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Presbyterian report threatens coalition

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs did not mince words. In a letter dated March 15 and addressed to its board and member agencies, the group wrote: “The Jewish community finds itself at a crossroad in our relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA).”

At issue is a report from the church’s Middle East Study Committee. Entitled “Breaking Down the Walls,” the 172-page document — which will be presented at the group’s 219th General Assembly in July — is “an egregious diatribe against Israel,” said Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA Federation of North Jersey and head of the regional Community Relations Council.

Kurland and Allyson Gall, New Jersey area director of the American Jewish Committee, spoke with The Jewish Standard on Tuesday to relay their concerns.

This is not the first time the Protestant denomination — with some 10,000 congregations and 2 million to 3 million members — has put forward positions critical of Israel.

But, said Gall, “this is the worst ever,” because rather than just voicing specific concerns or proposals advocating boycotts or divestment, “it’s much more insidious; it’s about delegitimizing Israel as a state.”

In the past, she said, groups such as AJCommittee and JCPA mobilized their local offices to talk to Presbyterian delegates before they went to their biennial conventions, letting them know how their Jewish neighbors felt about anti-Israel proposals. And, in the past, such efforts were generally successful.

This time, however, may be different.

“Regretfully, there is a possibility it will pass,” said Gall, pointing out that while there are certainly a small number of delegates who will be committed to its passage, most — “who will also be considering tons of other stuff” — may simply not understand the implications of the issue and simply let it go through.

In addition, she pointed out, this year’s agenda also contains a report on gay rights, something likely to garner much more attention.

“We as Jews forget that it’s not the most important thing to the average church member,” she said.

Nevertheless, said Kurland, should the measure pass, “We’re going to have to step back and reassess” relations with the Presbyterian Church. Citing coalitions in which Jews and Presbyterians work together on issues such as Darfur and immigration reform, she said that, conceivably, such efforts might not be able to continue.

“The proposal can’t be fixed,” said Gall. “In our estimation, it can’t be tweaked. All the blame for everything is on Israel,” she added, noting that the document refers continually to “occupation, occupation, occupation, and land taken away from the Palestinians.”

“It’s a rewriting of the story,” said Kurland. “The whole piece is a horrific attack against Israel, making use of pieces of text taken completely out of context.”

These include scriptural passages, she said. The March JCPA letter gives examples of “a problematic theology” in the report that negates Jewish claims to the land while simultaneously “holding the modern State of Israel to biblical standards of justice,” standards that are not applied to other countries.

Kurland also pointed out that despite the Presbyterians’ protestations, no mainstream American Jewish organizations were consulted during the preparation of the report. The committee indicated that it had spoken with Jewish Voices for Peace, described by JCPA as an anti-Israel group; B’Tselem, an Israeli group; and J Street.

J Street, however, said later that it was never consulted by the Presbyterian group and that it finds the report “troubling and unfair,” according to JCPA.

Additionally, the report holds “Israeli discrimination” responsible for the declining Christian population in the country, and, said Gall, “One of the authors of the historical analysis sections claims that United States aid to Israel violates domestic and international law.”

While Jews are clearly troubled by the report, they are not alone, said the AJCommittee director.

“It’s not all Presbyterians,” she said. “We’re not talking about demonizing the whole church. Some are very upset and are working to change it.”

To help in this effort, local community relations councils and regional AJCommittee offices are reaching out to their Presbyterian coalition partners, stressing the importance of countering the report, which, if accepted, would result in anti-Israel measures.

Kurland said there are 30 convention delegates from New Jersey.

“We have to try to speak with them and with other Presbyterian ministers who are our friends,” she said. “There are relationships that have been built over the years on the local level, where they don’t march in lockstep with the national body.” People on the local level “have to hear from their Jewish clergy counterparts that these relationships really mean something.”

“We also have to explain to our partners that maybe they haven’t quite understood how important Israel is to us, that it’s part of our identity as American Jews,” said Gall.

“We have a perfect right to try to educate our friends and neighbors” on the importance of Israel, she said. “We think we’ve done so much and we all get along, but we don’t talk about the things that are really important to us. Our neighbors don’t seem to understand that being Jewish is not just about going to synagogue on Saturday; it’s not just a religion.” While Jews may be reluctant to initiate such discussions, “other people need to know,” she said.

Should the report pass, said the two Jewish leaders, the Jewish community will “have to take a deep breath and step back,” though exactly how the repercussions will be felt will differ from town to town. They also agreed that Israel’s recent actions regarding the Gaza aid flotilla will “put a cloud on what we’re trying to do.”

“I’m sure it will have to be addressed,” said Gall. “Maybe we’ll wait a week to make calls.”

Nevertheless, said Kurland, pointing out that task-force meetings have already been held on the subject, action must be taken.

“What’s really troublesome is not only that this issue was visited a few years ago and we thought that things were addressed and rectified, but that this initiative is so egregiously anti-Israel that it can break up a coalition with the Presbyterians.” Coalition partners “must understand what’s at stake here; that we cannot be at the table with people who are working against the welfare and security of the State of Israel.”

 
 

Rutgers event links Israel, apartheid

Hillel fires back with facts, testimonials from Ethiopian, Arab, and gay Israelis

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Members of Israel’s minority communities come to Rutgers as part of the event “Get Me, Get Israel.” Courtesy Rutgers Hillel

An event last week comparing Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens to South Africa’s treatment of blacks under apartheid marked the latest in a series of anti-Israel programs at Rutgers University that some local Jewish leaders have characterized as an anti-Israel campaign targeting the school.

