the time, you can smell it in the air, it's something that's becoming stronger. They have a hard time with Israel."

The result, Cohen explains, is that many prefer not to discuss Israel in the context of the community, in order to head off disputes and rifts.

"Among young Jewish leaders there's a tendency to adopt a 'Don't ask, don't plan activity' (about Israel ) policy, because they're committed to the consensus," he says. "They have more important objectives for the community, and the Israeli question will lead to internal tensions that will harm those objectives. Bringing Israel into the discussion will undermine the ability of Jews in the community to worship with one another, to study with one another, and to comfort one another."

Different crises

Even without the political dimension, some say the connection between American Jews and Israel has diminished over the years. According to recent surveys, only 30 percent of American Jews feel deeply connected to Israel and follow what is going on, and the numbers drop even more among young people and especially those who have married non-Jews. At the same time, even among the Reform and Conservative communities there is an elite that follows the news from Israel relatively religiously, and many who have also spent extended periods in Israel (Cohen estimates that they constitute 10 percent to 15 percent of the community ). These are the people who are now suffering an identity crisis regarding Israel.

The problem with Israel doesn't only center around the peace process and the occupation. For many, internal developments in Israeli society are actually of greater importance. Liberal U.S. Jews are disturbed by the persecution of human rights organizations, the separation of women and men on buses in Jerusalem and local rabbis' declarations: No fewer than 1,000 American rabbis signed a protest letter in response to the prohibition by Israeli religious figures against renting apartments to Arabs. Two other subjects that have gained considerable publicity among U.S. Jews receive almost no attention in the public discourse in Israel: the Conversion Law, which would grant a monopoly on conversions to the Chief Rabbinate, and has already created a feeling in Reform and Conservative communities that they are being left out; and the arrest, most notably a year and a half ago, by the Jerusalem police of members of Women of the Wall, who wanted to pray with a Torah scroll, as is customary in their own congregations, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Many women in the U.S. Jewish community have joined the protest against the treatment of the Women of the Wall. In the Reform Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, New York, for example, women were photographed with a Torah scroll and they posted the pictures on a special page on the Internet. "There's a feeling that Israel is moving in the direction of very ultra-Orthodox, very limited Judaism," says the rabbi of the synagogue, Shira Milgrom. "This is an Israel with which it is very difficult for us to identify."

Milgrom, who has served in her position for the past 25 years, remembers other times: "Once it was easy, when everyone had their head in the sand and didn't understand the situation. There are still people who want to talk only about 'Exodus' and 'the only democracy in the Middle East,' but younger Jews, students, grew up on other stories, and they have a very tough conflict between the Israel they know and their sense of Jewish ethics. To a great degree it's a generational debate."

"There are people, especially many young people, who do not participate in the Jewish community because they feel that the community is afraid to criticize Israel and that silence implies agreement with Israeli policies," says Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. "On the other hand, when Jews do criticize Israeli policy, we are often met with very vocal, harsh responses. I have experienced this. My synagogue doesn't avoid events connected to Israel as certain communities do, but we do feel the polarization on the subject, and it's worrisome."

"The synagogue in America is not like [the synagogue] in Israel," says Rabbi Feinstein. "In America the synagogue is a community center and a cultural center. It's the place where the political discussion has to take place, too."

Feinstein has served as the rabbi of his Los Angeles congregation since 1993, speaks Hebrew and regularly conducts events that deal with Israel.

"The problem is that when you take the Israeli discussion to America it narrows and becomes very extreme. In Israel you can say things that in America are forbidden, and that's also true of the Israelis in our community. Something happens to them when they move to the U.S. Their culture of discussion is different and emotions come to the fore. We had harsh quarrels in the synagogue. As far as I'm concerned, as long as I infuriate both the right and the left equally, I know that I'm okay," explains Feinstein.

Shmuel Rosner, author of the new book "Shtetl, Bagel, Baseball: American Judaism for Israeli Dummies" (in Hebrew, published by Keter ), agrees that discussion about Israel has become more public and more polarized these days.

"The debate about Israel can cause American Jews to get angry and even to slam the door in fury," says Rosner, a former correspondent for Haaretz in the United States, who is now a columnist and a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. "In the past, even at the height of the second intifada, it was easy for Jews to understand who was the 'good guy' and who was the 'bad guy' in the story, but now the situation is more complicated and confusing, and the complexity leads to polarization.

"It's important to emphasize that there are no unequivocal data on the subject, for one because it's hard to measure emotional attitudes. What is evident is a very profound cultural gap between Israel and American Jews. For American Jews political liberalism is to a great extent part of the religion. They have embedded their liberal political values so deeply into their Jewish experience that it's very hard to tell where politics ends and religion begins. The occupation and the Palestinians are a much less important reason for the sense of distance from Israel, although there are quite a number of people with vested interests, who for their own reasons are creating the impression that that is the main problem."

