During a recent visit to the Forward’s newsroom, Jerry Silverman, president and CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, was brimming with enthusiasm for the upcoming annual gathering of local Jewish charity federations nationwide, known as the General Assembly, which will take place this year not in the United States, but in Jerusalem.
The GA’s 2013 program, he stressed, will emphasize the group’s openness to “dialogue” and “questions,” particularly from young Jews, with no holds barred.
“We need new thinking, new minds around the table,” emphasized Silverman, a former senior executive with the Stride Rite Corp. and Levi Strauss & Co.
But asked if the confab — one of the most important on the Jewish calendar — would include any discussion of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, Silverman vigorously shook his head. His body language told a story of its own as he held his hands out in front of him as if pushing something away.
“I don’t use the word ‘occupation,’” he said. “We as an organization don’t get into the political arena.”
Yet on its website devoted exclusively to the GA, JFNA boasts that the gathering “tackles the most critical issues of the day” and brings together Jews “from North America and Israelis from across the political spectrum to discuss issues facing Israel.”
One such session advertised on the GA website promises to address one of Israel’s most sensitive political issues: the question, as JFNA puts it, of the Israeli rabbinate’s “absolute control over marriage and divorce in Israel.”
The JFNA summary of the session asks: “Should the Orthodox establishment continue to have exclusive authority over marriage and divorce in the Jewish State?” and details a panel consisting of feminists, civil libertarians, business people and a representative of the Reform Judaism movement — but no representative of Israel’s Orthodox establishment.
Asked if this was not political, Silverman replied, “The question of recognizing marriage in Israel has a direct effect on Diaspora Jews.” But when it comes to addressing Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, he said, “we won’t be in the room making the call….It’s not something we create real dialog about in the GA.”
The last point may be accurate. But Silverman’s claim that the GA wholly eschews addressing the occupation (or whatever term Silverman uses to refer to the situation in which 2.6 million stateless Palestinians live on a territory under Israeli control overseen by a military government) does not seem entirely correct. The GA’s schedule includes, among other things:
• An “invitation only” session focusing on the Israel Action Network, the group set up to fight anti-Israel activism on U.S. college campuses, where critics of Israel target the occupation relentlessly. According to the website, this session “builds upon efforts throughout the Jewish community to counter assaults on Israel’s legitimacy.” The session, according to the website, will discuss the network’s campaign to “define discourse on Israel [and] effectively reach out to progressives.”
• A session devoted to “making the case for Israel,” which promises: “In this session, we will learn about incredible initiatives that are inspiring a new generation to engage with Israel — from talking peace through martial arts to understanding Israel via its history.”
• A session entitled “How to Effectively Speak Out for Israel in a Changing World” in which “diplomatic and communications experts, sharing the latest polling, messaging and public opinion research” will educate attendees on “new tools and approaches to help us support Israel, both in our own communities and across the country.”
• A session on “delegitimization” of Israel addressing “assaults on Israel’s legitimacy [that] lurk on campus, on the op-ed page, in city hall and in the corporate boardroom” that promises to help participants “craft effective messaging and outreach to vulnerable constituencies.”
• A session that will examine “the deep long-standing ties” between the United States and Israel and how “the political and security challenges of the Middle East have sometimes put strains on the relations between these two close allies.”
Asked about these sessions, Joe Berkofsky, JFNA’s communications director, denied they represented any discrepancy. “None of the GA sessions you list are about the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “These sessions deal largely with advocating for Israel, which is a major concern of our community.”
Larry Cohler-Esses is the Forward’s senior investigative writer. He joined the staff in December 2008. Previously, he served as Editor-at-Large for the Jewish Week, an investigative reporter for the New York Daily News, and as a staff writer for the Jewish Week as well as the Washington Jewish Week. Larry has written extensively on the Arab-Jewish relations both in the United States and the Middle East. His articles have won awards from the Society for Professional Journalists, the Religious Newswriters Association, the New York Press Association and the Rockower Awards for Jewish Journalism, among others. Larry Cohler-Esses can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.