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Jewish support for Israeli-Arab causes goes mainstream, irking some

When the Reform movement passed a resolution endorsing advocacy for Israeli Arabs, it wasn’t the first time an American Jewish group had backed the cause of Israeli-Arab equality.

In recent years, a growing number of American Jews have thrown their support toward Israeli-Arab causes, including civil rights and advocacy organizations, women’s empowerment courses, student-exchange programs, and even film festivals.

More than 80 Jewish groups belong to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli-Arab Issues, which works on behalf of equal treatment of Israeli Arabs and Jews.

The Jewish federations’ Venture Fund for Jewish and Arab Equality and Shared Society, a mix of 21 private family foundations, federations, and philanthropists, has raised more than $1 million for Israeli-Arab causes since its launch in 2007. And in 2006, the Jewish Agency for Israel announced it would invest in projects benefiting Israeli Arabs, scrapping a policy, in place since its founding in 1922, of exclusively helping Jewish causes.

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A controversial poster depicting an Israeli soldier clutching a Palestinian woman’s breast was created by an Israeli-Arab group that receives funding from diaspora Jews.

Last week’s unanimous endorsement of the cause by American Jewry’s largest religious movement, at the biennial conference in Toronto of the Union for Reform Judaism, was the latest sign that Jewish support for Israeli-Arab causes has gone mainstream.

“There’s no doubt that more money has been given to this issue then ever before. It’s become a mainstream issue,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, co-chair of the Inter-Agency Task Force, a former CEO of the Jewish federation of San Francisco and one of the key Jewish activists raising money in the diaspora for Israeli Arabs. “Whether your mind-set is equality, whether it’s the security of Israel, whether it’s building bridges, all three reasons are involved and these are compelling reasons.”

Arab citizens constitute approximately 20 percent of Israel’s population of 7 million. Though they have the same rights accorded Israel’s Jewish citizens, studies have shown that Israeli Arabs routinely suffer from employment discrimination and receive fewer government funds than Israel’s Jewish sector in such areas as education, infrastructure, and welfare.

In 2006, an Israeli government committee set up to investigate riots in October 2000, in which Israeli police fire left 12 Arab protesters dead, determined that Israel long had neglected its Arab citizens. The Or Commission finding helped pave the way for mainstream Jewish groups to support a cause long championed by organizations such as the New Israel Fund and the Abraham Project.

Not everyone is happy about it.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, says American Jews should not be sending funds to an Israeli community that is disloyal toward Israel. He cited visits by Israeli-Arab lawmakers to enemy states such as Syria by way of example.

“I think it’s a mistake to be raising money for Israeli Arabs, at least until they show their support for Israel and its rights,” Klein said. “There’s been an inverse relationship between the monies being allocated to the Israeli-Arab communities and their loyalties and commitment to Israel.”

The New Israel Fund, for example, has come under fire for its support of Israeli-Arab advocacy groups that take controversial positions, including calls for eliminating Israel’s Jewish character. Just last week, three NIF-funded Arab Israeli groups were behind a poster suggesting that Israeli soldiers sexually violate Palestinian women, prompting critics to cry foul.

The NIF defended its position even as it criticized the poster, which publicized a conference on sexual rights in Muslim societies called “My Land, Space, Body and Sexuality: Palestinians in the Shadow of the Wall.”

“While we certainly defend the conference as appropriate — and as always, may disagree with our grantees on some key issues but see no reason to force them into ideological lockstep — there’s no question that the poster in question is unnecessarily provocative and misleading,” NIF communications director Naomi Paiss told JTA.

Other Jewish organizational officials say the Israeli-Arab community needs to be held to account.

“We need to hold the leaders of the Israeli-Arab community or any other community to be responsible,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, which is a member of the Inter-Agency Task Force. “That means that when there are incitements or actions that are detrimental, they need to counter it.”

Warning that some of the money donated with the intent of bolstering Israeli society by reaching out to Israeli Arabs is used for “questionable purposes,” Hoenlein said donations by diaspora Jews should be put to use effectively “to counter the Islamist forces, encourage moderation, and create conditions that are inductive to it.”

American Jews who support funding Israeli-Arab causes say they do so out of concern for Israel’s democracy and Jewish values.

“Israel’s strength and survival depend on the democratic nature of the Jewish state,” said the Reform movement’s resolution on the issue. “These imperatives require that we be ever sensitive to the aspirations and just demands of Israel’s minority citizens.”

Jessica Balaban, the executive director of the Inter-Agency Task Force, says her mission transcends political and ideological boundaries.

“With better education, people understand that improving the quality of life for the Arab citizens of Israel is not only a moral imperative but also in our self-interest, and it’s been well received by the Arab community here,” she told JTA by phone from Israel.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, vice president of the National Council of Young Israel, an umbrella organization for Orthodox synagogues, said he objects to funding Israeli-Arab causes as a matter of priorities.

