Discourse & Dialogue: Thoughts from the Federation CEO

As I was writing my promised polemic about a couple of organizations whose approach I have found to be troubling, I saw that my brother posted this article on Facebook.  Check it out – as it speaks to some of the concerns raised below:  http://www.houstonpress.com/arts/no-it-s-not-your-opinion-you-re-just-wrong-7611752    
In general, I believe in a big tent approach to Jewish life, and respect different and often conflicting points of view.  A healthy Jewish community is, or would be, one where people from multiple perspectives can come together and work on issues and challenges of mutual concern.  This is an approach we have embodied at the Jewish Federation (recall the Venn diagram approach to strengthening Jewish communities I suggested a few weeks ago?).

With that said, I think there are certain perspectives that can undermine the strength of our community and the possibility for healthy dialogue.  It’s not just that they are misguided – they can be just plain wrong, and even worse, misleading.  We shouldn’t take them at face value, nor should we ignore them hoping they’ll go away.  In a time where people are confused and our community divided and in turmoil, we need to be forthright in questioning faulty assumptions and challenging simple solutions that may have appeal but very troubling consequences.

Let’s start with J Street – an organization that bills itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”  I am pro-Israel and pro-peace…and I cry foul.  While I think J Street has been quite effective in positioning itself as a more liberal alternative to AIPAC and a counter to a right-wing Israeli government, I think these dichotomies are misleading and J Street’s positioning damaging in terms of a) engaging and educating Jews with fewer or weaker ties to Israel, and b) actually grappling with key issues affecting the Jewish State.

I get frustrations with the Israeli government, and am sympathetic to arguments that Prime Minister Netanyahu is not serious about peace efforts.  http://www.timesofisrael.com/world-jewry-becoming-ever-more-uncomfortable-with-israel-major-study-finds/  I also realize that one of our biggest challenges today is that many in our community, particularly younger Jews, not only do not see their values and concerns reflected in modern-day Israel and its leaders; they see an approach and perspective in tension with their values…just look at denominational issues in Israel.  We need to wake up to this reality and address it – but this is also why J Street is so dangerous.

J Street is predicated on the idea that a group of Americans, who feel some tie to Israel but who are disconnected from the reality of living there, can project their values and political beliefs on another society – one that happens to be a democracy with its own mechanisms for determining what its people want.  Put another way, what is in the best interests of Israel and the Jews living there is not at the top of J Street’s priority list – just look at how J Street can take a stance on the Iran deal in opposition to almost the entire political spectrum in Israel, not just the government.   As someone who puts significant, even paramount value on the ties that bind us as a people and extended Jewish family, this makes J Street just another interest group griping about Israel, and not an avenue for strengthening the Jewish people.

Perhaps this reflects a fundamental distinction between being a Jewish American vs. an American Jew.  I think the danger here is that J Street makes it safe for many Americans to check off the Israel box in their identities without any real understanding of the challenges of living in a bad neighborhood in the Middle East or taking ownership or responsibility for their brethren in Israel.  (Remember that mantra we use a lot – all of Israel is responsible for one another?)  While we should be careful to reflect and share the array and diversity of political opinions emerging from Israel, AIPAC – which is bipartisan and explicitly reflects the position of the democratically elected government of Israel – is in a different league than J Street.

I am curious what would have happened if the left in Israel won the election…to be fair and balanced, should J Street have pivoted to the right?   Even more to the point – if you wish to support change in Israel, give to American friends of the Zionist Union or Yesh Atid; at least then you’ll be supporting home-grown efforts in Israel to shift the debate…which seems a lot fairer than this back-door politicking.

I also want to tackle another group with serious issues – JCC Watch.  As near as I can tell, this is an organization whose sole purpose is to try and delegitimize organizations and individuals on the left that it does not agree with.  The main focus of this group has been to get the New Israel Fund (NIF) kicked out of the Celebrate Israel Parade, and to trash UJA-Federation of New York and its current leadership for support of the parade (and hence the NIF).  They do so in sensationalist and misleading stories and attacks, while draping themselves in aggrieved pro-Israel rhetoric.

I wrote obliquely about this issue before, when I talked about the need to speak to those more removed from our core constituents, and to call out issues more directly rather than hush up in the hope of not rocking the boat.  This issue and group is one of the things I had in mind.

I’ll put this simply and bluntly, calling for a boycott of a group like the NIF because you disagree with them sounds very much like the BDS movement (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) calling for a boycott of Israeli products because Israel still supports settlements.

Here’s why I am bringing this issue up, even though conventional wisdom has been to not give credence to these attacks by JCC Watch.  Answer #1:  Our Jewish community seems to be breaking down into more and more factions, where we come together to mutually reinforce our previously-held views and push back against others.  Unless we build bridges and call-out destructive efforts to delegitimize one another, we reinforce the negative stereotypes being put forth, dilute resources and attention that can be better spent elsewhere, and break down the bonds that tie us together as one people.  Answer #2:  Creating litmus tests for our community isn’t what we need now.  Rather than excluding those we disagree with, our focus should be on engaging the vast majority who don’t know where they stand or who are getting turned off by all the stridency of those who are so sure of themselves.

I recognize that calling out these two organizations is even more non-PC for me than usual, but as I see divisions and dynamics play out in our community over Israel, I think we need to focus on constructive approaches to move us forward, rather than causes that get attention but, I think, lead us astray.

Keith Krivitzky
CEO, The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey


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