A three-day town hall debate by Jewish Council for Public Affairs members focused on issues ranging from civility and anti-Semitism to how the Jewish community can move forward after this summer’s polarizing rhetoric concerning Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons.
The theme of JCPA’s Oct. 11-13 conference was “Our Goal is Justice.” It was held at the Capitol Hilton in Washington and featured speakers from the federal government, assorted Jewish community relations councils, clergy and nonprofit organizations.
The keynote address was delivered by Rabbi Steve Gutow, who is stepping down in December after a decade as JCPA’s president. In a highly emotional speech, Gutow urged everyone to listen to those who disagree with them on Iran and the path to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Speaking over each other “cannot lead to good decision-making,” he said. If there is name calling rather than honest debate, moderates and liberals may be driven off, and they are needed as partners in the quest for a better world, Gutow said.
He pointed to attempts by some to isolate J Street, which he referred to as “a clear supporter of Israel.”
It is OK to criticize Israel, as long as it is done with civility, Gutow said.
“If we are going to have any credibility with the liberal community” and stave off the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and eliminate violence between Israelis and Palestinians, critism of Israel must be allowed, he added.
The Jewish population in America is less than 2 percent, so it is necessary for interfaith groups and activists to see Jews as partners, he said.
Jewish people can care about the plight of the Palestinians while strongly supporting Israel on issues of security, Gutow said, calling that “absolutely necessary for us as a moral community.” He said the Palestinians should be given “the resources to build their lives without hurting Israeli security.”
Also, he said, “Jews have to care” about poverty and immigration, although those are not necessarily issues affecting the majority of Jewish people.
A panel discussion on Iran, Israel and the American Jewish community focused also on the need for civility in discussions and what the Jewish community should do to heal now that the Iran agreement has been approved.
Discussions on Iran and sanctions against it will be on the agenda for the next 15 years, predicted Jeremy Burton, executive director of the JCRC of Greater Boston. “I don’t think this is over,” he said, “not in the slightest.”
However, “we have gotten past the toxic part,” he added. If both sides focus in on where the money Iran receives from sanctions relief is going, that could be “a unifying thing.”
Dov Waxman, a Northeastern University professor, cautioned that there are still “deep divisions” in the Jewish community and people need to “avoid the tendency to speak on behalf of the American Jews.”
When discussing Israeli security, there are “very different views” on how best to achieve that, he said.
Waxman questioned why the rhetoric concerning Iran was so heated while discussions on peace between Israel and the Palestinians had far less energy.
Other panel discussions covered income inequality, race relations after the rioting in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, drug policy reform and the Jewish role in civil rights work.
While there was a free flow of discussions throughout the town hall meeting, two of the panels, one on the relationship between the American people and Israel and another on BDS, were off the record.
Toward the end of the conference attendees adopted several resolutions.
The resolutions dealt with support for Syrian refugees and a definition of anti-Semitism recognizing that animosity toward Israel and Zionism “can cross the line between legitimate criticism and anti-Semitism.”
Also adopted were resolutions advocating the need for early childhood programs as a way to combat poverty, reform of America’s drug policy to place an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than incarceration and a call for advocacy work on paid sick leave.
A resolution calling for solidarity with Armenia and Armenian Americans in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide also was adopted.