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.
“I think people are upset that this decision was made without any community consultation,” said Lev Hirschhorn, a current participant in Avodah’s Chicago program and one of the drafters of the petition. “To me this is the equivalent of if Avodah was going to look at the issue of poverty in Chicago… and not go to the South Side.”
Avodah Executive Director Marilyn Sneiderman rejected the claim that the trip amounted to a challenge to the organization’s pluralism. “Everyone has a place within Avodah,” she said. Sneiderman added: “This is not an Avodah trip, and it’s not an Avodah grant. The bottom line is, this is a grant for Pursue.”
Additional controversy has focused on the nature of the grant subsidizing the trip. The money is coming from the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. Hirschhorn said that an Avodah official told members of the Chicago program that the trip was arranged under pressure from the Schusterman Foundation.
In an interview, Messinger said that the trip was the Schusterman Foundation’s idea. “They suggested it, and we agreed to do it,” Messinger said. The agreement came as part of the Schusterman Foundation’s larger general support for Pursue.
“Two of our most important values and priorities at the foundation are to give young people a deeper connection to the Jewish value of service and a deeper firsthand understanding of Israel,” said Lisa Eisen, the Schusterman Foundation’s national director. “Their boards signed off on the grant agreements, and from what we understand, there has been a lot of interest and enthusiasm about the trip.”
Asked whether the foundation would object if Pursue’s trip visited the West Bank or spent significant time talking about the Occupation, Eisen wrote in an email, “We have complete faith in our partners to design an engaging, enriching curriculum for the participants to explore Israel through the lens of service and social action.”
Deheeger said that he had been in discussions with Avodah leadership since August about his concerns over the trip. Deheeger, who joined Avodah’s staff in August 2010, has been the main point of contact for the 14 Avodah participants living together in a house in Chicago and working at local social service organizations. Avodah, whose name means “service” in Hebrew, organizes social service volunteers who live communally in houses in several cities across the country. It includes a traditional Jewish text study component along with its service projects. Deheeger was responsible for orchestrating the text study program for the Chicago participants.
Deheeger, who identified himself as a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, said that he became more involved in the debate over Israel and the Palestinians after November 2010, when activists with Jewish Voice for Peace disrupted a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at JFNA’s General Assembly, in New Orleans. “They made me realize that I believe this is the No. 1 social justice issue facing the American Jewish community,” Deheeger said of the JVP activists.
On October 26, Deheeger gave two months’ notice of his intention to leave Avodah.
Hirschhorn said that members of the Chicago group were generally understanding of Deheeger’s decision. “Even people who disagree with Michael politically see what he’s doing; he’s acting on his values, and they say that’s a really admirable thing,” Hirschhorn said.
But the backlash against the planned trip has sparked heated debate among Avodah participants and alumni. In an e-mail exchange on an Avodah listserv provided by Sneiderman to the Forward, an alumna named Leila Bilick leveled harsh criticism against the petition opposing the trip.
“I… feel that pluralism is being misunderstood,” Bilick wrote. “You do not need to feel comfortable at all times in order to feel you are part of a pluralistic community.”
Others cite guidelines around debate over Israel such as those recently adopted by the Jewish campus organization Hillel that they feel serve to exclude them from the Jewish community. “Avodah, AJWS, in the United States, are some of the last places in the mainstream Jewish community where Jews across the political spectrum can feel welcome and included,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, an Avodah alum and staff member at JVP.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.