URJ President Yoffie booed at J Street, I smirk

Originally posted to Jewschool.

Maybe there’s some hubris involved when I chime in on the ongoing J Street conference. I’m not even there and we’ve got four or five Jewschoolers there covering it quite capably here and at Twitter. But when Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism shows up at J Street and gets booed by a crowd, I’ve got to say something. After all, I’m the self-proclaimed URJ expert here at Jewschool. Indeed, one of our guest posters has already written about this beautiful moment in this post, but I’ll take a very different angle.

To recap the relationship so far between the URJ and J Street, though Yoffie and the Religious Action Center (a DC lobby affiliated with the URJ) were initially quite warm to J Street, Yoffie lost his cool with J Street during the Gaza shit early this year. He disagreed vehemently with J Street’s assessment that Operation Cast Lead was a bad idea in this Forward op-ed. Here is J Street’s response to the piece.

But now, it seems that Yoffie sees that J Street agrees with him on more than it disagrees. And it seems J Street sees the value in having the leader of the largest Jewish religious organization in America present at their inaugural conference.

Here’s the text of his address to the J Street conference yesterday. An excerpt:

This is not the time for a full discussion of the Goldstone report, which in my view was fatally flawed. There are many questions that one might legitimately ask about Israel’s conduct of the war: Why was it necessary for Israeli forces to use so much firepower? How do you carry out a war against a terrorist organization that attacks your citizens and hides amid a civilian population? What risks are Israeli soldiers obligated to take, beyond those inherent in combat, to prevent harm to civilians? The Israelis that I know are asking these questions; it is right for them to do so, and it is right for the government of Israel to deal with these issues.

“This is not the time for a full discussion of the Goldstone report”? Which Yoffie then spends several paragraphs going on about?

Here’s RJ.org’s horn-tooting celebration of the address. An excerpt:

Rabbi Yoffie is widely considered the American Jewish community’s leading “dove.” His address at J Street’s conference underscores both the maturity of the dialogue over Middle East peace and the Reform Movement’s commitment to peace.

And here’s what Tablet had to say about the address. An excerpt:

[…] the 1,500 progressive activists gathered in Washington for this week’s J Street conference really, really agree with each other. The only division we’ve seen on display, in fact, came this afternoon, when Rabbi Eric Yoffie, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, that movement’s organizing body, showed up for a “town hall” discussion with J Street’s founder, Jeremy Ben Ami. […]

Yoffie drew boos from the crowd for suggesting that Gazans invited their current circumstances by voting for Hamas after Israel withdrew from the territory in 2006, and for defending Israel against accusations, particularly in a recent U.N. report by Richard Goldstone, that it may have committed war crimes in Gaza. […]

(They all clapped at the end, though.)

This points to what it means to be pro-peace for the URJ and much of its membership. I grew up neck-deep in Reform politics, so I don’t doubt the URJ’s commitment to peace for Israel and the world. Unfortunately, the URJ is constantly treading a fine line where they want to be seen as pro-peace without willing to be as critical of Israel as such a position demands.

This cognitive dissonance is what leads to slight rift between J Street and the URJ. To summarize Yoffie, “The Gazans brought it on themselves. It’s no really Israel’s fault. But we want peace for both sides anyway.” This positions wants to have it too many ways for the positions to stay coherent.

If the URJ has a contribution to make to the pro-Israel pro-peace discussion, shit or get off the pot. Do it or go away. If J Street is right when they claim to represent a majority and if the URJ’s membership is as liberal as anecdotal evidence has proven to me that it is, the URJ should go full throttle for the J Street position if they want to do their members’ justice.

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16 Responses to URJ President Yoffie booed at J Street, I smirk

  1. Larry Kaufman October 27, 2009 at 9:08 pm #

    If you want to smirk at the booing, maybe you need to grimace at the applause, as put in perspective in the Kampeas piece from JTA http://blogs.jta.org/politics/article/2009/10/26/1008749/booing-eric-yoffie.

