Can Anti-occupation Groups Leverage U.S. Jewish Ire at Israel's Moves Against Liberal Judaism?

Activists hope American Jewish leaders who slammed Israel's backtrack on egalitarian prayer plaza at the Kotel and its support of bill bolstering Orthodox control of conversions will speak out about Palestinian plight

Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York
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Yonah Lieberman, founder of the IfNotNow organization, being dragged away by a police officer from a recent anti-occupation protest in Jerusalem
Yonah Lieberman, founder of the IfNotNow organization, being dragged away by a police officer from a recent anti-occupation protest in JerusalemCredit: Jon Atkins
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Debra Nussbaum Cohen
New York

NEW YORK – Anti-occupation activists in the U.S. are hoping to capitalize on American Jewish leaders’ wave of public anger toward the Netanyahu government after last week’s reversal of an agreement to create a prayer space for non-Orthodox Jews at part of the Western Wall, and its move to strengthen ultra-Orthodox control over all aspects of conversion to Judaism.

The activists hope that the same leaders who have expressed outrage in unprecedented ways over the two contentious issues will now also be willing to speak out more forcefully against Israel’s 50-year occupation of the Palestinians.

This is clearly a watershed moment, say members of anti-occupation groups who are hoping to find support among leaders of Jewish religious, human rights and Israel funding organizations in America.

“For so long we have heard that we can’t criticize Israel publicly, we don’t air our dirty laundry. It is astounding to me that the Jewish Federations of North America and others are making public statements, are doing the work to get the Israeli government to shift its position” on worship at the Western Wall, said Yonah Lieberman, a founder of the grass-roots anti-occupation group IfNotNow. “It is totally showing us what the American Jewish community can do if it’s motivated.”

“This is the first time in memory there is such unified and public opposition to the Israeli government. It gives me hope that the institutions that claim to represent me are taking action against the extremist policies of the Israeli government. This is opening up a new opportunity,” Lieberman said, to pivot toward the occupation.

Long-time Jewish opponents of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians agree.

“[This] could be an opening moment, allowing American Jews to feel more open to criticizing Israeli government policies,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. “Hopefully, it will be the moment that opens up many peoples’ eyes to the full scope of what’s happening.”

The Israeli cabinet decision last Sunday to suspend an agreed-upon plan to create a space for egalitarian, Reform and Conservative prayers at the Western Wall, also called the Kotel, unleashed the new wave of criticism from American Jews. Later that same day, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation decided to move ahead on a bill (which has since been temporarily shelved) that would invalidate any conversion to Judaism undertaken in Israel outside the state-sanctioned Orthodox system.

The Israeli government currently recognizes conversions performed outside the framework of the Israeli Chief Rabbinate for secular identity purposes, but the strictly Orthodox rabbinate does not accept them for religious purposes. The new bill would enshrine control of all aspects of conversion in the rabbinate’s hands.

'For Israel's future'

“We will be calling on the organizations that have risen up in anger on the decisions about the Kotel and conversion to bring the same energy to fight against the Occupation for the sake of Israel’s future,” Gideon Aranoff, CEO of Ameinu, formerly known as the Labor Zionist Alliance, told Haaretz.

Ameinu will focus on behind-the-scenes efforts to convince leaders of establishment Jewish groups that the occupation threatens Israel’s existence, and to link the issue with last week's developments, Aranoff said.

The occupation “is more difficult as an issue than the religious pluralism because (the occupation) doesn’t affect the Jewish standing of Diaspora Jewry,” he said. “This Kotel issue is experienced as being about ‘us.’ Jewish Diaspora organizations say they have a passionate concern for Israel and Zionism, and we are amazed that they can’t see the connection between the fight for Israel’s future and the fight against the occupation.”

Philanthropists' pullback

The Israeli government’s moves have prompted American Jewish donors to threaten to withhold funding for projects in Israel. One major U.S. philanthropist — Miami real-estate magnate Isaac “Ike” Fisher — is considering pulling out millions of dollars worth of commitments in the Jewish state.

Fisher reportedly asked Israel Bonds to return $1 million he recently donated, and has suspended his involvement in AIPAC, in which he has been a central player. He is also quitting his post as head of fundraising for the Miami Jewish Federation.

In addition, many of American Jewry’s top philanthropists — among them Lynn Schusterman, Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt, Jay Ruderman, and Haim and Cheryl Saban — took out a full-page ad in Israeli newspapers last Friday, saying they are “deeply disappointed and disheartened by the decisions.”

Collectively the largest funders (aside from Sheldon and Miriam Adelson) of programs designed to strengthen the American-Jewish connection to Israel – like Taglit-Birthright – wrote in the ad, “these decisions send an exclusionary and wholly unacceptable message. The issues at stake are not simply about where we pray. They go to the very heart of religious freedom and democracy in Israel and of who is considered Jewish.”