“Tradition teaches us priorities, and those priorities dictate that we give to our own families first,” Lerner said. “Jews in Israel have needs, and you don’t see the Arabs giving money to the Jews.”

Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, subscribes to an opposing theological view. Quoting the biblical injunction to “welcome the stranger in your midst,” Ellenson says it’s a religious imperative — and eventually it will strengthen Israel.

“In general,” he said, “I think that people who are treated with respect and dignity tend to respond to those who treat them this way.”

 
 

Jewish and non-Jewish doves unite to press for U.S. diplomacy

WASHINGTON – A funny thing happened on the way to modifying punitive legislation targeting Palestinians — Jewish and non-Jewish groups backing aggressive peacemaking established a coalition.

The groups succeeded in toning down the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006. In the process they forged an unofficial coalition of so-called “pro-peace” groups that now routinely consults on issues ranging from Israel-Palestinian matters to how best to deal with Iran — most participants oppose new sanctions.

Participants say the Jewish groups in the new coalition include Americans for Peace Now and the Israel Policy Forum, as well as two groups in the process of merging: J Street and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom. Officials with the groups unabashedly defend their growing ties with their non-Jewish partners, insisting that the non-Jewish groups back a two-state solution and favor other policies that will help Israel by improving chances for peace in the region.

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Jeremy Ben Ami, the director of J Street, addresses a session J Street held jointly on Oct. 25 with the Arab American Institute while Jim Zogby, center, the institute’s president, and J Street political director Hadar Susskind look on. Arab American Institute

The list of organizations from outside the Jewish community includes narrow-interest groups such as the Arab American Institute, the American Task Force on Palestine, Churches for Middle East Peace, and, more recently, the National Iranian American Council. At times the informal coalition also has included liberal think tanks such as the New America Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Center for American Progress.

The loose-knit coalition has persisted and even expanded since the election of President Obama, who is friendly to its goals of active engagement. Many of the organizations had an active role, or even helped sponsor, J Street’s inaugural national conference in October. Participants attend each other’s strategy meetings and, during intense periods — for instance, in crafting the modifications to the 2006 Palestinian legislation — speak routinely in conference calls.

“It’s informal and it’s based on personal relationships that we’ve developed over the months and years,” said Warren Clark, the executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace, an umbrella body for mainstream church groups from Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox streams.

For years, liberal activists — including some associated with the budding coalition — have protested the willingness of establishment Jewish organizations to embrace pro-Israel Evangelical Christians, citing their conservative views on domestic social issues and hawkish foreign policy positions. In recent weeks, however, Conservative journalists and bloggers have criticized the willingness of dovish Jewish groups to work with non-Jewish groups that have been critical of Israeli policies and oppose Iran sanctions.

Many pro-Israel groups, including AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organizations, have made sanctions a top priority, portraying them as a means of leveraging Iran into abandoning its suspected nuclear weapons program. Several members of the informal dovish coalition oppose such steps, with the National Iranian American Council leading the way.

Conservative critics have focused on alleged links between J Street and the Iranian group, lumping together the two organizations. Yet J Street officials have always stopped short of publicly ruling out sanctions, arguing that the time was not right for tougher measures, but might be in the future to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions. And, indeed, J Street this week came out in favor of proposed sanctions legislation being considered in the U.S. Congress.

Americans for Peace Now, on the other hand, has joined the Iranian group, known by the acronym NIAC, in portraying the sanctions as inhumane and likely to reinforce support for the regime. In at least one mass e-mail, Americans for Peace Now directed readers to NIAC’s talking points outlining the case for opposing sanctions targeting Iran’s energy sector.

In the wake of Obama’s election, NIAC called a meeting to strategize among like minds on Iran sanctions.

Lara Friedman, an Americans for Peace Now lobbyist, attended the meeting. So did Joel Rubin, then a staffer at J Street, though participants say he took part in a personal capacity.

In any case, the proposed language that emerged from the Nov. 12, 2008 meeting is broad to the point of meaninglessness, underlining the difficulties of pleasing all parties in such coalitions.

“Obviously with such a diverse group, it will be difficult to coalesce behind any specific position,” the minutes of the meeting stated. “But we all share a view that advocates a diplomatic resolution to the conflict between the U.S. and Iran, opposes military action against Iran, and agrees that sanctions are no substitute for diplomatic engagement.” (See page 26.)

Ori Nir, spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said Friedman’s presence was unexceptional.

“We seek advice and guidance, including those that don’t share the views of NIAC — including the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which we are a member,” he said. “Lara participated in this meeting and other meetings that included NIAC and other meetings of groups that have an interest in Iran policy.”

