Jewish leaders ask federations network to clarify position on Israeli settlements
Nearly two dozen current and former officials at local federations and community relations councils are calling on the Jewish Federations of North America to clarify its position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the umbrella group sponsored a conference promoting Israeli settlements earlier this month.
Eric Fingerhut, president of the federations network, sent a video message to the Arutz Sheva Jerusalem Conference in New York City on June 4, and the organization was listed among the event’s sponsors.
Twenty-three current and former heads of federations and relations councils, the political advocacy arms of local Jewish communities, sent a letter to Fingerhut Tuesday night asking him to explain why JFNA had supported the event.
“We urge Mr. Fingerhut to publicly explain why he made this decision; to clarify JFNA’s position on Israeli settlements, democracy and the two-state solution; and to commit not to sponsor or legitimize such far-right events, positions and speakers in the future,” the letter concluded.
Signatories include the leaders of federations in Maryland, Oregon and Missouri and past board chairs or directors of some of the largest federations and relations councils in the country, including those in Washington, D.C., Boston and Philadelphia.
“Jewish Federations make a point to speak to all sides of the political spectrum, left, right, and center, and have participated in conferences hosted by news organizations belonging to each of those camps,” the organization said in a statement. “Participating in these kinds of events obviously does not mean we endorse the views of other participants or even the organizers.”
A spokesperson for JFNA also described the letter as being “organized by J Street,” the liberal pro-Israel group that is critical of the Israeli settlements. A J Street representative said they had helped circulate the letter, though noted that not all the signatories were involved with their organization.
“We’re encouraged that many veteran Jewish communal leaders have signed on to express their concern about the JFNA’s decision to sponsor a controversial conference that was heavily linked with the settlement movement,” Logan Bayroff, J Street’s head of communications, said in a statement.
JFNA, which represents more than 140 local federations, and UJA-Federation of New York, were both among the sponsors of the conference. Speakers included a number of far-right figures, and included panels on how to increase Jewish control over East Jerusalem and spur investment in Jewish settlers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The organization said at the time that it did not ask to be listed as a sponsor, had not seen the agenda before signing on and did not financially support the event. It has previously sponsored conferences organized by Ha’aretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper.
The federations spokesperson said the organization does not have a position on the existence or continued construction of Israeli settlements, but supports “the creation of a demilitarized Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel” and does not fund capital projects in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Political tensions inside Federations network
The letter to Fingerhut was signed by Michael Gelman, past chair of the Jewish Federations of North America’s executive committee; Steve Gutow, former chief of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the national umbrella group for local relations councils; Alan Solomont, J Street’s chair and a former leader of the Boston Jewish federation; Nancy Kaufman, who previously led the Boston relations council and the National Council of Jewish Women; and Susie Gelman, past president of the Washington, D.C. federation and outgoing chair of the Israel Policy Forum, a center-left group.It was also supported by current leadership of the Jewish Federation of Howard County, which covers the suburbs outside Baltimore; Hank Kaplan, chair of the Portland, Oregon, community relations council; and Joe Pereles, who is on the board of the St. Louis Jewish Federation.
In addition to providing resources to its network of federations and lobbying in Washington, Jewish Federations of North America is one of the largest Jewish foundations in the country. The organization has been racked by tensions in recent years over what positions to take on both Israel and other political issues like abortion and racial justice.
Over the weekend, the organization temporarily suspended its participation in the Combat Antisemitism Movement — which it had closely partnered with in the past — after that group released a video condemning progressives and “woke antisemitism.”
Its annual conference, which was held in Israel this year, was subject to protests by Israeli and American Jews who objected to it hosting one of the architect’s of the proposed overhaul of Israel’s judicial system and wanted JFNA to take a stronger position against those changes.
And late last year, the federations network spun off the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which had coordinated political advocacy on behalf of dozens of local councils around the country, after JCPA’s support for the Black Lives Matter movement and other liberal causes alienated some large donors.
“While we understand that the JFNA seeks to promote dialogue and engagement across ideological and political lines, sponsoring this conference did nothing to advance that goal — and instead undercut major commitments and values that the JFNA is supposed to uphold,” signatories to Tuesday’s letter wrote to Fingerhut. “This sponsorship and public message of support sent precisely the wrong message about where JFNA and the vast majority of Jewish Americans stand.”