    Your suggestion that Rabbi Yoffie (as proxy for URJ) get out of the peace discussion altogether if he isn’t going to draw the lines exactly where you want them is pretty silly, and is likely to blow your credibility as Jewschool’s self-proclaimed URJ expert (if it isn’t blown by your suggestion that Reform Jews are of a single stance towards the J-Street position) .

    And, as an editor, you ought to recognize that anecdotal evidence doesn’t prove diddly.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 27, 2009 at 10:01 pm #

      As I’ve said in several comments already at the Jewschool comment thread, I happen to think that saying “Peace for Israel and two states too!” contradicts directly with saying “But the Palestinians are just asking for it and Israel acted justly in Cast Lead.” If he’s not willing to take a stance that is internally coherent, I don’t want to hear from him.

      I don’t think URJ Jews are of a single mind. And there in lies the problem. Not that they should be a single mind, but that officials shouldn’t be touting official opinions of a group that can’t reach near-consensus. For instance, URJ membership is near-unanimous on gay rights and gay Rabbis and so forth. Thus, Yoffie can espouse the official stance. But when the official stance on something, like how to achieve peace in Israel, is an incoherent Frankenstein cobbled together out of the multitude opinions that URJ due-payers hold.

      Lucking, Larry, this is a blog, not a newspaper. So I can use anecdotes when I want to.

      • Ben Sternman November 3, 2009 at 5:42 pm #

        You have a strange idea of consistency. It is completely internally consistent to say, “I believe in a peaceful two state solution,” along with “Until such a solution is established, Israel has a right and a duty to defend itself.” Where’s the contradiction?

        • David A.M. Wilensky November 5, 2009 at 12:31 pm #

          That’s not the entirety of what he’s saying, though, is it? “Israel has a right and duty to defend itself because it is an innocent lamb of a country suffering under the awful weight of rocket attacks. What ever did they do to deserve this?” It’s a belief in two states for the sake of Israel’s safety (which is good enough on it’s own) without the belief in two states for the additional sake of the human dignity of both sides of the conflict (which is even better).

          If Yoffie represents an organization that makes all kinds of noise about human dignity (remember the Holocaust, save Darfur, pass universal health care, protect gay rights), he’s gonna have to make some noise about the mutual dignity of both Israel and Palestine and their mutual rights to self-defense.

          • Ben Sternman November 5, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

            Fair enough about treating both sides with dignity. Does the Palestinian right of self-defense extend to pushing the Israelis into the sea? That kind of is the definition that Hamas (and maybe the PA — it’s hard to tell) is using. Does self-defense include rocket attacks on Sderot or in the North?

            I agree with you completely that all human beings are created in God’s image and should be treated with respect and when Israel falls down in that respect it is legitimate to rebuke them. The question that I have is when people use a legitimate rebuke as a sledgehammer to delegitimize the very existence of the State of Israel. That I cannot accept.

            Some critics of Israel say, look at the human rights abuses — Israel shouldn’t exist. Do critics of other countries ever say that? Did anyone say, the US engaging in torture at Guantanamo means the US should cease to exist? One of the difficulties is that if one has a legitimate rebuke towards Israel it gets turned into an existential attack.

            • David A.M. Wilensky November 5, 2009 at 2:09 pm #

              I’m not sure what the relevance of the “Israel has no right to exist” crowd is here. No one here is saying that.

              So, ignoring that notion, here’s what I know: I know that it is as inappropriate to respond to those rocket attacks with indiscriminate killing non-combatants as the rocket attacks are to begin with. Look at the death toll on both sides and see what story that tells.

              • Ben Sternman November 5, 2009 at 9:05 pm #

                The story it tells me is that Hamas callously uses civilians as human shields. They then have a heads I win, tails you lose situation. Either they can attack Israel with impunity because Israel won’t attack back to avoid civilian losses or Israel attacks back and gets blamed for ‘indiscriminate killing’ even when they leaflet and call residents asking them to leave. That’s the story it tells me. What’s the story it tells you?

                • David A.M. Wilensky November 6, 2009 at 3:36 am #

                  So, in your vision of combat in Gaza, Palestinian soldiers hold helpless civilians up and Israelis shoot at them?