JTA

 
 

U.S. Jews join pluralism fight

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Conservative Jewish women wear prayer shawls and carry Torah scrollsat the Western Wall on Dec. 18. The right of women to pray aloud at the holy site is one of several issues exacerbating tensions between Israeli Orthodox authorities and non-Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90/JTA

WASHINGTON – A string of controversies has reignited the pluralism wars, prompting a loose alliance of American and Israeli Jews to wage a renewed campaign against Orthodox control in the Jewish state.

Among the litany of developments making headlines: The arrest of a woman for wearing a prayer shawl at the Western Wall; protests by fervently Orthodox, or haredim, against a parking lot open on the Sabbath and against the Intel branch in Jerusalem for working through the Sabbath; a battle over gender-segregated public buses; and the burial in Spain of a child converted to Judaism by a Conservative rabbi in a corner of a cemetery reserved for non-Jews.

In response, activists have organized protests in Israel and the United States against the perceived hegemony in Israel of haredi-aligned rabbis. Organizers say that their goal is to keep Jews caring about Judaism and Israel, despite what they describe as the increasingly alienating behavior of Israel’s Orthodox religious authorities and members of the country’s haredi population.

“People are saying enough is enough,” said Andrew Sacks, director of the Israel branch of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “You have a segment of the American Jewish community that cares deeply enough to want to change it, but you have a second less desirable effect, among younger people especially, that says if that’s what Israel is all about, I don’t want any part of it.”

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson, who directs the Women’s Rabbinic Network, helped organize a day of solidarity and support of Women of the Wall on Dec. 17 that encouraged Jewish women across the United States to hold meetings, read from the Torah, or pray in support of women who choose to pray at the Western Wall, including those who wear religious vestments. Separately, another group is organizing a similar protest in San Francisco on Jan. 10.

“My intent was to give people a way to support people in Israel, and to support Israel around an issue women and men feel strongly about,” Ellenson told JTA. “It is not ‘Love Israel, right or wrong,’ or ‘I can’t be connected,’” she said. “We need to look at the complexities of this country that we love, we can’t reject it, nor can we be silent when there are issues that require our involvement.”

Activists on both sides see the Western Wall as something of a battlefront. In recent years, the site’s government-funded Orthodox rabbinate has banned mixed groups from singing, an action that precludes Israeli and American Jewish youth groups from a tradition of bursting into Hatikvah to celebrate the wall’s return to Jewish control in 1967.

One protest against the Orthodox monopoly took place in Jerusalem on the evening of Nov. 28. Protesters marched from Paris Square to Zion Square in Jerusalem’s city center, carrying signs that read “Iran is here — we’re sick of haredi violence,” “Jerusalem will not fall,” and “We are sick of [religious] coercion.”

Nofrat Frenkel, whose arrest at the Western Wall a couple of weeks before helped spur the recent demonstration, delivered a message that explicitly addressed the threat of the alienation of diaspora Jews from Israel and religion.

“The crowd gathered here today proves to the Jewish people everywhere, in Israel and in the diaspora, that ‘offense against public sensitivity’ is not the sole province of the ultra-Orthodox,” the medical student and gay rights activist reportedly said. “We are also the public, the public who pays taxes and serve our country, in the IDF and National Service.”

Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told an audience of Conservative movement leaders that Frenkel was “led away” from the Wall, not arrested, the Forward reported. He later issued a statement correcting the misimpression and confirming that Frenkel was, indeed, arrested. Oren said he has asked his government to investigate why he was misled. However it is resolved, the incident illustrates the sensitivity of Israeli officials explaining the practices of their country’s rabbis to American Jews.

Oren, who was in Israel, could not be reached for comment.

The flurry of controversies in Israel comes at a time when American Jewish pluralism has become more expansive than ever. Guests at the White House Chanukah party ranged from Chabad rabbis to Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, who heads Beth Simchat Torah, a gay synagogue in New York. Some groups, particularly among the Orthodox, reject the activism as Americans imposing their mores on Israel.

Israel “is a country that has a functioned with a certain understanding among its religious and not-religious Jews,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, the spokesman for Agudath Israel of America. “If the activists don’t want to alienate Jews, they shouldn’t thumb their noses at the traditional Jews in Israel.”

Shafran also noted that the most vocal haredi protesters were minorities within their own communities. Much has been made of the continued protests outside Intel’s offices, but these were sharply reduced in number after a compromise last month that allowed non-Jewish workers to work through the Sabbath. But this has gone unnoticed, Shafran said. “The main haredi groups were in favor of the compromise, but there are always holdouts,” Shafran said.

Other American Orthodox leaders, however, fret about the possibility of alienation from Israel. They note that alienation could extend even to the modern Orthodox because of a recent crisis in conversion policy that has threatened to discredit the majority of Orthodox converts.Rabbi Avi Weiss, who heads the Amcha activism group and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a liberal Modern Orthodox seminary, called for dialogue. “The greatest threat facing us, more than external enemy, is a divisiveness within our people that is so dangerous, God forbid, it could lead to calamity,” he said.

