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.