A speech last week by Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Jewish Labor Committee, surprised much of the audience with its harsh criticism of the Israeli government, leading at least one prominent guest, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, to walk out of the event.
The event, JLC’s annual Human Rights Awards Dinner, featured Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, an achievement that normally would have captured the most attention. But what surprised many at the event — distressing some — were the words chosen by Appelbaum, who, according to one communal leader, is known as a staunch friend of Israel.
Speaking before more than 350 guests, most of them from various trade unions, Appelbaum condemned what he called “new expressions of contempt for Israel within the Arab world,” a reference to the movement to delegitimize Israel. That contempt, he said, is at least partly rooted “in the conviction that Israel will never accept the right of the Palestinians to an independent state.”
But Appelbaum added that Israel was “cursed with a right-wing coalition government that’s regularly giving credence” to that point of view. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “talks a good game about a two-state solution,” he said, his administration “shamelessly” promotes “the construction of illegal settlements on the West Bank” — a policy that “severely impedes negotiations.” It’s a situation that Appelbaum likened to the employer “who comes to the bargaining table, telling us he wants a contract that’s a win-win for both sides, while, at the same time,” instructing his lawyers to work on petitions that would decertify the union.
As a result, he said, Hamas, which he branded a “terrorist” organization, is winning new support, while moderates who were once ready to negotiate peace are now backing away from that stance.
As Appelbaum concluded his remarks, calling on guests “to send a message” to the Israeli government in favor of “good-faith negotiations,” Shlomi Kofman, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, rose from his table and walked out of the event. Meanwhile, the remarks seemed to elicit a lukewarm response, failing to win the robust applause that followed other speeches.
Michael Miller, executive vice president and CEO of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, sat on stage close to Appelbaum as he delivered his speech, but he indicated his displeasure shortly afterward in a brief interview with The Jewish Week.
He knows Appelbaum as “a very strong supporter of the State of Israel, a defender of its values and its right to defend itself,” Miller said. “As a result, I was surprised by the stridency of his criticism of the current government of Israel, and I’ll take it up with Stuart personally. I’ll leave it at that.”
Later, Miller added that his organization has called on Appelbaum “time and again to support the State of Israel, which he’s done outspokenly, both as president of the JLC and as president of his union,” the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Contacted Monday, sources at the Israeli Consulate in New York said Kofman left the event because of “inappropriate statements vis-à-vis the Israeli government.” They declined comment on what Kofman considered inappropriate and on whether he, like Miller, would raise the matter in private conversations with JLC leaders. Kofman is a career diplomat who has also worked as chief of staff to right-wing members of the Knesset.
Appelbaum told The Jewish Week after his speech that he’s always considered himself a keen supporter of Israel and “its right to exist as a Jewish state within secure borders. Nothing has changed. But I’m concerned, as many people are, about Netanyahu’s policies on building new settlements,” which he believes are obstacles to the peace process.
Neither has anything changed at the JLC, which has supported a two-state solution for decades and has voiced criticism of Israeli actions in the past, he said. “The difference is not in our position,” he added, “but in how loudly we’ve articulated it” — at an annual dinner, rather than just in press releases and written statements.
Appelbaum said he believes that Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders of the Palestinian Authority also deserve blame for the failure of peace talks — not just Israel alone — and that he’s criticized them, as well, “perhaps in stronger terms.” He also said that several people approached him after his speech “to tell me they were glad” about the comments he made.
Indeed, two longtime members of the JLC, including the widow of Albert Shanker, the famed leader of the United Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers, said they backed Appelbaum’s remarks, even if they saw reality as a bit more complex.
“I think it’s good that he said them,” said Edie Shanker. “The reality is [that peace] is much harder to achieve,” she added. But the speech “reminded the crowd” that overcoming the obstacles to peace “are things we should be working on together.”
Eugene Glaberman, meanwhile, called Appelbaum’s remarks “true,” saying that they “needed to be said.”
Appelbaum’s speech may have caused an uproar three or four decades ago within the JLC, an organization formed in 1934 by Yiddish-speaking labor leaders as a response to the rise of Nazism in Europe. For years, much of the group’s membership aligned themselves with leaders of the Israeli Labor Party like Golda Meir, who, in 1969, famously told one newspaper that “there’s no such thing as a Palestinian people,” and brooked no criticism of the Jewish state.
But those views began changing as times changed, especially as Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin signed the Oslo accords, observers say.
Today, the group’s opposition to settlements is taking on an urgent tone, matching the views of other progressive Zionists, for at least two reasons. One is the fear that a continuation of the status quo would change the demographics of the region, leading to a bi-national state in place of a Jewish one. Another is the sense that to have any credibility at all on the left, including among those who support Israel but are disturbed by its policies, an organization like the JLC has to take a nuanced position.
Martin M. Schwartz, JLC’s executive director, alluded to that position by recalling that his organization supported Israeli officials after the Gaza flotilla incident, when many people criticized Israel for using excessive force, but sided with President Barack Obama last spring in his dispute with Netanyahu.
In addition to Appelbaum’s speech, the Jan. 12 dinner also featured remarks by Trumka and by Joseph T. Hansen, chairman of Change to Win, the coalition of labor unions formed in 2005 as an alternative to the AFL-CIO. While the two organizations are not necessarily adversaries, it’s not often that the heads of the two groups appear at the same event.
The dinner also honored three labor leaders and the CEO of Montefiore Medical Center, an agency of UJA-Federation of New York.