Remembering 'the camps'

The U.S. Jewish community is composed for the most part of descendants of Eastern European immigrants, who arrived there in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jews were identified almost from the time they arrived with the left-liberal side of the American political map. They tended to vote for the Democrats already in the 1930s; in the 1950s they were among the prominent supporters of the human rights movement (in the famous pictures from the period, communal leaders are seen marching alongside Martin Luther King, holding a Torah scroll ); in the 1960s and 1970s Jews were prominent in their opposition to the Vietnam War, and according to a 2009 Gallop poll, even today they are the most liberal group in America.

No fewer than 41 percent of U.S. Jews identify themselves as liberals, and only 20 percent - the lowest proportion in their country's population - see themselves as conservatives. Jews tend to support gay rights, gun control, abortion and even euthanasia, more than any other religious group in the States. For many these are not political values, but a personal interpretation of what Jewish identity means.

"When people on the Israeli right are surprised by the liberal bias of the Jewish community in the United States, they simply don't understand that this community spent almost 100 years trying to construct a unique political space for themselves," explains researcher Schalit. "The political experience of the Jews in Eastern Europe was of life under nondemocratic regimes, and what was so amazing about the American example was that Jews managed to change the tradition of the regimes from which they had come [to a point where there were] such liberal and multicultural attitudes. It's hard to explain how liberal members of the American Jewish community are when it comes to American political issues, how much they believe in civil rights, or why 78 percent of them voted for Obama, although they had questions regarding several of his positions."

The Bush years "made Israel pay a price in [terms of] its ability to connect to American Jewry," Rosner observes. "In Israel affection for [George W.] Bush steadily increased, while most American Jews felt total contempt for him. It is very hard for the Jews to identify with someone who considers [former Alaska Governor] Sarah Palin an ally. For them she is almost a demonic figure, while in Israel she receives a royal welcome, and rightfully so as far as Israel is concerned."

One of the central events symbolizing the profound rift in the community over the question of attitudes toward Israel was the establishment a few years ago of J Street - a liberal Zionist lobby that is trying to promote the two-state solution, and is meant to serve as an alternative to American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the veteran pro-Israel lobby. As opposed to the Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street operates within the confines of the community, and it does not coordinate activities with Palestinian organizations or support a boycott. On the other hand, it is doing something that no other Jewish organization has ever done: lobbying in Washington against the settlements in the territories, to the dissatisfaction of the government in Jerusalem. The result: a serious conflict with the veteran Jewish establishment, which is filtering down to the local communities as well.

"People want to avoid the subject, because it's so difficult and complicated," says Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street. "Many rabbis I speak to are unable to conduct a discussion about Israel in their synagogues. They're concerned for their jobs. If they don't invite all sides in the debate, someone will get angry and there will be an uproar. If they do invite everyone, then there are threats to funding, and they worry that half the congregation may leave the synagogue."

Why is the discussion so polarized?

Ben-Ami: "Because Israel is part of people's identity. When someone criticizes Israel, people who worked all their lives defending the country feel that they are being attacked personally. This isn't simply politics or policy. It's not a debate about health care. It's about who we are as a people and who we've been for 50 years. It's personal. So you see emails that say, 'People like you are the ones who sent us to the camps' or 'You're aiding the enemy,' or 'You're on the side of those who want to kill us.' Sometimes we even find ourselves dragged down to the level of personal attacks - so that recently we even apologized for the way we responded to a member of the House of Representatives who attacked us."

There are some who claim that unless there is a serious attempt to deal with the debate over Israel, the integrity and unity of the entire Jewish community will be in danger. Few articles rocked the Jewish community in recent years like "The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment," written by the former editor of The New Republic, Peter Beinart, in The New York Review of Books early last summer. Beinart harshly attacked the Jewish establishment and the damage it is causing the community by its automatic support for Israeli policy.

More than just its message, the power of the article stemmed from its timing and the identity of the writer: 40 years old, Orthodox, a prominent American Jewish intellectual and a Zionist from the center of the political map, who has never been considered part of the far left. "For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism's door, and now, to their horror," he wrote, "they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead."

Dozens of columns and articles were written in response to that piece, and since then Beinart has become a popular speaker, who repeats his message from every possible platform, including in Haaretz Magazine last year. Now he is also working on a book that will discuss the crisis between the Jewish political establishment, the community and Israel. If they want to preserve the connection of the younger generation of American Jews to the Jewish state, the leaders of the local communities must support intellectuals who oppose the current Israeli government, as well as the Israeli civil rights organizations and the Sheikh Jarrah demonstrators, claims Beinart.

"We must find a way to interest them and to give them an opportunity to talk about Israel," says Rabbi Milgrom. "You sometimes hear from the American leadership a desire to say: We have other objectives for the community, we can't devote all our time to dealing with Israel."

