Booing Eric Yoffie


The last time I covered a speech by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who heads the Union for Reform Judaism, he was preaching the merits of gay unions at the late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University deep in Virginia. It got him booed.

Apparently, he’s inured to it. He barely raised an eyebrow today when he got booed at the first J Street conference, when he said Richard Goldstone should be "ashamed of himself" for agreeing to probe alleged Israeli war crimes during last year’s Gaza war under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Yoffie, of course, has the rabbinical fondness for afflicting the comfortable, but his equanimity also has to do with the fact that in both cases, the boos were isolated and scattered, his hosts chastised the interlopers — and because he also earned healthy applause.

Yoffie and J Street director Jeremy Ben-Ami were joined in a town hall debate on what it means to be pro-Israel. He and Ben-Ami agreed on much — most pronouncedly, on how national Jewish groups have their "head in the sand" when it comes to making clear to Israel what they said were the perils of its settlement policy.

Yoffie framed his warnings of ignoring the perils of continued settlement with intimations that the notion of a single state is creeping steadily toward the mainstream and elegantly wrapped it up  with a subtle but sharp rebuke of leftists he said were insufficiently alarmed about Iran’s nuclear ambitions (applause lines are in bold):

And for those who say that the "one-state solution" is a scare tactic and an exaggeration, I say: wake up. Look around. It is already happening, right now. And not only among certain Palestinian factions, but on our own campuses here in America. And I do not refer to campus anti-Semites and Israel haters, who will despise us no matter what. I refer to reasonable and moderate groups who are looking at the facts on the ground and are beginning to say: "We have tried for 40 years. A two-state solution would be best but it just isn’t possible. Let’s see if we can find a democratic framework to accommodate everyone."

Too many American Jewish groups have their heads in the sand on these matters. They talk to each other or to themselves, but not to their own children on campus. They embrace those elements of the American religious right that endorse settlement as a religious principle without realizing that the influence of these groups is not growing but declining. But those of us who do the actual work of making Israel’s case with religious groups, communal groups, and local leaders know full well the damage that the settlement issue causes in grassroots America.

You can convince Americans of the miracle of Israel’s founding and the justice of her struggle against terror and rejection.

You can convince them that it makes demographic and political sense for Israel to trade settlements near Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority in return for land elsewhere in Israel.

But you cannot convince Americans that it makes sense for an Israel that supports a Palestinian state to maintain a large settler population in the heart of the West Bank where that state must come into being.  The simple fact is that it makes no sense at all, and Americans, being a sensible people, know that.

Too much of the American Jewish community responds to this problem by saying things that convince no one.

Settlements are not the issue, they say. I agree that they may not be the issue, but they are certainly an issue — and one that threatens the Zionist enterprise and that we ignore at our peril.

Jews should be able to settle anywhere in the Land of Israel, they say. I agree, if those Jews are prepared to live under Palestinian sovereignty. But the overwhelming majority of settlers are not willing to live in a Palestinian state-which means that what they are really calling for is permanent occupation.

Israel has shown that it can withdraw settlers, they say. In theory true, but the withdrawal from the "ideological settlements" would be ten times larger than all of the withdrawals carried out in the past, each of which was profoundly traumatic for the people of Israel. Historical experience is more of an argument against the possibility of such a withdrawal than it is in favor.

American Jewish leadership is right now focused on the threat of Iran. I share their fears, and I favor the immediate imposition of tough economic sanctions-multilateral if possible, unilateral if not. In my view, our government is right to affirm that sanctions are the preferred response, but that no options should be taken off the table. This is not the time for a full discussion of this matter, but I will say that if Iran becomes a nuclear power, some Arab states will quietly drift into Iran’s orbit, while others will move quickly to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. In these circumstances, any possibility of an Israeli-Palestinian peace will evaporate.

Time is not the ally of peace in this situation, and inaction is not an option. The stakes for Israel are much too high. I am therefore puzzled by those on the left who  appear content to allow the situation to continue as it is. They seem far more prepared to tell us what should not be done than what should be done to deal with this grave threat to Israel’s very existence.

But for those on the right, my question is: If you fear that you will wake up in two, three, or four years and confront a radical Iranian state brandishing nuclear bombs, why do you not fear that you will wake up in two, three, or four years and confront an emerging consensus — not only from our enemies but also from our friends — that a two-state solution must give way to a one-state solution? The latter possibility is no less likely and in some ways no less dangerous than the first.

There was lots of applause during this part of Yoffie’s speech, and Ben-Ami started out by wholeheartedly agreeing with Yoffie on this point, repeating the "heads in the sand" line. But he differed with Yoffie on the Reform leader’s defense of Israel’s actions during the Gaza war (Yoffie’s blast last winter at J Street for its criticism of Israel’s conduct is what led to Monday’s encounter); Israel had the natural right to defend itself against rocket attacks. Ben-Ami agreed, but said it was not wrong to criticize Israel’s response as disproportionate:

The fallout from the Goldstone report is exactly the kind of reason why (Israel’s bombardment of Gaza) is not wise.

Ben-Ami and Yoffie appeared to agree with one another that Goldstone’s report was flawed, but that Israel should investigate its actions during the war. That’s my conclusion from a re-reading; during the town hall, their emphases made them seem at odds. Yoffie was excoriating in his criticism of Goldstone, especially for agreeing to accept a mandate from an institution so chronically biased against Israel (booed line in bold):

Its reasoning is shaky in some places and more often absurd. The accusations against Palestinians are expressed in language that is understated and restrained, while the accusations against Israel are expressed in wording that is sweeping, bold, and absolute. And upon closer inspection, many of these charges include phrases such as "it seems that," "it would appear," and "we have no definite proof but…" In an interview in the Forward, Goldstone acknowledged that nothing in the report could be used as proof in a court of law and that it contained no actual "evidence" of wrongdoing by Israel. Among the public that heard about this report and the diplomatic community that seized upon it, I doubt if one person in a hundred is aware of what we are now told is the report’s limited scope. Didn’t Justice Goldstone have an obligation to make this clear from the beginning? And this too: you cannot be a moral agent if you serve an immoral master, and Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself — ashamed of himself — for working under the auspices of the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Yoffie rejected a question that suggested that Israel’s prewar siege of Gaza was in itself an act of war; he said Israel complied with international law in allowing in the requisite supplies. Some in the audience cried out in protest ("Not true!") and they were rebuked by Jane Eisner, the Forward editor and moderator, who advised them that if they were unhappy with the format, they coud leave. During a slightly fraught pause, someone shouted out "You liar!" and Yoffie (and the hall) burst into laughter at the allusion to President Obama’s congressional encounter with heckler Rep. Joe Wilson (R-N.C.).

One minor, but intriguing point, where Yoffie and Ben-Ami disagreed: Yoffie said Jewish groups at the national level were guilty of repressing dissent, whereas at the local level, especially in synagogues, there was much more disagreement. Ben-Ami said he found the reverse was true: He was able to dissent on the national level, but had been uninvited from more synagogues and JCC than he could count.

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