American Jewish Organizations Split Over Israeli Policies

| by Jared Keever

Support for the state of Israel was once a unifying subject for the American Jewish population but that may be changing.

A recent story from The Associated Press reveals growing animosity between Jewish civic organizations, particularly on college campuses. Some groups are being labeled as “anti-Israel” because of their tendency to also highlight the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli policy.

The article points out that Israeli policy has always been hotly debated amongst such groups but that they often put aside their differences when speaking on the international stage. The unified message was most vocal whenever Israel faced an existential threat. 

"It's a very old issue that many countries face and now Israel faces: to what extent should domestic debate carry over when you're abroad?" said Jonathan Sarna, an American Jewish historian at Brandeis University.

That domestic debate has led to some Jewish organizers being barred from joining the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. One in particular is a lobbyist organization called J Street that says it is pro-Israel and pro-peace but has sometimes been critical of the Israeli government.

"Their views are not part of what I consider the mainstream of the Jewish community,” said Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, of J Street.

"I wouldn't characterize them as enemies of Israel," he added. "I would characterize it that their self-avowed statement that they are pro-Israel is not accurate.”

“I believe this has reached a level of absurdity now,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of the IKAR-LA Jewish community in California. “Even where people are acting from a place of love and deep commitment that Israel remains a vital and vibrant state, they are considered outside the realm. It's seen as incredibly threatening and not aligned with the script the American Jewish community expects.”

The debate and growing discord comes at a potentially critical time for Israel.

Peace talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders fell apart earlier this year as Israel denounced a pact made by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas with Hamas. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he could not pursue peace with the Palestinians after such a deal because Hamas, which is recognized as a terrorist organization by both the U.S. and Israel, has been openly hostile to Israel and has denied the country’s right to exist as a state.

“I call on President Abbas: Tear up your pact with Hamas," Netanyahu said during a recent  CNN interview.

"We're not going to negotiate with a government backed by Hamas unless Hamas changes its position and says it's willing to recognize Israel," he declared.

Such talk could mean an escalation in animosity between the Israeli government and Palestinians. And many American Jewish leaders fear that their internal debate could erode overall American support for Israel. 

But Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College, points out that a robust debate is necessary and that leaders should work to incorporate the points of view of many.

"The attacks are stronger and more vicious sometimes," said Cohen, who added that this should not mean that others are silenced.

"If you're not hearing other perspectives, I don't know how you can have an honest, open debate,” he said.

Sources: The Associated Press, CNN