Weiss noted that Orthodox authorities defend their actions by citing “humra” — the strict application of Jewish law. “In a world of humra, there’s got to be a stress on the humra of Ahavat Yisrael,” the love of the Jewish people, Weiss said.

Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Israel was suffering periodic social pangs that arise when there is relative peace, and suggested that these needed to be addressed indigenously, and not by U.S. Jewish pressure.

“Every time there’s a lull in daily threats of terrorist acts, normal life brings to the fore many of these unresolved social tensions,” he said. “Some of them impact on relations with diaspora Jews, but it’s more important for Israelis to deal with them because of their own need of religious tolerance, than because of the Americans’ need.”

The New Israel Fund, a group that has long advocated for a role for diaspora Jews in making the case for pluralism, welcomed the attention on the issues, said its spokeswoman, Naomi Paiss.

“The whole premise of the New Israel Fund is that you can love Israel and you can fix it,” she said. “The Israeli government has a special responsibility — what is made law in Israel signifies the closest we have to a religious ruling, even for those of us who don’t live in Israel. We American Jews do take this personally and we should.”

An example was the 13-year-old boy who died last month in Madrid. The order to bury him in a segregated corner of the Jewish cemetery came from Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s chief Sephardic rabbi.

NIF is currently organizing a petition drive among Jews in Israel and the diaspora urging Yisrael Katz, Israel’s transportation minister, to ban publicly funded buses from segregating male and female passengers.

JTA

 
 

NIF fracas: Defending Israel or destroying democracy?

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Jewish right-wing activists dressed as Arabs demonstrate in Jerusalem against the New Israel Fund on Jan. 30. Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)/JTA

JERUSALEM – A campaign against the New Israel Fund — a U.S.-based organization that funds civil society activists in Israel — has sparked a fierce debate over the limits of free speech, the financing of NGOs, the dictates of loyalty to the state, and, ultimately, over the fundamental values of Israel’s Zionist democracy.

The questions cut close to the bone on both sides of the ideological divide. For example: Are left-wingers using Zionist money to undermine the foundations of the state? Or are right-wingers trying to gag nongovernmental organizations critical of Israeli policies and actions? And to what extent are the government and its agencies involved in trying to silence their critics?

At the center of the storm is the Goldstone report on alleged Israeli war crimes during the fighting in Gaza last winter. (See related story, Will Israel's response to Goldstone be enough?.)

Most Israelis see the report as biased, based on flimsy evidence and false assumptions, and part of a concerted international campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state. The attack on the New Israel Fund was part of an angry Israeli backlash against Goldstone. But was it a bona fide attack on an organization accused of undermining Israel’s international standing or a premeditated onslaught against civil society?

The campaign against the NIF was conducted by an organization called Im Tirtzu, which describes itself as “an extra-parliamentary movement to strengthen Zionist values” and boasts a video endorsement from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. It claimed that 16 NIF grantees — among them Physicians for Human Rights and B’Tselem, human rights organizations active in the Palestinian territories; Breaking the Silence, a group of soldiers reporting on Israeli army violations of moral norms; and ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel — had provided Goldstone with material contributing to false charges against the Israel Defense Forces in informer-like actions that were tantamount to betrayal in a wartime situation.

“The results of these groups’ activities caused significant diplomatic damage to Israel and harmed the country’s capacity to defend itself militarily,” Im Tirtzu said, adding that NIF was largely to blame because it had funded these “anti-Zionist” organizations.

In late January, young Im Tirtzu members dressed as Hamas fighters demonstrated outside the Jerusalem home of NIF President Naomi Chazan waving placards depicting Chazan with a horn emerging from her forehead. The text on the placard read: “Fact! Without the New Israel Fund there could be no Goldstone Report and Israel would not be facing international accusations of war crimes.”

The horn was a play on words, the Hebrew “keren” meaning both fund and horn, but critics say it also had obvious anti-Semitic connotations that many found offensive.

Im Tirtzu used the image as well in advertisements placed in several Israeli newspapers. The Zionist Organization of America has seconded the criticisms of the NIF.

The New Israel Fund says it knows that many of the minority rights groups it backs in the name of empowering the disenfranchised and fighting discrimination in Israel also take positions that the NIF does not endorse, such as calling for an end to Israel’s Jewish character. NIF officials say that while they do not agree with everything their grantees do or say, revoking their funding would be inimical to NIF’s goal of promoting free speech and strengthening Israel’s minorities.

“They’re using me to attack in the most blatant way the basic principles of democracy and the values of Israel’s declaration of independence; values of equality, tolerance, social justice, and freedom of speech,” Chazan declared.

