A social service trip to Israel may seem like an innocuous program for a Jewish social service organization. But at Avodah, a domestic Jewish anti-poverty group, one staff member has quit and others involved with the group have launched a protest petition amid heated argument sparked by the prospect of just such a trip.
The conflict follows the announcement of an Israel trip planned by Pursue, an alumni network jointly sponsored by Avodah, which focuses on service projects in the United States, and by American Jewish World Service, which works in underdeveloped countries. The Avodah staff member who resigned and some current participants and alumni of Avodah allege that the trip will not address Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Such a trip, they say, threatens to betray the commitment to confront social injustice that drew them to join the group.
The episode appears to underscore the extent to which Israel, once the unifier of the Jewish community, has become a source of division among some of its youth. The invitation of author Peter Beinart, whose essay drew attention to this problem last year, to the recent General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America highlighted the Jewish establishment’s effort to grapple with this problem.
“A trip like this, organized by a social justice organization, helps normalize the oppression of Palestinians by drawing attention away from the daily abuses that they’re suffering,” said Michael Deheeger, the Avodah staff member who quit over the trip.
Leaders of AJWS and Avodah say that it’s premature to criticize the content of the trip, which is scheduled for March 2012. “We’ve heard some concerns, and we’re going to take them under consideration,” said Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS. “I don’t know what the outcomes will be.”
American Jewish social justice groups like AJWS and Avodah make a point of not taking positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying that Israel is not part of their stated missions and can be a distraction from their work.
Avodah’s policy of avoiding a public stance on Israel has led some of the young people doing anti-poverty work with the group to see it as a rare space in the Jewish mainstream where anti-Zionist and non-Zionist Jews are tolerated. Partly as a result, the prospect of a trip to Israel has unleashed deep anxieties resting just beneath the surface.
A petition circulated among current Avodah participants and alumni demands that the trip include visits to the Palestinian territories and interactions with Palestinians who live there. As of November 8, the petition had attracted nearly 100 signatories. There are approximately 500 Avodah alumni and current participants.
The petition alleges that Avodah has “chosen sides” by sponsoring the Israel trip, and demands that if the trip is to take place, its itinerary should include visits to the occupied territories and interactions with Palestinians.
“While Avodah was previously a space where all political viewpoints on Israel-Palestine were welcome, the organization may now alienate a growing generation of Jews who see Israeli policy as inconsistent with Jewish social justice values,” the petition claims.
But Avodah and AJWS emphasize that such complaints are premature as no itinerary has been set. A spokesman for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which Pursue has hired to run the trip, told the Forward, “It’s too early to tell what this itinerary will look like.” But when pressed, the spokesman, Michael Geller, acknowledged that the JDC, which has often run similar programs for other groups, has never included social service work in the West Bank in its itineraries.
Founded in 2006 by Avodah and AJWS, Pursue offers programming for alumni of Avodah’s intensive yearlong anti-poverty programs in the United States, alumni of AJWS’s worldwide social action programs and others. The March trip will be Pursue’s first trip to Israel. AJWS, which sponsors social service trips around the world regularly, has not sent a group to Israel in roughly a decade.
Priced at $225, the heavily subsidized program was described on a Pursue e-mail list in late October as a service and learning trip that would include work on community projects and meetings with experts and government officials.