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JFNA: We have no problem with the word ‘Zionism’

The Jewish Federations of North America umbrella group is denying a report in The Jewish Press that appears to question federation leaders’ Zionist bona fides.

It all stems from a diatribe by longtime JFNA critic Richard Wexler, who suggested on his blog that JFNA officials have a problem with Zionism. It might have stayed there, but then The Jewish Press ran with the story.

Foul! cried JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman in a letter circulated after the report.

Here’s the story: Working groups from the JFNA’s Global Planning Table — a new body meant to bring more voices into the conversation about how to spend the federations’ overseas allocations — are meeting this summer to help federations figure out their future priorioties. In a preliminary meeting held in June, there was a discussion about how to support Israeli civil society. Silverman said the talk focused on "how federations could work to strengthen Israel and the connections between Israel and Diaspora Jews by focusing on such issues as religious pluralism."

Here’s where the dispute lies.

Silverman says (in a letter circulated after the Jewish Press report):

While the working group made significant progress upon the issues and priorities, there was some disagreement about the precise language to describe its vision in its recommendations back to the larger GPT Committee. Specifically, one member of the working group recommended using the phrase "enhancing the Zionist enterprise." Another member of the group recommended using the phrase "enhancing the State of Israel." Members discussed a variety of language options for the vision statement. However: the working group made no decision about language. It did not vote on any specific language. It produced no report. (emphasis Silverman’s)

Wexler, who was not present at the meeting but says he talked to participants, interpreted that as: "JFNA’s leaders insistence that the cherished concept ‘zionism’ — the word that has inspired generations — be excised from a Global Planning Table Work Group Report because ‘zionism is too controversial.’"

The Jewish Press ran with that, prompting a response from Silverman charging that the story "absurdly and falsely calls into question the Jewish Federations’ unshakable commitment to Israel and Zionist principles." Silverman clarified in his letter that there was no report and this was merely a preliminary discussion. He added:

Where there was clear and firm consensus, however, is that the work being proposed will strengthen Israel and the connections between American Jews, Israelis and Israel. On policies and priorities, the working group reaffirmed our deepest support for Israel and Zionist principles.

That wasn’t good enough for Wexler, who charged: "If only it were so; if only that had been the permitted discussion at the GPT Work Group; but it wasn’t." He writes in his blog:

The truth, based on an actual investigation: At a Global Planning Table Working Group meeting, federation leaders suggested the inclusion of the core value of "zionism" (not, as alleged, "zionist entity" or "zionist enterprise" and not in substitution for "the State of Israel."). It was the JFNA Board Chair herself who publicly objected to the inclusion of "zionism" as "too controversial to be in a Global Planning Table Vision Statement." (This is impossible to deny; the entire Work Group heard this rant.) (emphasis Wexler’s)

What’s impossible, from the vantage point of those of us who were not in the room, is to sort out how significant this really is (if at all). First, it’s not clear whether Wexler’s account has any accuracy or whether he’s misinterpreting a discussion he didn’t witness firsthand. Second, even if there’s some truth to Wexler’s version of events, how significant is it that some JFNA higher-ups in the room (Kathy Manning, the chairwoman of the organization’s board of trustees, denies saying what Wexner appears to attribute to her) preferred using some term other than Zionism to describe the federations’ Israel-related work?

This incident may say less about JFNA than it does about how toxic the discussion of Israel has become in the American Jewish community. Ugh.