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Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s Remarks Sharpen Differences Between Jewish Leaders and Youth Over Human Rights

Rabbi Eric Yoffie addresses a plenary session at J Street’s first national conference in Washington, D.C., October 26, 2009. (Photo: Daniel Sieradski) On Monday, October 26, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish religious … Read More

By / November 2, 2009

Rabbi Eric Yoffie Rabbi Eric Yoffie addresses a plenary session at J Street’s first national conference in Washington, D.C., October 26, 2009. (Photo: Daniel Sieradski)

On Monday, October 26, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, America’s largest Jewish religious denomination, addressed a plenary session of the "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby J Street’s first national conference in Washington, D.C., drawing cheers and jeers alike from attendees. Yoffie’s appearance at J Street was something of a coup for the nascent group, as it re-established some legitimacy lost when, in December of 2008, Yoffie condemned J Street’s position against Israel’s war in Gaza as "morally deficient, profoundly out of touch with Jewish sentiment and also appallingly naïve." Yoffie’s denunciation of J Street subsequently became fodder for the pro-Israel right, which used his remarks to paint J Street as being even too-far left for the left itself. Nonetheless, J Street welcomed Yoffie’s participation in the conference, exemplifying the group’s desire to engage those with whom it disagrees, in the greater interest of promoting more open dialogue within the Jewish community about Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. And while it was clear, by the end of Yoffie’s remarks (which included a roundtable discussion with J Street’s executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami), that the Reform leader agreed on much more with J Street than he disagreed, there were clear differences on the issues of human rights and international law, particularly regarding the Goldstone report. While J Street has neither condemned nor touted the U.N.’s Gaza war crimes investigation findings, it has cautiously stated the need for Israel to take the allegations seriously and investigate the charges. Yoffie, on the other hand, went straight for Goldstone’s throat. "This is not the time for a full discussion of the Goldstone report," he said, turning heads among audience members offended by the implication that Israel need not take credibly the allegations therein. "Its reasoning is shaky in some places and more often absurd," he added, focusing not on specific charges, but on the seeming imbalance of the report’s language, which he characterized as unjustly laying greater responsibility for the events in Gaza at Israel’s feet rather than Hamas’. Yoffie drew loud boos with his declaration, "You cannot be a moral agent if you serve an immoral master, and Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself for working under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Council." I admit, I was among the booers. In their opening night speeches, both Ben-Ami and incoming New Israel Fund executive director Daniel Sokatch made note of the fact that while increasing numbers of young Jews were disaffiliating from Israel and the organized Jewish community, their organizations were reeling them in en masse. I reiterated this point in my remarks at the much-reviled bloggers’ forum the next afternoon, explaining that this is because mainstream Jewish organizations fail to reflect the progressive values of young American Jews, the majority of which voted for Obama and favor a just resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And I offered that our biggest divide, was not on our support for Israel, but on our differing attitudes towards international law and human rights. "The way we are asked to defend Israel is not by debating the facts," I said, "but by undermining and delegitimizing the international system and human rights law all together. But as a grandchild of four Holocaust survivors with two Israeli sisters, I am a beneficiary of those same systems." With his remarks against the Goldstone report, Yoffie was only proving my point. So I stopped him in the hallway after his speech, and said as much to him. "Rabbi Yoffie, how can you decry young American Jews’ disaffiliation from Israel, while at the same time asking them to both be progressive and renounce and undermine international law?" He evaded my question. "The Goldstone report was unbalanced." "So is Israel’s military advantage over those it occupies," I said. "Gaza’s not occupied," he replied. "Oh no? Israel controls the air, the sea, the borders, the electricity and water." Moments later, a woman would hand me an unsolicited copy of Amnesty International’s latest report on the violation of Palestinian water rights by Israel. "That’s not occupation," he said. I stared at him in disbelief. "We gave them back Gaza. They could have used it as an opportunity to build a viable state and a stable economy. Instead they chose to rain down rockets on Sderot." "What’d you expect from unilateral withdrawl without a negotiated settlement?" I asked. "Sharon’s senior advisor, Dov Weisglass, told Ha’aretz just before the disengagement that their plan was to demonstrate that land for peace was a failed proposition by withdrawing without a peace accord. They knew exactly what would happen." "Good for Weisglass," he said, haughtily implying that he knew better than a designer of the disengagement himself. "Besides, you’re blaming Israel." My face reddened with the kind of frustration I’ve often experienced at Shabbat dinner tables around Jerusalem. I asked, "Who was it that said, ‘when you take your boot off their neck, they will pop you in the nose’?" "Three years of rocket fire is more than a punch in the nose," Yoffie replied. "Forty years is a damn long time to have a boot on your neck." Yoffie had to then take off for a meeting with one of the members of Knesset attending the conference. I of course deferred, but I remained where we had stood, dumbfounded by the man’s obstinancy. I thought to myself, is it any wonder that young American Jews like myself are increasingly repulsed by the organized Jewish community when three years of sporadic rocketfire from an occupied people is touted as a greater tragedy than decades of their oppression and dispossession? I’ll concede that the international system is well-beyond imperfect. With Libya chairing the Human Rights Council it’s hard to call it anything other than corrupt. But if we’re truly committed to the advancement of human rights and justice, shouldn’t we focus on improving and strengthening the systems of international law rather than repudiating them all together? Thus, among the reasons J Street appears to be capturing my generation and community’s support is that where Yoffie and his contemporaries in the organized Jewish community’s answer to that question would be "No," J Street’s answer appears to be, at least for the time being, a resounding "Yes."

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