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From Fences to Gay Marriage, Jcpa Plenum Considers Issues That Divide American Jews

February 18, 2004
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The Jewish Council for Public Affairs is once again taking its considered, consensual approach to issues that stir profound divisions and heated debate.

The umbrella organization for national Jewish groups and local community relations councils meets in Boston Feb. 21-24 for its annual plenum.

It will consider matters far — Israel’s security fence — and near — the battle over gay marriages is playing out down the street in Massachusetts courts and legislature — that divide American Jews. Presidential election year politics are also pushing divisive issues to the forefront.

JCPA plenums are often a forum for the diverse segments of the American Jewish community to come together, debate the hot topics of the day and, at times, reach a consensus opinion.

Last year, the conference focused heavily on the impending U.S.-led war against Iraq and its implications on the Middle East; the battle over the separation of church and state and Israel’s settlement policy.

The involved — some would say tortuous — debates often lead to common-denominator opinions. Last year, the group was unable to come to a consensus on settlements, or to back a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee, said the process allows everyone an opportunity to speak out, even if at the end of the day some national groups cannot sign on to the resolutions.

"There are contradicting points of views," he said. "I don’t think that anybody can come here and say they are drowned out and their voice is not heard."

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, said JCPA consensus "depends on the issue."

"It used to be, in the Oslo days, we were more off on our own on Israel issues," he said of his organization’s constituency, which trended against the 1993 Palestinian-Israeli accords. "But more people are hawks now."

This year, the plenum will address several hot national topics, although at least one appears to offer the prospect of consensus — human cloning.

The Orthodox Union and the Union for Reform Judaism have joined forces to draft a resolution supporting stem cell research and therapeutic cloning.

The issue represents a rare split between Orthodox Jews and conservative streams in other faiths.The O.U. stance bucks Christian conservatives in its belief that cloning research follows the Torah command to treat and cure the ill, and that embryos are not equal to human beings.

Some Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, had been hoping to put the Jewish community on record on hate crimes. In the past, Orthodox opposition to draft resolutions that explicitly acknowledge crimes against gays and lesbians has stymied such efforts.

This year, the draft language notes "the inclusion of any group in hate crime laws need not be viewed as an expression of support for that group, but rather as a recognition of the reality that certain segments of our society are subject to significantly greater incidences of hate crimes."

That would sit well with the Orthodox, Diament said.

"In previous years, it has been written in a way that we couldn’t support," Diament said. "We felt it had language in it that acknowledged alternative lifestyles."

That doesn’t mean it will pass. Diament said he expects the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council, which recently expressed support for Massachusetts’ gay marriage court ruling, to seek a removal of that language.

Debate is also expected to focus on civil liberties issues arising from the U.S.A. Patriot Act, passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and outside Washington.

Many in the Jewish community believe portions of the act violate civil liberties, but the JCPA draft resolution, crafted by the JCPA Task Force on Jewish Security and the Bill of Rights, explicitly opposes the repeal of the bill.

Instead, the resolution calls for legislation to modify specific sections of the Patriot Act.

Several bills this year will address the Middle East situation.

One denounces the upcoming hearings on the security fence at the International Court of Justice at The Hague, calling it a reflection of a "long campaign by Israel’s detractors to manipulate and abuse the U.N. system to isolate and demonize the Jewish state."

A resolution on the Middle East, drafted by the communities of San Francisco and Youngstown, Ohio, backs Israel’s efforts to prevent "vigilante actions" — a veiled reference to the security barrier it is building — but also "strongly encourages both sides to avoid acts of provocation that could render the task even more difficult."

A substitute resolution, written by JCPA’s Israel Strategy Group, removes all of the potentially controversial language.

Beyond the resolution debate, the plenum is expected to hold forums on a wide variety of issues. They will open Saturday evening with a screening of clips of "The Passion of the Christ," the controversial new Mel Gibson movie that some Jews worry could fuel anti-Semitism.

Tuesday’s discussions will focus on the upcoming 2004 presidential elections, and its effect on issues of concern to the Jewish community, from the Middle East to poverty.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, said he believes the resolutions and the convention often reflect the viewpoints of Jews at large, including many who often do not get a chance to be heard.

"It brings together people from across the country," he said. "You see some of the fault lines and you see that there is not this hesitation to take positions on these issues from local leaders that you sometimes have from national leaders."

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