This article has been updated with new information — ed.
At the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA)’s General Assembly in Israel earlier this week, an opportunity to educate attendees on Palestinian issues was thwarted.
Earlier this year, the left-leaning organization T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, asked to have a booth at the conference. T’ruah, which represents over 2,000 rabbis and cantors who support a democratic Israel, also sought to be a conference sponsor. “That means you have the right to put things in the swag bag,” said the organization’s executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, author of Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community, in an interview with Tablet.
It took weeks for T’ruah to get the go-ahead for its booth, which it planned to share with J Street (“The Political Home for Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace Americans”) and New Israel Fund (NIF) (“the leading group advancing democracy and equality for all Israelis”), two groups that have tended to infuriate the right approximately as much as T’ruah does.
“We heard there was anxiety about our having a booth and bringing in J Street and NIF, even though they’re totally mainstream organizations,” Jacobs told Tablet. “There was a long period in which they [the JFNA] didn’t get back to us about having a booth. Finally, they said, ‘Yes, you can have a booth, but there’s no room in the swag bag, no room for co-sponsorship.’ After a month of them not getting back to us, suddenly it’s too late?” Jacobs asked rhetorically. She maintained that even after T’ruah was told there was “no more space,” at least one other organization was granted a sponsorship role. Finally, “after a lot of back and forth,” T’ruah got permission to have a table addressing a narrow topic: The Nation-State Law, which makes Hebrew Israel’s official language and downgrades Arabic to “special status,” and establishes “Jewish settlement as a national value.”
At the 11th hour, T’ruah was given permission to add something to attendees’ swag bags. “We sent them what we were always planning to put in,” Jacobs said. “A booklet with basic information about the occupation, that actively affirms that Israel has a right to be a sovereign country and that Jews have a historic and spiritual relationship with the land of Israel, and that offers basic vocabulary, because there’s still a fundamental lack of knowledge about terms like ‘Area A,’ ‘Area B,’ and ‘Area C’ and what they legally are, and what the terms East Bank and Jerusalem and Gaza actually refer to. This really isn’t even contested in Israeli and international law. And the booklet has testimony from an IDF veteran and from a Palestinian, as well as Jewish texts. We’d already sent it to print.”
But then JFNA said nope. “They were worried that the booklets would upset people who’d, in their words, flown across the ocean to be at this conference,” Jacobs said. “They felt you couldn’t just read the booklet; you would have to be walked through the booklet. We could have it at our table but not give it out.” JFNA offered to reimburse T’ruah for their printing costs. “Which was nice,” Jacobs allowed, “but we’re not taking them up on it. We want this booklet out there! We don’t want a refund!”
Rumors abounded among sympathetic staffers and other observers of internecine Jewish political affairs about why the booklet was pulled from the gift bags. T’ruah was told that people were distressed by the group’s relationship with Breaking the Silence, an Israeli NGO created by Israeli Defense Forces vets who seek to tell their own stories about serving in the occupied territories. “But we didn’t get anywhere in finding out who was expressing that concern,” Jacobs said. “And we were told that the Israeli-Palestinian issue was outside the scope of federation’s conversation, that American Jews can only talk about Israel issues that affect American Jews, like pluralism.”
Clearly most left-wing Jewish organizations don’t agree. “Protecting people from information is not the right thing to do,” Jacobs said. “The theme of the GA is ‘We Need to Talk.’ And we do. We need to talk about how 51 years of occupation is destroying Israel. And if you want to ask why young American Jews are walking away, this is it! It seems very strange to me that this is an issue that’s not on the table for discussion.”
Tablet reached out to JFNA’s president and CEO for comment. There was no response.
Jacobs wrote an op-ed for The Jerusalem Post expressing her dismay. She notes that long before the GA, T’ruah offered JFNA staff the opportunity to visit the West Bank and were rebuffed. She notes that while the Netanyahu government claims that many Palestinian houses in Area C were built illegally–since Palestinian residents of Area C can essentially never acquire building permits–it has been retroactively legalizing houses in settlements built on private Palestinian land.
T’ruah is now selling “A Very Brief Introduction to the Occupation,” a basic guide to the legal and human situation in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, on its website. You can also download a PDF of the booklet for free.
Update — After this article was published, Tablet received the following statement from JFNA:
We were pleased that Truah decided to be an exhibitor and encouraged them to hand out anything they wanted from their booth, and on the tables in the exhibit hall. Because of a miscommunication over placement of Truah’s sponsor partner’s materials, we also offered to add Truah’s name to our list of sponsors and provided complementary registration for two of their intern volunteers. We also encouraged the interns present to engage with participants at the GA and have discussions with them about their positions. We were glad that they were part of the many conversations that took place at the GA.
Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.