Divided we fall? A once-united Jewish Los Angeles breaks apart again

February 8, 2007

Last summer, Los Angeles’ Jewish community stood united. As Hezbollah missiles rained on Israel, 10,000 Jews, including members of groups spanning the political spectrum — from the liberal Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) to the conservative StandWithUs — braved a sweltering July sun to rally for Israel, and, in the process, to show their support for one another.

That cohesiveness lasted for a while. In September, major Jewish groups banded together and nearly succeeded in preventing Maher Hathout, founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) and an ardent critic of Israel, from receiving a prestigious award from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission. A month later, a tidal wave of pressure led the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) to deny use of its headquarters to a UTLA committee that wanted to discuss launching an economic boycott of and divestment from Israel.

But the time for harmony may have passed. As memories of the war in Lebanon fade, and with them the palpable fears about Israel’s imminent destruction, old antagonisms have re-emerged, exposing growing fissures within the Jewish community on Israel.

How best to support Israel is the key issue that divides left, right and center.

As just one example, when the left-leaning group Americans for Peace Now recently co-sponsored an event at the Skirball Cultural Center that featured former Israeli and Palestinian soldiers (see story below), who spoke critically of Israel’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the right-leaning group StandWithUs questioned Peace Now’s decision. Similarly, when the PJA launched a new interfaith project with MPAC, a few other Jewish groups accused them of aiding and abetting a radical, anti-Israel organization.

“We haven’t figured out in the Jewish community, given the pressures on us and Israel’s instability, how to find common ground,” said Steven Jacobs, rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. “We are doing ourselves a great deal of injustice by making everything black and white.”

The growing schism between politically liberal and conservative Jews has assumed national proportions. In January, the American Jewish Committee (AJCommittee) featured an essay on its Web site titled Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism, written by Alvin H. Rosenfeld. In the piece, Rosenfeld, director of the Institute for Jewish Culture and the Arts at Indiana University, asks whether some Jews are fanning anti-Semitism by questioning Israel’s right to exist. The New York Times, among other publications, has reported on the fallout, including accusations from progressive groups that Rosenfeld’s true purpose is to curb all criticism of Israel.

On a separate front, the Zionist Organization of America, a pro-Israel advocacy group, just failed in an attempt to have the liberal Union of Progressive Zionists (UPZ) expelled from the 31-member Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), a 5-year-old outfit committed to improving Israel’s image at universities. The UPZ’s transgression: sponsoring campus appearances by ex-Israeli soldiers who discuss human rights abuses they allegedly committed, or say they saw committed, against Palestinians in the territories. In protest, another ICC member, the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress) — a policy advocacy organization that defends Jewish rights internationally — might soon quit the ICC.

What it all boils down to is a question of timing versus free speech, even though there is still general agreement that Israel’s future is being threatened on a variety of fronts: Iran is believed to be developing nuclear weapons; Syria and Iran are said to be rearming Hezbollah in violation of U.N. agreements; and a Hamas-led Palestinian government is refusing to renounce violence or recognize Israel.

In addition, former President Jimmy Carter has written a much-publicized book calling Israel’s handling of the Palestinians “apartheid.” Because of all this, many conservative Jews believe that now is not the time for Jewish groups to stridently criticize Israel, said Rabbi David Eliezrie, president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County, an organization comprised of 20 Orthodox rabbis.

“I think that Jewish leaders have to be careful that their words not be used by our enemies,” Eliezrie said, adding that such “failed” liberal initiatives as the Oslo Accords and the disengagement from Gaza have left Israel more vulnerable.

In this highly charged environment, many progressive Jews believe the right has ratcheted up the pressure to marginalize them, said Lila Garrett, host of the KPFK radio news program “Connect the Dots,” who describes herself as a supporter of Israel.

“If you don’t agree with the right wing; if you don’t agree that all Arabs should be driven out of Israel; if you don’t agree with them politically, then they say you don’t support Israel and are not a good Jew,” Garrett said.

Yet many liberal Jews feel “it’s a religious obligation, a spiritual obligation, an ethical obligation and a family obligation to criticize policies that are self-destructive,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of the progressive magazine Tikkun, pointing to what he calls Israel’s “addiction to militarism and domination over others.”

The recent disagreement between the L.A.-based StandWithUs and the local branch of Peace Now reflects the widening chasm separating conservative and liberal Jews here. After learning that StandWithUs had used its Web site to label as anti-Israel an event by Combatants for Peace presented by Brit Tzedek v’Shalom — a pro-Israel, pro-peace outfit, and co-sponsored by Peace Now, David Pine, Peace Now’s West Coast regional director, sent an angry e-mail in protest to StandWithUs. In response, StandWithUs initially dropped the anti-Israel designation, the group’s Executive Director Roz Rothstein said. However, StandWithUs later reinstated it after further investigation revealed that Combatants for Peace, in her words, “paint the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] with a broad ugly brush” and try to “demonize Israel.”

Rothstein said StandWithUs was not trying to intimidate Peace Now, but wanted to warn of what the group saw as Combatants for Peace’s true agenda. Pine responded, in a Jan. 26 e-mail to Rothstein, blasting her for brandishing “your version of a ‘Scarlet Letter’ (‘A’ for anti-Israel).” In a subsequent interview, Pine said he thinks StandWithUs has “missed a major point about the importance of discourse and the fact that differing opinions exist but remain pro-Israel.”

In another example of the growing divide between local Jews, criticism has mounted — especially from the right — of a new interfaith initiative that will be unveiled this month by PJA and MPAC, both of which are Los Angeles-based policy advocacy organizations. As envisioned, the new dialogue would train a fresh cadre of young Jewish and Muslim leaders to move beyond stereotypes, forge friendships and work together to tackle some of Los Angeles’ most pressing social issues, such as homelessness. Liberal and moderate Jews and other clergy have lauded the program.

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