Most — though to be sure not all — mainstream Jewish organizations have not been publicly critical of Israeli government policies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, despite the fact that over 80 percent of American Jews reportedly support a two-state solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians that would include an end to the occupation, and a plurality view continued settlement building as an obstacle to peace.

Indeed, legacy organizations including the JFNA, the umbrella group for 148 U.S. Jewish federations, have historically refrained from publicly criticizing the Israeli government, instead communicating their unhappiness with various policy declarations and decisions behind closed doors.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, head of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism. Called Kotel decision "despicable."Credit: Yuli Goren/Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism

Broken promises

But the response this time has been different: JFNA issued an extremely rare statement to the effect that it is “deeply disappointed” with the government decisions on conversion and egalitarian worship at the Western Wall. Its home page is topped with a bright yellow banner shouting, “Keep your promise Israel. Israel is a homeland for all Jews. That’s the promise. Now it’s being broken. Help keep Israel a place for all.”

The anger is being expressed by those who have for decades been central to raising money from Americans for Israeli needs.

The influential veteran head of Chicago’s Jewish federation, Steve Nasatir, said that any member of Knesset who has supported the conversion bill is no longer welcome in his city. “People who don’t have the understanding of what this bill means to the Jewish people — God bless ’em, but they’re not welcome in our community, period,” he told The Times of Israel.

Also last week, at its international meeting in Jerusalem, the Jewish Agency unanimously passed a resolution condemning the Israeli government. Members of the board of the quasi-governmental Agency also cancelled a planned dinner with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The new Agency board chair, Michael Siegel — who previously chaired Israel Bonds and JFNA — distanced the body from the government when he said, “We represent the Jewish people, not the government of Israel. The government of Israel has taken certain actions that threaten the Jewish people, and we want our communities back home to understand that support for Israel does not necessarily mean support for the government of Israel.”

For activists like Aranoff of Ameinu, who are seeking to seize the moment to bolster anti-occupation sentiment, getting such centrist groups on board is key.

“Small moves from members of the American Zionist movement and more establishment Jewish organizations have a better chance of catching Netanyahu’s attention,” than protest from those who are predictably left wing, said Aranoff. He admitted, however, that it will not be easy to change what he called the culture related to criticism of Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians.

“There is a very strong habit in the Jewish community not to question Israel and the government on what are perceived to be security issues,” he noted, but added, “there is a reasonable possibility that we can challenge this habit.”

The sharp criticism voiced by the unusual number and range of Jewish leaders last week "has in some ways broken the taboo against challenging Israel and the Israeli government," Aranoff said.

“We are hopeful that we can help them understand that Israel’s acceptance of a dead-end status quo is as dangerous for Israel as any other threat, maybe more so, and that they should bring the kind of straightforwardness and passion they brought to the Kotel issue to Israel’s activities in the West Bank and to end the occupation.”

'Democratic core'

Others warn, however, that the issue of religious pluralism in Israel and the subject of the occupation do not resonate the same way among American Jews, and note that the latter issue is far more complicated.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of American Judaism’s largest denomination, the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz that “these issues do touch, there is some commonality” between the two issues since “both go to Israel’s democratic core.” However, Jacobs added, that doesn’t mean that the moment is right for American Jews to push the Israeli government on Palestinian issues.

“Some would say they’re opposed to the occupation but wonder ‘what’s the tangible thing one can do now?’ To just withdraw from territory has itself not been a great strategy to create coexistence,” Jacobs said. “People may see the pain (of occupation) but not a pathway” out.

Even if anti-occupation activists’ efforts to capitalize on American Jewish anger fail in the short term, the future will likely see new, young leaders rising through the ranks who do not share their parents’ sense of taboo about being publicly critical of Israel, and will oppose the occupation far more openly.

Serious pressure on Israel to end the occupation “is more likely a couple of years from now,” said Yitz Landes, 28, a doctoral student in religion at Princeton University, in an interview with Haaretz. Last week Landes published an essay in the online publication Jewschool about why American Jews should keep protesting even once the Western Wall and conversion issues are worked out.

The population served by mainstream Jewish organizations “is changing and there will be more pressure from them. This is a long-term project and it won’t happen overnight,” Landes said. “Until now it’s been hard to speak out about any issue with the Israeli government. The crack right now is encouraging.”

In the meantime, the backlash from American Jewish leaders continues unabated. The Reform movement’s top leaders in the U.S. and Israel, Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Gilad Kariv, issued a joint statement Friday calling the decision against creating the egalitarian prayer plaza at the Wall “despicable,” and demanding that Netanyahu and the current government reverse course.

“We will not allow the unity of the Jewish people to be placed in the hands of parties and politicians who have hardened their hearts to compromise, mutual respect, and dialogue,” according to their declaration, which concluded with a warning: “As long as this one-sided government decision is not overturned, the crisis in the Jewish world will continue.”

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