January 19, 2020

Jewish Federations to debate travel to West Bank settlements

The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) is considering a change to its policy that could allow its missions to Israel to visit Jewish settlements in the West Bank but not areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The proposed policy has some leaders worried that the country’s largest network of Jewish organizations is presenting too narrow a view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In an Oct. 26 conference call, JFNA’s board of trustees will be asked to “authorize the entry of JFNA missions, including federation community missions planned through JFNA, into Israeli-controlled territories beyond the Green Line (e.g., Ariel or Gush Etzion, etc.),” JFNA president Jerry Silverman wrote in an email to trustees, naming two Jewish settlements.

Interfaith Partners for Peace, a program of JFNA affiliate Israel Action Network (IAN), already takes delegations of faith leaders to Palestinian towns, Silverman said in the email obtained by the Journal.

In the case of the interfaith trips, the email noted, the JFNA believes “authorizing the entry of IAN missions into the PA is in the best interest of the federation system.”

JFNA, the umbrella organization for local Jewish federations across the country, leads annual missions to Israel, for instance for young leaders and LGBT individuals. Local federations lead many more such trips, which are a fundamental way federations engage Jewish philanthropists and leaders in Israel.

It was unclear whether the trustees would be asked to rewrite federation policy or simply lend their approval to the IAN trip. But even if the vote applied only to the IAN trip, it would set precedent, since federation missions currently avoid the West Bank entirely.

The email seems to suggest that JFNA-led trips would be allowed to travel to areas under direct control of the Israeli military and not to Palestinian areas like Bethlehem, Nablus and Ramallah.

The vote raises concerns that mission participants would be exposed to one side of the story if they visited Jewish settlements in the West Bank while avoiding Palestinian areas.

One philanthropist and Israel activist who was briefed on federation discussions by a trustee told the Jewish Journal the policy would have the effect of “normalizing” Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 Green Line that most countries see as violating international law. She asked to remain unnamed because of the sensitivity of the discussion.

She said she believes it best if federation trips simply avoided the West Bank altogether.

But, she said, “If seeing is so important, then I think that we have an equal responsibility to go see Palestinians living over the Green Line.”

The conference call comes the day after Simchat Torah, a holiday when observant Jews don’t answer their phones or emails. The conversation is “deemed privileged information,” according to Silverman’s email, restricted only to voting trustees.

Reached by phone, Leslie Bider, former chairman of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a trustee for the national organization, said the discussion was “confidential to the JFNA board” and declined to comment.

Requests for information from JFNA were not immediately returned.