The outgoing president of the U.S. Jewish public policy umbrella called on the Jewish community to be more open to criticism of Israel.
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Rabbi Steve Gutow is leaving in December after 10 years as the president of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs.
“If we’re going to have any credibility with the liberal community when we fight BDS, and any credibility with our consciences, we must be able, in a seemly way, to criticize Israel when we disagree with her policies,” Gutow said in an address to the JCPA’s annual Washington meeting, using the shorthand for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
Gutow singled out efforts to keep isolated J Street, a Jewish Middle East policy group that has been harshly critical of the policies of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The way some speak viciously and negatively about J Street, a clear supporter of Israel as a Jewish state, cannot possibly do anything but drive those on the moderate left away from Israel,” he said.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the community’s foreign policy umbrella, last year rejected J Street’s application for membership.
Gutow also addressed polarization in the community, particularly during the recent debate over the Iran nuclear deal. He described debates in which opponents of the deal were depicted by their opponents as warmongers and those who backed the deal were likened to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Nazi Germany.
“The very notion that those who opposed the Iran treaty simply wanted war flies in the face of most of those people whom I know,” he said, “and equally far-fetched is the idea of opponents of the treaty [that] those who supported were traitors and Obama was Neville Chamberlain.”
Under Gutow, the JCPA has advocated for greater civility within the Jewish community.
“Are you so certain that you are the explicator of ultimate truth that there is no need to listen?” he asked. “Not a word that will go very far, is it?”
Gutow also said donors have outsize influence in the community.
“Now, in our community, there is this strange hegemony of big donors demanding control of decisions,” he said.
The JCPA is consensus driven, arriving at its policies through consultations with representatives of grassroots as well as donor-driven groups.