In dismissing the Im Tirtzu case against the NIF as baseless, Chazan said that the materials the groups allegedly transferred to Goldstone are mostly in the public domain. And even if they were not, it would be the duty of the groups to pass on what they know — that is their raison d’être as human rights groups.

Far from giving succor to Israel’s enemies, the grantees were trying to create a better Israel, Chazan said.

The NIF and its defenders note that its work goes well beyond organizations focusing specifically on Palestinian rights. It also funds civil society groups dealing with a host of domestic Israeli issues, such as providing women’s shelters, supporting Ethiopian immigrants, and challenging the Orthodox monopoly on Jewish religious practice.

Earlier this month, a group of leading Israeli academics, writers, actors, directors, and political activists, including novelists Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, placed a full-page ad in Haaretz expressing “disgust at the campaign of incitement and hatred” being waged against Chazan, the NIF, and the organizations it supports.

Several U.S. Jewish groups on the left side of the political spectrum issued their own statements slamming the anti-NIF campaign on similar grounds. The tenor of the anti-NIF campaign was criticized as well by Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League.

In late January, 13 of the 16 NIF grantees slammed by Im Tirtzu fired off a letter to President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin complaining that the Im Tirtzu attack on the NIF was part of a larger pattern encouraged by “senior government officials.” In other words, it was more than a one-off campaign by a young, marginal group but part of an anti-democratic trend for which the government was setting the tone.

They gave some examples: Interior Minister Eli Yishai backing claims that organizations that help refugees and asylum-seekers “aim to destroy Israel”; Netanyahu denying the legitimacy of Breaking the Silence testimonies on the Gaza war; Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon referring to Israeli human rights organizations as “enemies from within.”

Others see the specter of an impending clampdown against civil society.

Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall and director of the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, an NIF grantee, was questioned and fingerprinted by police in early January after taking part in an all-female prayer session at the Western Wall that involved the use of a Torah. A week later, ACRI director Hagai El-Ad was arrested while monitoring a protest against Jewish settlement in the Arab neighborhood of Sheik Jarrah in eastern Jerusalem and released as soon as the case went to court.

Were these isolated cases of police folly or part of a pattern dictated from above?

There is no hard evidence to suggest that the Netanyahu government is planning to curb civil society or that the police action had the prime minister’s blessing. What is clear is that Netanyahu is deeply concerned by what he calls “Goldstonism” — moves in the international community aimed at delegitimizing Israel.

The prime minister says he sees three existential threats: Iran; a Palestinian state without adequate security arrangements; and rampant Goldstonism. That means that Israeli organizations the government feels contribute to delegitimization of the state could be seen as serious threats to national security. But the government does not seem to be considering operative moves against them.

Moves, however, are afoot in the Knesset. The Law Committee, headed by Yisrael Beiteinu’s David Rotem, whose party has proposed that Israeli citizens take loyalty oaths, has set up a subcommittee to examine the sources of funding of NGOs active in Israel. Some of the committee members aim to ban funding by foreign countries, which is seen as interfering in Israel’s internal affairs. Most of that funding is from European countries for left-wing NGOs.

Otniel Schneller of the Kadima Party wants to go a step further, proposing the establishment of a full-fledged parliamentary commission of inquiry to probe the conduct of the NIF and its grantees. Schneller says he is against the absurdity of Israeli civil society “paying organizations like Physicians for Human Rights to slander us,” and wants to stop the NIF from supporting anti-Zionist groups.

Schneller’s proposal, which he plans to submit next week, has run into stiff opposition from the left and right.

Left-wing Meretz leader Haim Oron asked who would decide who is a Zionist or what are Israel’s best interests. Schneller, he suggested, should fight the left-wing organizations with counter arguments rather than trying to cut off their funding.

On the right, the Likud’s Michael Eitan argued that parliamentary commissions of inquiry are established on non-political issues, such as corruption in soccer or water prices.

“It is unheard of for the majority in the Knesset to investigate the minority,” he fumed.

Eitan’s stand has the support of others in the Likud, like Rivlin and Minister without Portfolio Benny Begin, and it is not clear whether Schneller can muster a majority for his proposal.

Meanwhile, Im Tirtzu’s funding also has attracted scrutiny in recent days.

Liberal organizations and bloggers have been reporting that Im Tirtzu has received money from the Central Fund of Israel, a U.S.-based nonprofit that has also supported pro-settler organizations and a group that aids militant Israeli Jews accused of carrying out violence. They also note that Im Tirtzu reportedly has received $200,000 over the past two years from John Hagee, an evangelical pastor in San Antonio, Texas, who is staunchly pro-Israel but came under fire for having declared in a sermon that God allowed the Holocaust to happen as part of a plan to bring Jews to Israel.

Hagee has expressed regret for the upset caused by his remarks and promised to be more sensitive in the future. A spokesman for the pastor criticized the tenor of Im Tirtzu’s campaign against NIF.

