(JTA) — The Reform movement expressed “deep disappointment” in the refusal of an Arab-Israeli lawmaker to enter a meeting with U.S. Jewish leaders because it was taking place in space shared by the Jewish Agency.
“This was an opportunity for us to engage in the complexities of the issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the internal Jewish-Arab issues in Israel,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement issued Friday, a day after Ayman Odeh, who heads the Arab Joint List, the third largest faction in the Knesset, refused to enter the offices of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
A meeting with the Presidents Conference “would have provided another opportunity to further the conversation and come closer to a solution,” Jacobs said.
The Reform leader said he was “pleased and proud” that the Presidents Conference decided to invite Odeh to the meeting.
“I am profoundly disappointed by MK Ayman Odeh’s decision to walk away from that important opportunity for him, for the cause of equality in Israel, and for the Conference of Presidents,” Jacobs said.
In refusing to enter the premises, Odeh citing the Jewish Agency’s role in advancing immigration to Israel and its affiliation with the Jewish National Fund and the World Zionist Organization. He said policies favoring Jewish immigration to Israel are seen among Arab-Israelis as a means of demographically marginalizing them. Odeh also said the JNF, which administers much of the land in Israel, discriminates against non-Jews and that the WZO funds settlement in the West Bank.
Odeh on his U.S. trip intended in part to recruit U.S. Jews to the cause of advancing Arab equality in Israel.
In a Facebook post, Odeh said: “I believe in the power of talking to one another, because isolation is the wrong way. But as for major institutions of the Zionist movement or government offices like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption: it isn’t that we have a problem with them; it is that they are the problem.”
Odeh, who balked in the Manhattan building lobby after realizing the Presidents Conference office space was shared with the Jewish Agency, offered to meet elsewhere. But Presidents Conference officials refused, calling his demand for a move of the meeting “outrageous.”
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency, posted on Facebook a rejoinder, listing agency programs that specifically assist the Arab sector.
“Along with our core mission of ingathering the exiles of the Jewish people via aliyah, the Jewish Agency is proud to serve all the citizens of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity, which we view as an integral part of our Zionist vision,” he said.
Jacobs, who had hosted Odeh earlier in the week at a meeting at a Manhattan synagogue that the Reform movement described as “inspiring,” said the lawmaker missed an opportunity.
“His decision doesn’t support the important cause of dialogue to promote equality and coexistence in Israel,” Jacobs said. “We hope MK Odeh finds the way to repair the damage and build bridges of dialogue in good faith.”