"The community is consolidating around two poles," says Jeremy Ben-Ami. "At one pole are the Orthodox, who are more politically conservative and often have a closer connection to Israel. Around the other are the non-Orthodox, who feel very Jewish, but in a more personal, less religious way. My greatest fear is that the discussion around Israel will become so difficult, so heated, that some of these American Jews will find it easier to walk away from Israel and from the Jewish community. That would be very bad. So the discussion we're having is not just about Israel or about policy - it's about the soul of the Jewish community here in the States." W

Avigdor Lieberman as 'pure evil'

"Some Israeli groups have no respect for American Jews," says journalist Eric Alterman. "There are things that people here find hard to accept: the arrests of the Women of the Wall, Israel's attitude to the Reform and Conservative movements, or the religious rulings against renting houses or marrying Arabs. If there's one thing that shocked American Jews it was the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. He is a racist; he does not believe that Arabs should have same rights as Jews. And now he is the face of Israel."

Many liberal Jewish spokespersons would agree with that sentiment. Indeed, more than any other person, Minister Lieberman seems to have become a symbol of everything that puts Jews off vis-a-vis present-day Israel. J Street distributed a video clip devoted entirely to Lieberman and his opinions, and Peter Beinart devoted a substantial part of his article in The New York Review of Books to Lieberman.

"One of the only subjects that even many conservative Jews agree on is the lack of affection for Avigdor Lieberman and the politics he represents," claims researcher Joel Schalit. "He's Faust. He's everything that is bad in Jewish politics for American Jews, even if they aren't really capable of separating it into components. His political image is threatening, and they see in him something of the racism of the U.S. South. Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also had something of that, but Sharon had a good relationship with Diaspora Jewry, and even during a period when many Israelis despised him, in America he wasn't hated. Lieberman is not a complex figure. For U.S. Jewry he's simply pure evil. Personally, I believe that Lieberman deserves all the negative baggage that he attracts, but to be honest, people have to ask themselves why he of all people has become such a symbol for them of everything evil."

J Street storm

In a stormy session of the Knesset Committee on Immigration Absorption and Diaspora Affairs last Wednesday to discuss the "breakdown of norms regarding the relations of Diaspora Jewish communities to Israeli governments," the positions of the 3-year-old J Street lobby were discussed and it was deemed to be an organization whose love for the Jewish state is conditional, which disqualifies it from being "pro-Israel."

Although the committee has no legislative authority in parliament and J Street is entirely beyond the bounds of Israeli dominion, president Jeremy Ben-Ami used the hearing as an opportunity to come to Israel and formally introduce J Street to the government in Jerusalem. However, the debate was largely trumped by internal politics between Likud and Kadima MKs, who levied personal attacks at each other.

MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima ) - who called for the session - and committee head MK Danny Danon (Likud ) claimed that J Street acts against Israel, citing such examples as its opposition to the U.S. veto of the recent UN resolution condemning the settlements. The two also accused the lobby of opposing sanctions against Iran, which it has not done.

Several MKs from Kadima and other parties argued that shunning J Street would hurt Israel's image. They stressed that J Street is not advocating against Israel, but rather against the Netanyahu government's policies. MK Danon ended the debate by concluding that J Street should be referred to as a "pro-Palestinian" organization. (Mairav Zonszein )

Boycotting and boycotted

The Anti-Defamation League, one of the flagship organizations of U.S. Jewry, issued a press release last October with a list entitled "The Top Ten Anti-Israel Groups in America." Surprisingly, it included a Jewish organization, Jewish Voice for Peace. Abraham Foxman, the executive director of the ADL, claims that this group is more dangerous than other leftist organizations, "because they have a larger audience."

JVP was founded in 1996 in Oakland, California, and it claims its activism is "inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, equality and human rights." The organization calls for halting military assistance to Israel until the end of the occupation, and for a boycott against companies that profit financially from the occupation. As opposed to J Street and other leftist Jewish organizations, JVP also operates outside the confines of the community, in cooperation with other American leftist organizations.

In the 1990s JVP was a small organization, but during the past decade it has grown substantially; the turning point, according to the organization, was Operation Cast Lead. At the time its mailing list of members grew from 20,000 to over 100,000, the number of branches jumped from seven to 27, and the budget increased by almost 50 percent.

"Apparently the intensity of the attack in Gaza caused many people to begin to question Israeli policy, and they haven't stopped since then," says Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of JVP.

In the two years that have passed since the operation in Gaza, controversy surrounding the activity of the organization has also steadily increased. Last November, activists from the pro-Israel Stand With Us organization burst into a JVP meeting in the San Francisco area, and sprayed two persons with pepper gas. The JVP office in Oakland was covered twice in recent months with graffiti and stickers with slogans such as: "Long live Baruch Goldstein," and "A Jewish voice for the Palestinians."

For their part, members of the organization interrupted the speech of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September at the traditional General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans, before being removed from the hall with great force. The activists carried signs saying "The Loyalty Law delegitimizes Israel," and "The settlements delegitimize Israel."

The other attendees, community leaders and veteran Jewish activists, were shocked by the unprecedented incident, and a minor uproar ensued; at its height, one of those present tore a protest sign with his teeth.