Meanwhile the debate goes on, with each side seeking to claim the mantle of preserving Israel’s fundamental nature.

“Today the question is not whether Israel survives, but what kind of Israel survives,” said Daniel Sokatch, the NIF’s chief executive officer.

Im Tirtzu leader Ronen Shova countered that “The debate is not about left or right. The new debate is between Zionists and non-Zionists.”

JTA

 
 

Loyalty oath law in Israel met by U.S. Jewish silence

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At the Israeli cabinet meeting on Oct. 10, ministers voted 22-8 in favor of a measure to require non-Jewish immigrants to take a loyalty oath to the Jewish state.Yossi Zamir/Flash90/JTA

WASHINGTON – A day after Israel’s cabinet announced that it would consider making a loyalty oath mandatory for non-Jewish immigrants, the question put to The Israel Project’s president and founder was simple enough.

“How did your organization react?” Natasha Mozgovoya, the Washington correspondent for Israel’s daily Haaretz, asked Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi at a news conference last week announcing an expansion of The Israel Project’s activities.

“We didn’t put out a press release” was all Mizrahi would say.

The story, making headlines in Israel and around the world, redounded into emptiness in the mainstream American Jewish establishment even after the cabinet approved the oath in a vote Sunday.

The silence reflected a reluctance to criticize Israel at a delicate period in its negotiations with the Palestinians, and as Israel gears up for what could become intensified confrontation with Iran.

The loyalty oath, which must be approved by the full Knesset to become law, would require non-Jewish immigrants to swear allegiance to Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.” It was a longtime condition of participation in the governing coalition by Yisrael Beitenu, the party that helped crown Benjamin Netanyahu prime minister in early 2009 by joining his Likud Party in the government.

A measure that has drawn sharp criticism on the Israeli left, and from some figures on the political right and center, was supported by 22 cabinet members and opposed by eight — Labor’s five ministers and three from Likud.

In America, Mizrahi’s Israel Project was one of the few organizations other than solidly left-wing ones willing to say anything on the record. Most major centrist groups, including those that lean toward liberal, even kept their refusal to comment off the record.

“The timing is not right,” one official said, referring to the diplomatic impasse in the Middle East.

Others simply declared that they were not prepared to deal with the issue.

The American Jewish Committee said its staff was busy analyzing its latest poll of Jewish voters, and that it might have a statement later this week. The Anti-Defamation League did not address the content of the oath but said it should extend to all new immigrants, Jews and non-Jews.

Groups on the American Jewish left denounced the proposed law in the same strong terms used by their Israeli counterparts. J Street and the New Israel Fund even cited prominent Israelis, like Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor of Likud, in opposing the oath.

“The proposal would harm relations with Israel’s Arabs and damage the country’s international reputation,” NIF quoted Meridor as saying in its action alert. “Act now to stand up for Israel and its democratic future,” the alert said, urging supporters to contact Netanyahu’s office directly.

The law’s defenders frame it as an appropriate and effective way to deal with efforts to delegitimize Israel.

“Currently, Israel faces the greatest delegitimization campaign of any nation,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, a member of Yisrael Beitenu, wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “One of the main targets is its national character. Unfortunately, too many Israeli Jews have internalized this assault and have either forgotten, misunderstood, or are actively working against the raison d’etre of the re-establishment of Israel.”

What sticks in the craw of opponents is making loyalty to the Jewish state a specific attribute requiring the fealty of non-Jews. Ayalon and others have defended the oath as not differing from the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance required of new citizens. The pledge, however, does not defer to any cultural, religious, or ethnic designation.

“It is one thing to require adherence to the law,” Hagai Elad, who directs the NIF-backed Association for Civil Rights in Israel, wrote to supporters. “It is another altogether to demand that free individuals in a democracy sign on to a specific ideology or identity — and specifically one with particular religious content.”

Tzipi Livni, the leader of the opposition Kadima Party, depicted the proposed law as a blunt instrument.

“This law does not contribute anything — the opposite is true,” The Jerusalem Post quoted her as saying. “It will cause internal conflicts. This is a bad proposed law that does not protect Israel as the Jewish national home, and even harms it.”

The ADL’s concern — that the law’s main fault was in its discriminatory application to non-Jewish immigrants only — also was reflected at the cabinet meeting, where Yaakov Neeman proposed an amendment to make it a requirement for every immigrant, regardless of religion. It did not pass.

Ayalon said Jewish immigrants were entitled to the assumption of loyalty.

“The pledge becomes unnecessary for those who join us by virtue of their national and historic ties to our land and people,” he wrote in his Op-Ed. “The Jewish state was created to deal specifically with the issue of the Jewish people, and the return of any Jew to his or her land is the fulfillment of this principle.”