The Rutgers event took place in concert with “Israel Apartheid Week” events at numerous university campuses. While some Jewish leaders are alarmed at this trend, others are of the opinion that, try as they might, anti-Israel groups are not making headway in their efforts to delegitimize Israel in the U.S. And Rutgers Hillel last week mounted its own campaign to highlight Israel’s diversity.

The anti-Israel event, called “Israel, the Apartheid Analogy, and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement,” held March 1 on Rutgers’ Douglass campus as part of “Palestine Awareness Week,” was sponsored by a group called BAKA: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice. BAKA has organized other events highly critical of Israel, including January’s “Never Again for Anyone” program featuring a Holocaust survivor critical of Israel.

Area Jewish leaders expressed outrage at what they characterized as a false and offensive comparison between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, and pledged to help pro-Israel students at Rutgers combat what they believe is a deliberate campaign of disinformation.

“It is hateful and egregious to compare Israel to apartheid South Africa,” said Allyson Gall, New Jersey area director of the American Jewish Committee. “There are over 1 million Arabs in Israel who have the right to vote, to serve in Knesset, who have freedom of religion and free speech. When Jimmy Carter used the word apartheid in his book, there were African-American leaders here in the U.S. who called him to tell him using this word was wrong and he should not use it.”

She added, “When they throw around the word ‘apartheid,’ then I know they are not just pro-Palestinian, they are anti-Israel, because they are dead wrong.”

Leonard Cole, an adjunct professor at Rutgers who teaches at the Newark campus in the division of global affairs, decried what he sees as an anti-Israel “drumbeat” on campus and called on the university to condemn it.

Citing six separate anti-Israel events at the University’s New Brunswick campus in November/December and referencing last Tuesday’s event, Cole said, “There is no right to prohibit such an event, but neither is there prohibition of the president of the university or other university officials from condemning hurtful or outrageous or untrue statements or claims that come out of these events.”

In apartheid South Africa, according to Alan Elsner of the Israel Project, a non-profit organization that provides information about the Middle East, blacks had no right to form political parties, to vote, to live in certain areas, or to freely associate with whites, and South Africa’s government enforced this discrimination.

In Israel, he pointed out, all citizens including Israeli Arabs have the right to vote, to speak, to assemble, to form political parties, to freely associate, and to live where they wish.

The differences mean “there is not any valid comparison” between Israel’s government and South Africa’s during apartheid, said Elsner.

“I’m not saying Israeli democracy is perfect, but show me another country in the Mideast where minorities, women, and gays have the same rights as they do in Israel,” said Elsner, who worked as a reporter in South Africa during apartheid.

Jake Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations, says his organization is working to “organize a movement to counter the BDS movement.” To that end, his and other area organizations including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and Jewish Federations of North America are organizing a conference at Rutgers June 1.

“The events on Rutgers campus are disturbing, but are a wake-up call to the rest of the Jewish community to remain vigilant and respond effectively, with a united front, and to do all it can to ensure that Israel remains a viable nation,” said Toporek.

BAKA Treasurer Michael Dunican, a Rutgers senior majoring in Middle East studies, told The Jewish Standard that BAKA organized the event “to spread awareness.” Regarding the charge that the apartheid analogy is false, Dunican said, “The response that the analogy is false won’t do. Diversity shares the same root as diversion and the issues we raised have not been addressed.”

Dunican added, “[Anti-Defamation League National Director] Abe Foxman recently made the statement that when these things happen at Rutgers, the BDS movement is gaining momentum.”

Foxman in fact told Ha’aretz this week regarding “Israel Apartheid Week” events: “There are 3,500 colleges and universities in the U.S. If it happens in 40 or 80 campuses, it’s upsetting, troubling, but it’s not dangerous.… Overwhelmingly, students either don’t care or they are pro-Israel.”

Foxman also said, “The only difference is that after the communications revolution, when something happens in Rutgers, the whole world knows. The communications revolution gives them a megaphone way beyond what they are and whom they represent.”

Ken Stern, director of the Division of Anti-Semitism and Extremism at the AJC, agrees.

“They’ve pushed this for 10 years, and not one college campus has divested [from Israeli investment],” said Stern. “I don’t see Israel apartheid week as it’s played out in the U.S. to date as having been effective in achieving the goal of delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of the average person.”

Stern noted that the effort to de-legitimize Israel on college campuses has gained traction in Canada, and said there is a real danger in larger global efforts to delegitimize the Jewish State.

Meanwhile, Rutgers Hillel hosted its own series of events to coincide with “Palestine Awareness Week,” highlighting Israel’s diversity. A Feb. 28 event, “Israel at Heart,” featured Ethiopian Jewish Israelis and a Darfuri man who found refuge in Israel, all of whom made the case that “Israel is not an apartheid state,” according to Hillel Director Andrew Getraer.

Last Tuesday’s event, called “Get Me, Get Israel,” featured an Israeli Arab woman who has organized Israeli Arabs to do a year of national service to Israel and two Israelis who are members of the country’s LGBT community.

“They talked about the importance of seeing Israel not as a highly politicized country but as a diverse and accepting country,” said Raffi Mark, a sophomore at Rutgers majoring in American Studies who grew up in Wayne and who helped organize Hillel’s events.

Asked if he had any response to these events, Dunican said, “Regarding the event[s] with gay and Arab Israelis, at our event we had a Palestinian speaker and three Ashkenazi Jews.”

Heather Robinson can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

 
 

Why is this year different?

_JStandardOp-Ed
Published: 15 April 2011
 
 
 
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