                  • Ben Sternman November 6, 2009 at 6:38 am #

                    Don’t be absurd or shallow. It’s not worthy of you.

                    If rockets are fired or soldiers are firing from one building among many or one apartment in a highrise, how is anyone, Israeli or otherwise, expected to hit only their target? It is, in fact, a war crime to fire from the midst of a civilian position.

                    Yet you demonstrate how Israel loses either way. They can absorb the firing or if they attack back they get blamed. Either way, they lose.

                    • David A.M. Wilensky November 6, 2009 at 2:28 pm #

                      As though the Palestinians win in one of these scenarios!?

                      It’s lose-lose-lose for everyone all the time.

  2. Larry Kaufman October 28, 2009 at 9:25 am #

    Of course you can use anecdotes at will — I use them all the time. They illustrate, demonstrate, hopefully persuade — but they do not prove.

    While I agree that there is strong consensus among Reform leadership on gay issues, I’m not sure how true that is among amcha, or even among rabbis. (Else why the opt-out clause in the CCAR responsum.) And I know there is division on Israel — when my rabbi made a positive comment about J-Street from the pulpit (and both of my rabbis sit on its advisory board), the chair of our Israel committee told me he felt like he had been punched in the belly.

    While I don’t happen to find any incoherence in Rabbi Yoffie’s position on Cast Lead, what is more to the point is your assumptions about Rabbi Yoffie’s job. He is not the shaliach tzibur, but a teacher and leader whose role involves guiding us towards the positions he thinks we ought to stand for. Just as Rabbi Schindler was ahead of his flock on Outreach, so Rabbi Yoffie has been ahead of his flock on Shabbat, on Torah study, and on too many other issues to mention — although admittedly, a leader can’t be so far ahead of his flock that they are unable to follow him.

    And I remind you again that URJ dues-payers are congregations, not individuals, and that members of URJ congregations are probably more divided in their opinions on macro issues than are the national lay leadership — where I admit there is very strong consensus, and agreement with the positions Yoffie articulates.

    • David A.M. Wilensky October 28, 2009 at 10:10 am #

      I’ve simply never met a URJ Jew who didn’t think gay people should be rabbis. And I grew up going to URJ events in Texas. To me, that speaks to a remarkable consensus.

      And I’ll remind you again that congregations are composed of dues-paying individuals. They accept that part of their dues goes to the URJ MUM dues that the congregation pays. It is unavoidable that a dues-paying URJ congregant is a URJ dues-payer.

      • Ben Sternman November 3, 2009 at 5:38 pm #

        You mistake majority for consensus. Yes, I would guess that a majority of Reform Jews think that LGBT people should be allowed to become rabbis and I believe that HUC-JIR has admitted a transgendered student, though I don’t think they’ve made it fully through the program yet.

        However, a consensus implies that people generally agree, even if they don’t like it too much. That is simply not the case on this issue. Point in fact, Dr. Eugene Borowitz, whom I respect and admire, refused to sign my s’micha even after a 45 minute conversation on the issue. And he’s not alone by a long shot. When I was first interviewing after ordination, one interview came to a grinding halt after it became clear I was gay. This significant minority does not agree – is not in consensus – with the majority. But they’re not about to speak out because they don’t want to be ostracized. Look at what is happening to the Anglican Church. It is splitting over this issue. The Reform Movement won’t split over the issue, but those who disagree strongly enough do split off and become deaffiliated or inactive members.

        Simply put, your experience is not wide enough to draw conclusions from anecdotal evidence. Anecdotal evidence can effectively illustrate points, but you should not be drawing conclusions from the anecdotes alone.

        • David A.M. Wilensky November 5, 2009 at 12:33 pm #

          You may be right. But even if it’s just a majority and not a consensus, I think it’s a vast majority.

  3. Jesse November 2, 2009 at 8:41 am #

    At the risk of flogging a dead horse…

    David, if you haven’t already read this article, I highly suggest it. It puts things in a little more perspective…


    • David A.M. Wilensky November 2, 2009 at 5:43 pm #

      There’s nothing dead about this horse, but I have read the article. Thanks.