An upcoming public program billed as “What It Means to Be Pro-Israel” is generating a mixture of excitement and consternation in the community.
The program, slated for March 27 at the Penn Museum, will feature a new film, The J Street Challenge, along with a panel of three speakers, including Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz.
Supporters of the program, which already has some 500 registrants, see it as an important educational opportunity “for anyone who wants to learn about being pro-Israel,” said Gary Erlbaum, who was instrumental in bringing the program to Philadelphia.
Critics have expressed concerns about both the program’s sponsorship and its substance, which they say is divisive because the film is highly critical of J Street, a national Jewish organization.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia is the main sponsor of the event (jewishphilly.org/proisrael ). Several other local groups are listed as participating organizations. The Jewish Exponent is listed as the media sponsor.
Underlying the controversy is the question that continues to vex Jewish communities across the country: Who’s in — and who’s outside — the pro-Israel tent?
For Erlbaum, a longtime communal leader who has been a vocal critic of J Street, the answer is clear:
“Today, more than ever before, while we can discuss issues among ourselves, it is important to have a unified pro-Israel voice to express to our political leaders, our fellow Jews and the people of Israel,” he said. “What is divisive, if anything, are those who, because they are Jewish, speak out against Israel, whether it be in an overt or covert manner.”
Since its founding six years ago, J Street, which bills itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” has generated controversy in communities over some of its positions, tactics and sources of funding, particularly as it presses the U.S. government to push for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Those upset about the program take issue with the process by which the Federation decided to sponsor the program. They have expressed concern that putting Federation’s imprimatur on such a program is not healthy and could alienate donors to the community’s central fund-raising organization.
Marc Zucker, a past chair of the Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council, and currently a member of Federation’s board of trustees and its Israel Advocacy Committee, voiced dismay over the fact that the advocacy committee, which spent two years developing guidelines to address such controversial programs, was not consulted or involved in Federation’s decision to sponsor the program.
Zucker was one of at least four members of the advocacy committee who sent letters expressing their concern to Federation’s interim CEO, Alex Stroker.
In his letter, Zucker noted that he has “ambivalent feelings about J Street’s tactics,” and is “convinced that the intransigence, corruption and short-sightedness of Palestinians and their Arab neighbors, not Israel’s settlement policy and presence in the West Bank, deserve the lion’s share of the blame for the absence of a two-state solution.”
Nevertheless, he added: “J Street is clearly ‘within the tent’ and is undeserving of public vilification. Just as we encourage free and open debate about policies of our own government, it sends a terrible message to suggest that we won’t tolerate those who question particular policies of the Israeli government and who believe sincerely that those policies are harming Israel’s long-term interests.
“Respectfully, criticism of J Street is not equivalent to advocating for Israel,” nor is it good for Israel, his letter continued. “It is a public airing of hostility toward an organization of respectful, well-meaning and peace-loving members of our community — not to mention an organization whose membership includes Federation donors.”
For its part, Federation officials said that although the Israel Advocacy Committee didn’t vet the program, the Federation’s Center for Israel and Overseas did.
In addition to Dershowitz, who is known as a passionate advocate for Israel who also criticizes some Israeli policies, including settlements, the panel will include Charles Jacobs, the head of Americans for Peace and Tolerance, which produced The J Street Challenge. Publicity for the film describes it as “a provocative new documentary about the American Jewish community and its relationship with Israel.” The panel also will feature Sara Greenberg, who grew up in Gladwyne and is currently a graduate student at Harvard University and a board member of Harvard’s Hillel.
According to Erlbaum, audience participation will be a major feature of the program, which will include a question-and-answer period. He said he wanted to hold it on the University of Pennsylvania campus because he is hoping to draw some 200 students.
Meanwhile, Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, which signed on as one of more than a dozen participating organizations, is also getting some flak.
Student members of J Street at the University of Pennsylvania have asked for — and been granted — an opportunity to come before the Hillel board this week to explain why they think Hillel should not be co-sponsoring the event, according to Rabbi Howard Alpert, the executive director of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
In an opinion piece sent to the Exponent, students Jacob Ruden and Israel Geselowitz wrote that “open conversation and even serious disagreement are important and necessary parts of any Jewish community. We encourage debate about the substance of our work for two states.”
But, they argued, “we must distinguish debate from attack and not give cover to the latter. As the campus address for Jewish life, Hillel is responsible for creating a vibrant community with the capacity for disagreement, debate, collegiality and collaboration. HGP’s sponsorship of this malicious attack on a member group undercuts that important mission.”
For his part, Alpert said Hillel’s decision to be a sponsor was not taken lightly. “We always have to consider carefully the implications of any decision about which we know some will applaud and others will be unhappy.”
Hillel is a platform for a very broad-based Jewish community, he said, and “it needs to endorse programs that come from all different elements within that broad community. We recognize that programs that emanate from one segment will upset those from other factions.
“We try to minimize the upset,” he continued, but added: “We can’t allow that to dictate our programs as long as they are educationally sound and within our guidelines as they apply to Israel. This particular program has educational merits and is within the guidelines.”
Alpert lamented the inability of proponents of different perspectives to find a way to talk when it comes to Israel.
“If the only programs that are kosher are programs that represent your perspective or don’t anger anyone, that doesn’t bode well for the important conversations our Jewish community needs to have,” he said.
“Part of our role is to help students participate in the fuller conversation, arguing their position passionately and allowing others to argue their position passionately, and then listening. We have to help both our student communities and, frankly, our adult communities, learn to do that.”
Meanwhile, the debate is likely to continue past next week’s program.
Rebecca Kirzner, J Street’s Mid-Atlantic regional director, has sent a letter to Federation’s Israel Advocacy Committee, proposing that Federation host a forum this spring featuring J Street’s founder and president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, and someone representing a differing viewpoint so the community can address the myriad issues likely to be raised by the Obama administration’s framework agreement that is expected to be presented soon to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators.
Arlene Fickler, the chair of the advocacy committee, said her committee will be taking a deep look at pro-Israel advocacy in the community. Included in the agenda at their April meeting, she said, will be the J Street proposal.
“I can’t predict what will happen,” she said. “The committee represents the broad spectrum of ideas about how the community can best advocate for peace with security in the state of Israel. I think it will be an interesting discussion about how the Federation can best present that broad spectrum of ideas to the community.”