Editorial: Divide points to larger problem

We have created a Jewish community so torn by internal politics about Israel speech that we can no longer so much as propose a social justice trip to Israel without creating a political divide in the Jewish community, alienating Jews of good conscience who have already been marginalized for their views.

Pursue is an alumni program cosponsored by Avodah, a one-year service and learning program for recent college graduates with residential programs in several American cities, and the American Jewish World Service, which focuses on fighting poverty abroad.  Knee-jerk reactions abounded when Pursue announced that it would sponsor an Israel trip. One Avodah staffer resigned in protest and a group of current Avodah participants circulated a petition, which demands that the trip include some Palestinian components like a visit to the territories and interactions with real live Palestinians.

According to the Jewish Daily Forward, Michael Deheeger, the staffer who resigned, said, “A trip like this, organized by a social justice organization, helps normalize the oppression of Palestinians by drawing attention away from the daily abuses they’re suffering.”

These reactions sound foreseeable and perfectly reasonable coming from many on the left in the Jewish community. Except for one thing: As far as we’ve been able to determine, there has been no indication yet of what will be on this trip’s itinerary. Scheduled for March, it is still months away.

Perhaps the responses of Deheeger and the petitioners are unnecessarily reactionary.

Then again, perhaps it was naive of Avodah to believe it could execute a trip to Israel in today’s Jewish communal climate without sparking controversy over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It seems like wishful thinking for the organization to believe it could take a group of educated Jewish — and largely very liberal — adults on a service trip to Israel without making visiting Israel’s impoverished neighbors in the West Bank without inciting an internal fight.

But perhaps the greater failure is that of the wider Jewish community, which has so poisoned the atmosphere that we are no longer able to see simply the value in community service for what it is. Israel, as it always seems to do these days, gets in the way of that.

Originally described in a Pursue email as a service and learning trip that would include work on community projects, the conversation has shifted away from the original goal of fighting poverty, as politically charged issues like the occupation of the Palestinians seeping into the discussion. The greater goal of social justice has been cast aside and the Avodah trip has become just another reason for Jews to pick at each other about Israel.

The bigger question, therefore, is not why Avodah is choosing to visit Israel proper and not the Palestinian territories — which, again, we still don’t know that it is — but why an organization that makes a point of staying neutral on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is choosing a service trip to the politically charged region in the first place.

In the petition being signed by Avodah alumni and participants, critics of the trip wrote, “as a domestic-focused service corps, AVODAH has thus far refrained from addressing the potentially contentious issue of the conflict in Israel-Palestine. Yet AVODAH has chosen sides by accepting a grant that requires sponsorship of an Israel trip, bringing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the forefront of our community’s discourse.”

Given Avodah’s mission and apolitical stance, the organization should have rethought their decision to expand their work outside the U.S. to such controversial territories. Nevertheless, with the trips itinerary only tentatively in place, it seems unreasonable for the community to react so strongly through a publicized resignation and the circulation of a petition.

The most tragic element is this: There are very few places where American Jews who hold left-wing views on Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians can state those views without fear of marginalization or alienation. The service community, including organizations like Avodah and AJWS, are some of the last places those people feel welcome. If they don’t feel welcome there, where else will they go?

Perhaps in a less politically divided Jewish community, Avodah, AJWS and Pursue could safely consider such a trip to Israel.  Maybe in a less judgmental generation a service mission could be seen for what it is, rather than another opportunity for a nasty, heated debate.

New Voices Magazine editorials reflect the opinion of the New Voices editorial board.



2 Older Responses to “Editorial: Divide points to larger problem”

  1. ben goldberg
    November 17, 2011 at 11:24 pm #

    As Jews, our connection to the Land of Israel transcends politics and even what kind of government controls the land at any given time. A Jewish group does not need to justify including a trip to Israel as part of its programming.
    That said, I hope Pursue will use Israel as the great living laboratory that it is on the question of what it means to try to actualize Jewish values in a very real, very messy society. Certainly that includes visiting the West Bank and meeting with Palestinians, as well as settlers. Closed-mindedness is the enemy of progress.

  2. Jeremy Benstein
    November 20, 2011 at 7:09 am #

    Siach, An Environment and Social Justice Conversation (siachconversation.org), is a cooperative, pluralistic multi-lateral initiative to create and strengthen a network of social-environmental activists across the Jewish world. Supported by the UJA Federation of New York, with anchors in the US, Israel and Great Britain, and scores of member organizations, Siach works to strengthen values of social justice and sustainability in and between the Diaspora and Israel.
    Siach applauds the decision of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, Pursue: Action for a Just World, and the bodies served by Pursue, alumni of Avodah and the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), to offer an educational service tour to Israel for its members. As Jewish social justice activists, we warmly encourage these organizations to explore and embrace the range of all social and environmental issues that the Israeli public in general, and their colleagues and allies, the social-environmental activists of Israel, are dealing with in their work to make Israel a more democratic, just and inclusive society, inspired and informed by prophetic Jewish values.
    We invite you to fully and sincerely engage the wide range of controversial and compelling social, environmental and political challenges here that are the life’s work of our Israeli affiliates, and we offer Siach and its Israeli member organizations as partners to help facilitate this trip and its content.
    Siach believes that Jews around the world should strengthen their connection to Israel by expressing and striving to fulfill their most cherished social values for Israeli society and all its citizens, together with like-minded allies in Israel working to help Israel live up to universal and Jewish standards of justice and equity, and to the democratic Jewish ideals expressed in its Declaration of Independence.
    Dr. Jeremy Benstein, The Heschel Center, Tel Aviv, Israel
    Nigel Savage , Hazon, New York, NY
    Shoshana Boyd Gelfand, J-HUB, London, England
    Hazon, J-HUB and The Heschel Center are the lead partners in the Siach Network.

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