If you’re a Reform Jew, you have every reason to be proud of your leader, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is facing down the right-wingers running the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations (see Confront the Extremists in Our Midst). Yoffie is downright disgusted with Malcolm Hoenlein, president of the Conference and other members who’ve blocked at every turn a strong statement supporting the Sharon government’s Gaza pullout.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of Union for
Reform Judaism (credit: CJNews.com)
Yoffie rightly warns that the extreme refuseniks in the settler movement who oppose evacuation at all costs are a threat to Israel’s democracy:
Settler leaders have threatened civil war, called on religious soldiers to refuse orders by their commanders to evacuate settlements, proclaimed that rabbinic law — as interpreted by their rabbis — takes precedence over democratic decisions, and intimidated and ostracized Orthodox soldiers charged with carrying out the evacuations. At one point settlers began wearing yellow stars, comparing themselves to Holocaust victims and Israel’s government to Nazi Germany…The depth of the contempt for Israel’s elected leaders is reflected in the statement by settler spokesperson Daniella Weiss that Israeli “soldiers must refuse orders and turn a deaf ear to the directives of this evil government.”
The Yesha Council…condemned the “minority government of Sharon, the left and the Arabs.” Apparently, the presence of “leftists” in the Sharon government and the occasional support that it receives from Arab Knesset members are sufficient to disqualify the validity of its decisions. Only a decision by Jews — and not just any Jews, but right-wing and nationalist Jews — is legitimate in the Council’s eyes. While professing to support “democracy,” what it calls democracy bears no resemblance to any reasonable understanding of the term. Wasting no words, Prime Minister Sharon has again and again condemned the actions of the settlers as a threat to Israel’s democratic character.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the settlers truculence is encouraged by the silence of the Conference of Presidents.
Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, attacked the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations for its lukewarm support for the Sharon plan (see U.S. Jewish group’s stand on pullout attacked). He told Haaretz:
the conference’s stand on the disengagement issue is “a shameful disgrace.” He said that the conference is an “irrelevant organization” that does not represent the consensus in the Jewish American community.
“There is no doubt that all the major American Jewish organizations support the disengagement,” he said. “The Presidents’ Conference has a few organizations that represent perhaps 15 percent of the Jewish population in America, and for that they tell us there is no consensus. There is a consensus, and the conference does not represent it. It’s simply a shameful disgrace that at such a critical moment for the State of Israel, the Presidents’ Conference should refrain from taking a stand.”
The Union for Reform Judaism, is America’s largest religious movement – 30 percent of American Jews who regularly attend synagogue do so in one of 900 Reform synagogues.
I’m immensely pleased that the leader of one of the largest Jewish organizations in the world has grown so disgusted with Malcolm Hoenlein and the Conference that he’s attacking them in print (something just not done in the polite world of national Jewish politics). I’ve written here about my own perspective on Hoenlein. Even Abe Foxman of the ADL, no die-hard liberal himself tried and failed to get the Conference to approve a resolution supporting the withdrawal. Foxman described the Conference’s current stand as “lukewarm and feeble.”
Here’s how Yoffie analyzed the cause of the Conference’s paralysis on this issue:
The Zionist Organization of America, despite its small size, has developed impressive political clout; Washington opinion makers and newspapers editors, both Jewish and non-Jewish, respond to its political contacts and steady stream of political statements, whether or not they are aware of its very modest grass-roots base. Centrist and left-leaning groups, on the other hand, are often less active politically, and are far more likely to function as part of broader communal coalitions that ultimately constrain what they can say and do.
Second, the Modern Orthodox movement in the United States, which is closer ideologically to the settlers than any other part of the community, has remained resolutely silent on settler extremism. Apart from a few rabbinic voices that have taken gentle exception to demands that Orthodox soldiers refuse orders to evacuate, the movement has chosen to say nothing about the ongoing stream of vitriol and incitement issued by settler leaders.
It is mind-boggling to me that these extreme right-wing groups (which also include American for a Safe Israel and Herut USA) are now taking a position far to the right of the current right wing Israeli government. It’s a shande of the first order. How can American Jewry allow these rump groups essentially to hijack the Conference? Actually, given Hoenlein’s extreme right wing views on the conflict the group probably isn’t being hijacked. I imagine that Hoenlein himself might be openly colluding with them to halt a reasonable statement on the pullout.
Perhaps the most chilling passage of Yoffie’s Forward article is this one: “Under the circumstances, if tomorrow the settlers were to call for open rebellion against Israel’s government, the Presidents Conference could not be counted on to condemn such sentiments.” He follows with an urgent call for reform of the national Jewish community’s leadership structure:
Courageous leaders in Israel’s government have spoken out against the dangers of the extremists, and American Jews expect their leaders to do the same. Failure to do so undermines both our authority and the credibility of the religious tradition in whose name we speak.
What we would like to see is real reform of our communal bodies. But lacking this, Jewish organizations need to set aside those self-imposed organizational constraints that were intended to strengthen our community’s voice but instead have served to stifle debate and silence the voice of the majority. We need to speak up individually and in ad hoc coalitions in support of Israel’s elected government and the democratic principles that it champions. We need to reject extremism in all forms, and champion the cause of realism and moderation that alone can inspire our community and ensure the future of Israel.
I would go even farther with a more radical proposal. Why don’t Yoffie and the more mainstream organizations break away and form their own independent organization to compete with, or replace the Conference? What would happen as a result is that either the insurgent group would overwhelm the Conference and take over its former national leadership role or the Conference would respond by backing down from its current intransigent position.
If I were a Reform Jew this type of boorish characterization of Eric Yoffe would make my blood boil:
Hoenlein sharply attacked Yoffie, whom he said is irrelevant as far as he was concerned. “It is just one person who seems to find this is his only way of getting attention and who makes a career out of writing these articles, so I’m not interested in discussing it.
How do you call the leader of Reform Judaism “one person” who is “irrelevant??” Malcolm Hoenlein and the Conference deserve to get their comeuppance and I hope Eric Yoffie and the more moderate Jewish groups will provide it for them by voting with their feet and abandoning the Conference as a puppet of settler extremists and other right-wingers.