JTA

 
 

Jews at Jon Stewart’s ‘sanity’ rally find plenty of like minds

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Members of the New Israel Fund express themselves in two languages during Jon Stewart’s Oct. 30 Rally for Sanity in Washington. NIF

WASHINGTON – When “Saturday Night Live” alum “Father Guido Sarducci,” delivering the benediction at Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, ran through a list of religions seeking the true faith, Judaism received the biggest applause.

That didn’t surprise Rivka Burstein-Stern.

“There were a lot of Jews there,” she said of Saturday’s rally. “But when it comes to rallies and social activism, you’re going to have a lot of Jews.”

Jewish participants — many from the Washington area, some from farther away — seemed to compose a hefty percentage of the estimated crowd of 250,000 attending the event conceived by Stewart and fellow Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert, the faux conservative host.

At least three liberal Jewish organizations — J Street, the New Israel Fund, and Jewish Funds for Justice — were represented on a sunny Saturday in a crowd that spilled over the National Mall. Jewish Funds for Justice used the occasion to launch its “Fear Not” campaign aimed at convincing voters to tune out political forces depicting President Obama and his allies as a threat to the nation.

All three groups chose to emphasize Stewart’s overarching message of keeping down the shouting and keeping up the listening. The NIF fielded posters saying, in Hebrew and English, “Sanity, Sanity, Thou Shalt Pursue,” a play on the justice commandment in Deuteronomy.

Naomi Paiss, the NIF spokeswoman who headed her group’s delegation, said many of the queries from attendees were from participants who recognized Hebrew.

“Some other people said, ‘What language is that?’” said Paiss. “Everyone we explained it to was very supportive. We thought the message of lowering the temperature of civil discourse and not demonizing the opposition was an appropriate message.”

Participants said the message was appropriate to a Jewish upbringing, although they recognized that Stewart (who is Jewish) and Colbert (reportedly a devout Catholic) sought an ecumenical appeal.

During the past three years, much attention has been focused on the fear in some Jewish circles that President Obama is hostile to Israel and bent on tilting U.S. policy toward the Muslim world. But the run-up to the Stewart-Colbert gathering and the increasing predictions of Tea Party-fueled Republican gains has shifted the spotlight onto what past polling suggests is the more common brand of Jewish anxiety — fear over the rise of a potent conservative political movement dedicated to rolling back nearly a century’s worth of liberal gains and willing to employ inflammatory rhetoric aimed at minority groups, including Muslims and illegal immigrants, not to mention Democratic lawmakers.

Jennifer Helburn, a Washington gardener, said she joined the rally partly as a statement for those she described as “refusing to be open to facts that contradict what they want to believe.”

“It’s very disturbing to me,” she said. “Especially for Jews, we’ve been targeted by groups who have determined they know who we are.”

Helburn cited the issue of the planned Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York.

“And here are Jews doing the same thing,” she said to a number of Jewish bloggers and groups that have targeted the center.

Josh Pudnos, a graduate student in political management at George Washington University here, also cited the Islamic center controversy as a factor spurring him to apply for a ticket to sit up front.

“The Tea Party and the religious right really worry me,” said Pudnos, 22, referring to the conservative insurgent movement that seems likely to propel Republicans back to power in Congress. “Using extreme terms like calling the Manhattan mosque ‘terrorist,’ that’s a little extreme.”

A number of participants regretted that the rally wasn’t more political. Stewart, they said, could have hewed to an apolitical line and still rallied participants to vote.

“They focused on the media,” said Burstein-Stern, 26, who works at an educational nongovernmental organization. “But politicians are also a big part of the problem.”

Bess Dopkeen, a Pentagon analyst who hosted her brother and a friend for the rally, said the point was to gather with the like-minded.

“The overall fun was seeing all the great signs,” she said.

Dopkeen flooded Facebook friends with photos of her favorites, including “Ditch fear, choose puppies,” “God hates these signs,” and a man, dressed as Indiana Jones, bearing a placard that read “No one in American politics is a Nazi. Trust me, I know Nazis.”

The chaos — organizers expected 60,000 and got that fourfold — meant that the like-minded did not easily find each other.

The NIF’s Paiss echoed others interviewed when she reported that a friend who watched the event unfold from home, on C-Span, caught more of the rally than she did.

“I wish,” she said, “we could have caught the ‘Jump Rope with Muslims’ people.” JTA

 
 

Rabbis Against Religious Discrimination urge Israeli colleagues to denounce letter against renting o

 

U.S. rabbis offer rare rebuke of Israeli edict

An edict signed by dozens of Israeli rabbis barring the sale or rental of homes to non-Jews in Israel has led to a rare consensus among American rabbis, who have issued a nearly unanimous condemnation of the ban.

Statements by the American Modern Orthodox and Conservative rabbinic associations, and by the spokesman for an American haredi Orthodox umbrella group, all denounce the Israeli rabbis’ directive. So does an online petition signed by more than 900 rabbis, most of them affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations.

