Federations Find Youth Outreach Tricky Terrain at Yearly Meeting

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published November 10, 2010, issue of November 19, 2010.
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At this year’s General Assembly of The Jewish Federations of North America, young Jews took to the streets of New Orleans to work on social service projects. They heard Jewish leaders exhort them about the dangers of the “delegitimization” of Israel. And some young Jews were ejected from the gathering when they stood up in the middle of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to protest Israeli policies with shouts and signs.

Federation leaders made much of their effort to include young people at the the annual gathering of more than 3,000 Jewish professionals and donors that ended on November 9. Their outreach effort included subsidies for 600 students to attend the conference, most of them affiliated with campus Hillels. The program featured a focus on Jewish social service, in part to engage younger Jews, and an emphasis on efforts to counter the so-called delegitimization of the Jewish state, including on college campuses.

The protest staged during Netanyahu’s speech may have laid bare the distance between some young Jews and a Jewish leadership that claimed to be eager to engage them. But the pro-Israel response of many of the other young Jews at the conference also demonstrated cleavages among the young people themselves, despite the pretensions of the protesters to speak for their generation.

“I think the point is more that there needs to be space for people like us, people who don’t fit into the paradigm that’s been laid out,” said recent University of California, Berkeley graduate Eyal Mazor, 22, a member of the group that disrupted Netanyahu’s speech. “We need to be seen as a legitimate part of the Jewish community.”

But Danielle Kutas, a student at SUNY Binghamton, said, “What they did was disrespectful and not effective.”

Hillel students cited a variety of reasons for attending the conference. Some stressed the importance of the day of

service incorporated into the G.A., a new addition to the program, during which participants traveled to volunteer projects around New Orleans. But many of the students said that networking — both with other students and with Jewish communal leaders — was, for them, the main draw. None brought up efforts to oppose delegitimization as a key issue, although many of the Hillel students were eager, the day after the disruption, to condemn the protesters.

Communal leaders said that their effort to bring students to the conference undercut protesters’ complaints about exclusion. “The community gets it right when it says we’re not just giving you a symbolic presence, but we’re inviting you into the discussion,” said Wayne Firestone, president of Hillel.

But one Hillel student pointed out that although Hillel professionals spoke on G.A. panels, no undergraduate students were included as speakers.

And though conference leaders claimed to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from delegitimization, the panels promoted as addressing the issue contained no public critics of Israeli policy. The audience heard instead from Republican messaging guru Frank Luntz and from representatives of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the right-leaning Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

Five panels addressed the topic of delegitimization, and each of the conference’s keynote speakers — Netanyahu, Vice President Joe Biden, and Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni — spoke of the seriousness of the threat. Biden and Netanyahu both praised the Israel Action Network, a new $6 million effort that is sponsored by the JFNA and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and will facilitate local responses to efforts to boycott Israel.

Some students said that they appreciated the effort to fight boycott movements on their campuses. “It speaks wonders to be supported,” said Aily Leibtag, a McGill University senior. “It means a lot to me to know that [the Jewish community cares] about what’s going on for us.”

But those who disrupted Netanyahu’s speech, a group of 14 Jews ranging in age from 17 to 39, convened by the left-wing activist group Jewish Voice for Peace, said that they were responding to the G.A.’s focus on opposing delegitimization. The protesters accused Israel of delegitimizing itself through proposed legislation that would impose a loyalty oath on non-Jews who become citizens and through its insistence on maintaining and expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank

Five of the activists rose and shouted, one at a time, during Netanyahu’s speech, separated by pauses of a few minutes. The crowd’s reaction to the protesters grew markedly angry as the disruptions continued.

The fourth protester to interrupt Netanyahu appeared to be pulled down violently by people sitting around him. The JTA news agency reported that the fifth protester, a woman, was grabbed by a male delegate who placed her in a chokehold. And a Hillel student said another Hillel student sitting near her pushed a protester off his chair as he stood on it to interrupt Netanyahu’s speech.

Netanyahu paused his talk during the disruptions, but completed his speech. In response to the first protester, who shouted “the loyalty oath delegitimizes Israel,” Netanyahu responded: “I’m going to talk about delegitimizing Israel, but they really have the wrong address.”

Some Hillel students said that they supported the crowd’s reaction. But Jenna Weinberg, 21, a third-year student at the University of Michigan and a student member of Hillel’s international board of governors, said she thought the violence of the crowd’s response was “inappropriate.”

She said that though she didn’t approve of the protest, she saw some legitimacy in the activists’ complaints that their perspective was excluded from the G.A.

“Our community makes criticizing Israel a taboo and often ostracizes those that do criticize Israel,” Weinberg said. She said that most of the Hillel students attending the conference could be classified as centrist or right wing on the subject of Israel, with few doves taking part.

But JCPA vice president Martin Raffel, head of the new IAN, said that his group was not opposed to those who simply criticized Israeli policy. “This is to combat those forces who are trying to use economic and political measures to isolate and demonize Israel,” he said. “The people that are our adversaries here are not those who are criticizing a specific Israeli policy. There’s nothing wrong in that.”

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com

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