For more than 30 years, my relationship with Jewish Federations, Israel Bonds, AIPAC, J Street, CLAL, and Hillel have been the focus of my life as Jewish study, Jewish values, and the Jewish community have provided me with the moral and intellectual compass that has guided all of my important life decisions.
I have chaired Federation and Israel Bonds campaigns and led and helped create Jewish day schools in both Milwaukee and Tucson and donated millions of dollars to the Federation and other pro-Israel causes, from AIPAC to J Street.
That is why I am so saddened and frustrated at recent decision by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia to co-sponsor a divisive film screening which demonizes a fellow Jewish group--in this case, J Street. Their decision is beyond disappointing. It flies in the face of everything that Federation claims to stand for.
The film, “The J Street Challenge” is nothing more than a lengthy political attack ad, featuring testimony from like-minded right wing pundits, and funded by well-known J Street detractors[a], who are trying to move from the fringe of our community to defining our community. The event was packaged as an educational event entitled, “What it Means to be Pro-Israel.”
Without question, an honest and respectful conversation on pro-Israel advocacy is sorely needed in the Jewish community--if only this event had genuinely pursued that goal. The “J Street Challenge” does not promote this sort of conversation, any more than “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” promotes academic understanding of Judaism.
On its website, the Philadelphia Federation proudly boasts its commitment to "One People. One Community. One Federation." But their decision to sponsor this film paints a different picture. According to the filmmakers, there are two camps: the good, realistic Jews who love and support Israel and the naive, fantasy-addicted Jews who are threatening the survival of our people.
This message may resonate with some in our community, because it reaffirms everything that they already believe. Sadly, it will also alienate the large portion of the community--myself included--that has a different idea of what it means to be pro-Israel.
Indeed, given their shared missions of creating a broad and inclusive Jewish community, it is not clear what the Federation and Hillel hoped to accomplish by sponsoring this event. What they did succeed in doing was sending a clear message to their many caring pro-Israel friends and neighbors who support J Street that both they and their opinions are unwelcome.
That is personally painful to me as a supporter of Federation, Hillel, and J Street and, I am certain, to many others as well who are not in the J Street camp, but who also don’t wish to see a large and growing segment of the Jewish community alienated from the community as a whole.[b]
And who benefited here? A handful of wealthy Jewish donors out to smear a pro-Israel organization whose success and message of openness apparently frightens them?
Our community has a vibrant diversity of opinion and we should embrace that. Whether you are a fan of this film, or one of the thousands of Jews who identify with J Street or among the millions of Jews who are trying to sort these complex issue out, we all love and care about Israel. If we disagree about the proper course for Israel to take, we should debate those differences openly, instead of slinging mud.
That’s why I’ve urged Federation leaders in my hometowns of Tucson and Milwaukee and around the country to speak out against this trend of Federations and Hillels working to stifle open discussion by promoting divisive programming driven by ad hominem attacks on members of our own community.. It’s not because I can’t handle those who express ideas with which I disagree, but because it would mean that the Federation has transformed from a force that builds community into one that destroys it.
I am sure that the Federation staff and leadership in Philadelphia have done wonderful and important work in their community. However, on this occasion, they undermined that work, and should be ashamed of themselves.
As a person who has worked so hard and invested so much in building and benefiting from our Jewish communities, it saddens me profoundly to see so many of the very organizations and people whom I believed shared common Jewish values and a commitment to open respectful conversation suddenly behaving in such destructive ways.