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Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, says that the Israeli rabbis’ statement “couldn’t be left on the record without a response.”

Controversial proclamations by Israeli rabbis are not unheard of, but this sort of broad American rabbinic response is rare. Now it appears that the collective response has reached a tipping point — so many American rabbis have spoken against the edict that others may feel compelled to concur.

“The halachic issues here are complex,” said Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, first vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the largely Modern Orthodox rabbinic group. “But a blanket statement that singles out a certain population and says ‘don’t rent to them; don’t sell to them’ in such a blanket fashion is something that struck a very raw nerve.”

The Israeli letter was drafted in support of an effort by the chief rabbi of Safed to bar home rentals to Arabs. Tensions have run high in recent months between haredi Orthodox and Arab students in that northern Israeli city.

Exactly how many rabbis signed the edict is unclear. Some right-wing Israeli news outlets reported that the letter had 300 signatories, while other news organizations pegged the number at fewer than 100.

Regardless, the edict drew attention in the Israeli and international media because dozens of those who signed it were municipal rabbis employed by the government.

Israel’s leading Lithuanian haredi leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, refused to sign the letter, as did, according to one report, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Israel’s Shas Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the letter.

In America, rabbinic opposition to the letter came quickly. An online petition for rabbis posted by the New Israel Fund on Dec. 10 had received 914 signatures by Dec. 15.

“Statements like these do great damage to our efforts to encourage people to love and support Israel,” the NIF statement read. “They communicate to our congregants that Israel does not share their values, and they promote feelings of alienation and distancing.”

Signatories of the NIF petition included Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Most signatories appeared to be members of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements, with a few notable exceptions including prominent New York, liberal-leaning Orthodox Rabbis Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school and Marc Angel of Cong. Shearith Israel.

Some Orthodox rabbis said the sponsorship of the petition by the NIF, which is identified with left-wing causes, may have discouraged the participation of rabbis who otherwise might have agreed with the petition’s sentiment.

The RCA’s statement, released Dec. 14, criticized the Israeli rabbis’ letter in somewhat gentler terms.

“We are surely sympathetic to the impulse to protect a Jewish community in the face of intermarriage, communal conflict, or unsafe neighborhoods,” the statement read. “It is our view that in spite of the concerns of the authors of the statement, it is wrong and unacceptable to advocate blanket exclusionary policies directed against minorities of other faiths or ethnic groups.”

Goldin, religious leader of Cong. Ahavath Torah in Englewood, said the RCA felt compelled to speak because, unlike an off-the-cuff comment by Yosef, who is known for making provocative remarks, the Israeli rabbis’ edict was a formal statement of Jewish law.

“That is what drew our attention — that once such a formal statement is issued, we felt that it couldn’t be left on the record without a response,” he said.

“It’s always easy to criticize those with whom you fundamentally disagree,” he told The Jewish Standard. “It takes greater courage … to publicly differ when someone from your own camp steps over the line. The rabbis who signed the document are zionist Orthodox rabbis with whom the members of the Rabbinical Council of America share great affinity on so many issues. Precisely because of that affinity, I am proud that the Rabbinical Council of America was willing to speak up on this matter.”

The RCA’s statement came hours after the posting of a translated version of a letter opposing the edict written by prominent centrist Orthodox Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, an American living in Israel, to a widely read Orthodox blog. Some observers saw the RCA’s response as a gambit to protect the group from recriminations for not speaking out on the issue.

“They came up with it because they had no choice, because everyone else was already speaking out and they felt, ‘We better say something so people don’t think we’re in favor of this,’” said Angel, a former president of the RCA and a frequent critic of the group.

“They’re facing the reality, political realities, that this is not an issue that you want to have your name stamped on,” Mendy Ganchrow, former president of the Orthodox Union and a retired executive vice president of the Religious Zionists of America, said of the RCA.

In an e-mail, Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the American haredi Orthodox umbrella group Agudath Israel of America, said his organization concurred with Elyashiv and Yosef.

“The rabbis who signed the letter [banning the rentals] were simply misguided,” Shafran wrote.

Though the mainstream American rabbinical associations appear to oppose the Israeli rabbis’ letter, at least one prominent Orthodox rabbi was sympathetic.

“I think it’s part of a concern — and I believe a rightful one — that there’s a war going on, and we’re trying our best to maintain normalcy,” said Rabbi Moshe Tendler, a rosh yeshiva, or dean, of the rabbinical school at Yeshiva University and a major rabbinic arbiter.

The Forward

The Jewish Standard contributed to this report. For an opinion piece by Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot, chair of the Depts. of Bible and Jewish Thought at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and religious leader of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, go to The Rental Controversy and Halakhic Decision-Making.

 
 

What is Wiesenfeld’s worry?

 
 
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