...And the Debate It Sparked Among American Jewish Advocates

Participate Instead of Just Criticizing

By James Tisch

Published February 25, 2005, issue of February 25, 2005.
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Among his activities, uninformed criticism of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations appears to be one of Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s most frequent (“Confront the Extremists in Our Midst,” February 11). In his latest missive, his ignorance of the Presidents Conference’s statements of support for Israel’s policies, including for its disengagement plan, has a simple explanation. He does not read our statements and rarely attends our meetings, though president of one of our largest member agencies.

On this page, Yoffie wrote: “nearly a year after Sharon announced his plan for disengagement from Gaza, the Presidents Conference still has not issued a clear, unequivocal statement of support for that plan.” In fact, immediately after the Knesset approved the disengagement plan, the Presidents Conference did issue a clear and unequivocal statement of support with the headline: “Jewish Leaders Support Knesset Decision on Disengagement.” We also expressed our support for Israeli decisions at the recent Sharm el-Sheikh summit.

We engaged in a process of small group consultations with our member organizations to fully air their views on disengagement and other important subjects. In a rare appearance, Yoffie attended one of those sessions. The issue of disengagement and the timing of a statement were discussed. Many major organizations supported the government’s policy, but felt a statement was premature. (The effort of another member organization to gather endorsements for a statement failed in large part for the same reason.) We then presented this issue to a full Presidents Conference meeting and the feeling of the majority was publicly reported. A few days later, once the Knesset voted — a decision that allowed for a clear consensus of support — we issued the statement referred to above.

Yoffie made yet another baseless accusation when he wrote: “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.” Not surprisingly, he does not know that we already have.

In our statement after the Knesset vote on disengagement, we also said, “The ninth anniversary of the assassination of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin should be a forceful reminder of the need to condemn those who engage in exhortations to violence and utilize extremist language, including threats on the life of the prime minister. While we understand that there can be legitimate differences on policy, these must be expressed in responsible and appropriate ways. We have seen that words of violence lead to acts of violence. Such irresponsible and dangerous calls as have been heard again in recent weeks must be condemned, regardless of the source. Government officials and religious and communal leaders have a special responsibility to exercise care in the language they employ as well as in seeking to isolate those who engage in incitement to violence.”

In a recent interview, Yoffie attacked the Presidents Conference for hosting a meeting — which he did not attend — where current assumptions on Palestinian demography were examined in a presentation that has also been made at two highly respected think-tanks. He acknowledged to a reporter that he was not at the meeting, nor did he know anything about the credentials of the speakers, nor what they said. But these facts did not slow his rush to criticize.

Nor did Yoffie attend a Presidents Conference presentation a couple of weeks later by two leading experts on Israel’s strategic situation, Shai Feldman and Asher Susser, both of whom made compelling cases in favor of the disengagement plan. Had Yoffie bothered to join his Presidents Conference colleagues on the current mission to Israel, he would have seen the amount of time being devoted to the disengagement plan, including meetings with officials and others involved in its development and implementation.

When Yoffie and his organization disagreed with Israeli policies, he did not hesitate from expressing those views or demanding the unified stand of the community behind them. In his earlier writings, he is critical of those with whom he disagrees, yet does not engage in debate at the Presidents Conference.

As a life-long member of the Reform movement that Yoffie purports to represent, I have never been asked my views. Often I am told by leading members of the Reform community that Yoffie does not speak for them. As Presidents Conference chairman, I am — and have always been — available to Yoffie to discuss these issues or to check his facts.

Every member organization has a right to an independent view and to dissent from a Presidents Conference position. However, disagreement cannot be an excuse not to be bound by common and agreed standards. Yoffie often publicly criticizes the structure and operating procedures of the conference, even though he was a member of the conference’s Committee on Process and Procedure during a two-year process that developed guidelines that cover these very issues. These guidelines were unanimously adopted by the full Presidents Conference after lengthy discussion and provide standards for dissent, including that “no member of the conference may expressly or by nuance, demean or denigrate consensus statements of the conference.”

Yoffie might respect this standard more were he to fulfill his responsibility “of regular participation in conference events.” Our offices are, after all, in the same building.

James Tisch is chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

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