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Left and Right Mostly Agree: Federation Trips to Settlements Could Be a Good Thing

The day after a watershed decision by the Jewish Federations of North America to allow some of its trips to visit the West Bank, the organization is hearing an unusual sound: Applause from both sides of the Jewish communal aisle.

Hawkish and dovish Jewish leaders are cheering the October 26 board vote for wildly different reasons. In the meantime, it’s not yet entirely clear what, exactly, is being cheered.

“Of course it’s good,” said Mort Klein, national president of the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, and a supporter of the settlement movement. “This is the heartland of the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, who leads the left-wing rabbinical group T’ruah, which opposes settlements, said she agreed that the visits could serve a useful purpose.

“There’s an educational value in everyone who visits Israel…visiting with both Israelis and Palestinians, including Israelis who live in settlements,” she said

The intense scrutiny of the vote, which was not meant to be public, comes at a time when hopes of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are fading, and divisions within local Jewish federations over the conflict are growing. Observers seem primed for major changes to the communal status quo.

In fact, the JFNA is being cagey about what it actually decided October 26. A leaked email sent before the vote by the group’s national president, Jerry Silverman, alluded to two impending decisions — one on whether a specific subsidiary could send trips to Palestinian-controlled portions of the West Bank, and one on whether all JFNA missions could visit Israeli-controlled portions of the West Bank.

Yet in a statement, the JFNA said only that it had voted to allow trips run by the subsidiary, the Israel Action Network, to visit areas “not historically visited by JFNA staff;” presumably meaning Israeli settlements and Palestinian-administered territories on the West Bank. Israel Action Network has taken its trips to those areas in the past, but only became a subsidiary of the JFNA in recent months.

The statement did not mention how the board had voted on the question of whether all JFNA missions can visit Israeli settlements, and a spokesperson for the JFNA did not respond to an inquiry about the second vote. A person familiar with the proceedings, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, told the Forward that the second vote had not taken place, and no decision was taken on whether to extend the policy allowing visits to the West Bank to all JFNA missions.

Still, the decision to allow even one of its subsidiaries to travel to the West Bank appears to set JFNA apart from other mainstream Jewish groups like Birthright, which doesn’t allow its trips to cross the Green Line.

Klein, whose organization does take groups to visit the settlements, said that more groups should go: “Of course they should go there. I beg all the organizations to go there.”

Jacobs’s group also sends trips to the West Bank, in collaboration with Breaking the Silence, the organization of former Israeli soldiers that opposes the occupation. “I would hope that any federation mission trips that visit settlements would do so in such a way as to understand the impact of those settlements on Palestinians who are living in the West Bank, as well as on the Israelis who are defending, paying for [and] living with the settlements,” Jacob said.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the former president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which administered the Israel Action Network before handing it off to the JFNA earlier this year, also told the Forward that he supported the JFNA board’s decision.

The sole dissenter among communal leaders contacted by the Forward was Naomi Dann, spokesperson for the leftist group Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the movement to impose boycotts, divestment and sanctions on Israel. Dann said that she opposed the idea of the JFNA sending groups to visit settlements, even if those trips included visits to Palestinian-controlled parts of the West Bank.

“I think it is a mistake for the JFNA, if they’re serious about moving towards peace, to do something that legitimizes the status quo,” she said.

Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at nathankazis@forward.com or follow him on Twitter, @joshnathankazis.

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