The decision by the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) that any member organization supporting the BDS movement could be expelled from the council has generated a wider discussion among Jewish leaders as to where to draw red lines when it comes to Israel.
The action is seen as setting a red line for the Jewish community to where it should stand on certain issues. In this case, Jewish groups that partner with or embrace anti-Zionism are viewed as outside of the Jewish “big tent.”
The JCRC’s resolution, adopted overwhelmingly by a vote of 62-13 with eight abstentions, resolves that no member group “shall partner with — in particular by co-sonsoring events primarily led or co-led by, or by signing on to statements primarily organized or co-organized by — a self-identified Jewish organization that declares itself to be anti-Zionist.”
The resolution was primarily in response to a move by one of its members, the Boston Workmen’s Circle, in supporting a petition circulated by the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace group, that criticized efforts by supporters of Israel to “target organizations that support Palestinian rights, particularly the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement.”
David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella group of Jewish community relations network made up of 125 community relations councils and 17 national Jewish agencies, said his organization fully supports the move by the Boston JCRC.
“[It] is very in line with what JCPA would do as well. We would not support an organization that openly embraces BDS or denies Israel’s right to exist, coming or staying in our network,” he told JNS.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Great Washington, applauded the work of Boston JCRC and its executive director, Jeremy Burton, for navigating such a loaded issue.
“I have tremendous respect for Jeremy and the Boston Jewish community — one of the leading and most innovation JCRCs the country. Over the years, they have tackled very difficult issues, and I’m sure the decision was done in an inclusive manner and a thoughtful manner,” he said.
Barry Shrage, who served for more than 30 years as president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and is now a professor at Brandeis University, told JNS he was “very proud” of the decision made by the JCRC.
‘Precedent’ for Jewish community
Shrage believes that the decision by the Boston JCRC may set a precedent for the wider Jewish community on how to handle decisions by member organizations that may partner or align with groups that are deemed anti-Israel, anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic.
“It allows for everyone to take a look at the issues in a series way,” he said. “I think it should set a precedent; I don’t think many communities would have a problem with it.”
Nevertheless, Halber contends that each Jewish community and its representative organizations are unique — both geographically and demographically — and what occurred in Boston may be different than what other communities face.
“I think that often when a certain JCRC takes an action, that question [of precedent] naturally comes up. The reality is that JCRCs — whether part of a federation or on their own — are autonomous and represent their own communities,” he said.
He added that it does “provide guidance if this situation replicates itself in the future. Does that necessarily mean if Boston went one way that every other JCRC would follow suit? Not necessarily.”
Halber, who said that his own community hasn’t really had to contend with one of its own members aligning or partnering with an anti-Zionist group, said that this could indeed be a future challenge.
“This is a very new thing, and the situation they dealt with was rather unique. Time will tell whether it really is a local thing that Boston had to deal with or whether something other JCRCs could extrapolate from.”
For its part, the Boston Workmen’s Circle slammed the resolution, saying in a statement by its board of directors that the decision “conflicts with traditional Jewish values that respect diversity of opinion and encourage robust, honest and inclusive dialogue.”
“It sets a dangerous precedent of condemnation by association by placing a political litmus test on Council membership based on partnerships.”
Judaism changing in America
The Jewish community has always wrestled with its place in American society. Like many other religious groups in the country over the years, it has become increasingly secular and assimilated into the broader American culture.
As such, leaders have attempted to grapple with how to maintain a Jewish identity amid this trend.
Shrage explained that it’s important for the Jewish community to be both particularistic and universalistic in its approach.
“The Jewish community can be particularistic with a concern about Israel, Jewish identity and Jewish education, but at the same time, to be universalistic and express concern about immigrants, human rights and related issues,” he said. “Our credentials as a community that cares deeply about tikkun olam and the world are clear, but that doesn’t mean giving up our own claim on our own identity and our claim on Israel. Those things are not to be sacrificed.”
“The bottom line is we are a community that is Zionist,” he said. “And we are happy to welcome anyone in our tent that is straightforwardly Zionist. We are here to fight for its [Israel’s] existence; we believe in its existence and we believe in what Israel means to the Jewish people and our struggle over thousands of years. That is not negotiable.”
Nevertheless, in recent years there has been growing concern regarding how Jewish communities should handle both Jewish individuals and organizations that are avowedly anti-Zionist.
In 2018, the Jewish community in Durham, NC, came under scrutiny for employing activists with Jewish Voice for Peace.
Additionally, groups such as IfNotNow — an anti-Israel group that has drawn headlines for pushing the Palestinian narrative at Jewish summer camps, as well as accosting Birthright groups at airports — have many members who are graduates of very same Jewish institutions, including summer camps, Birthright and campus groups that they now seek to question, undermine or even abolish.
Similarly, Boston Workmen’s Circle, which has deep roots in socialism that was prevalent among early Jewish immigrants from Europe, has now taken on a mantle of extreme progressive politics that has become a bridge too far for most of the mainstream Jewish community.
“I think this is most painful for JCRC because in a way, the Workmen’s Circle is a storied organization with their focus on the disappearing secular Yiddish culture and their outreach to individuals who may not have chosen other forms of Jewish education,” noted Shrage. “But on the other hand, when they choose to align themselves with inherently anti-Israel or anti-Zionist or non-Zionist groups, it means that they chose not to be part of what is virtually a wall-to-wall Zionist commitment of the Jewish people.”
Halber said groups such as the JCRC do not seek to be the thought police of the Jewish community.
“We are here to broaden the table, to bring people into the community and provide a space for them. I deal with everyone from the Americans for Peace Now to CUFI [Christians United for Israel]. And I have no problem working with both groups. That’s a testament to the broad table and nuance we are able to bring,” he said.
Shrage added that Judaism has many different components — religious, spiritual, social — but that is also has a deep commitment to the idea of a Jewish people.
“There are 7 million Jews living in Israel. Anything that endangers them really endangers every part of the Jewish identity.”