Debra DeLee, pioneering Americans for Peace Now leader, is retiring


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Debra DeLee, one of the first and still one of the few women CEOs in the Jewish organizational world, is retiring after 21 years of leading Americans for Peace Now.

In a retirement letter that first went out as a Rosh Hashanah letter to APN’s membership, DeLee said she leaves harboring rage at her Jewish organizational colleagues for not speaking out against the policies of President Donald Trump and Israeli government policies that she said endanger Israel’s future as a democracy.

DeLee will be leaving her post on Friday but will still consult with APN. She informed the board months ago that she was stepping down; the board has launched the process to find a successor.

APN was launched in the 1980s as the American correspondent to the Israeli grassroots group that opposes and exposes settlement expansion. It works with congressional and government officials toward advancing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. J Street, with a similar outlook and launched a decade ago, focuses on grassroots mobilization.

“My rage is focused on enablers who know better, who recognize the threat [Trump’s] policies present to our country, our values, our constitution, and yet who do nothing to stop him,” DeLee, 70, wrote in the letter that APN posted Wednesday on its website. “They do his bidding, applaud him and support him publicly while they wring their hands privately at the danger he poses domestically, to our standing in the international community, and yes, to our nation’s security. Shame on them.”

It was not clear to whom DeLee is referring. Numerous mainstream Jewish groups, particularly the Reform movement, the Anti-Defamation League, the immigration advocacy group HIAS and the National Council of Jewish Women, have spoken out frequently against Trump’s broadsides against minorities and his restrictive immigration policies.

Other groups have refrained from such robust attacks on Trump’s policies. APN and some liberal groups have openly clashed in the past with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, of which APN is a member, for not confronting Trump more critically.

DeLee said she had heard too often from prominent members of the community that criticizing Israeli policies would isolate the Jewish state.

“We American Jews, who fight with great energy against the separation of children from their families at our border, don’t speak out as Gazan children are condemned to live in squalor, and Palestinian children in the West Bank are forced to see their parents humiliated in punitive night-time raids, broken in spirit as they see their dreams for the future destroyed,” she said. “We Jews, whose historical narrative is the story of fighting for a homeland, of being persecuted, of being ‘the other,’ have not fought against the 51-year occupation of another people.”

DeLee was one of the first women to professionally lead a Jewish or pro-Israel group that did not have “women” in its title. A handful of large Jewish federations have since had women as CEOs, but it remains a rarity in Jewish professional life.

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