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Where Do America’s Jewish Federations Draw The ‘Red Line’ On Opinions About Israel?

Richard Allen (center), head of JCC Watch, holds a burning check at a rally on Sept. 12 during which his group as well as Americans for a Safe Israel urged the cessation of Jewish donations to the UJA-Federation of New York, due to federation's lack of funding guidelines on Israel. (Credit: JCC Watch/AFSI)

Richard Allen (center), head of JCC Watch, holds a burning check at a rally on Sept. 12 during which his group as well as Americans for a Safe Israel urged the cessation of Jewish donations to the UJA-Federation of New York, due to federation's lack of funding guidelines on Israel. (Credit: JCC Watch/AFSI)

The “red line” associated with Iran’s nuclear program or Syria’s use of chemical weapons has sparked an ongoing international debate, in which both Israeli and Diaspora Jews have made their voices heard. But a debate that hits closer to home for American Jews is about where Jewish federations in their communities draw the line on funding programs associated with varying opinions about Israel.

Boston: In the Boston area, a recent test case for the local Jewish federation – Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) – revolves around its relationship with Leonard Fein, the founder of organizations including the National Coalition for Jewish Literacy, Moment magazine, and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger. In an Aug. 24 column for the Forward, Fein called for a boycott of the Israeli city of Ariel, which is located beyond the 1949 Israeli-Arab armistice lines.

“Specifically, I believe American Jews visiting Israel should stay away from [Ariel], treat it as an offense against peace,” Fein wrote.

Fein been a guest speaker for CJP and has a long-term relationship with that federation’s leadership groups. Asked if that relationship would change due to Fein’s stance on Ariel, CJP Executive Director Barry Shrage said it would not, and regarding whether CJP is willing to continue to invite Fein as a speaker, Shrage said, “Sure.”

“Certainly an argument about settlements, and how to protest settlements and how to support settlements, is part of the daily life of the Jewish community that has a healthy ongoing debate about important issues,” Shrage told JNS.org.

While Shrage believes Fein’s call for a boycott of Ariel was “a very poor tactic,” he stressed that Fein is “a highly respected member of our community.”

“We’d be so much poorer a community if we drive out people like Leonard Fein,” Shrage said. “The future of the community is about binding people together.”

But Charles Jacobs, head of the Boston-based advocacy group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, believes CJP crosses a red line by continuing to work with Fein. Jacobs called the policy of welcoming a “big tent” of organizations and individuals with varying views on Israel a “slippery slope.”

“The CJP-certified Leonard Fein is now one more slip down the slope,” said Jacobs. “Leonard Fein, who in the midst of Middle East madness, where Arabs are murdering and gassing and torturing each other and each others’ wives and children, from Cairo to Damascus to Baghdad, blames Israelis for the lack of peace in the region.”

“Beholden to major donors, many of them on the left, it seems that some federations have become disconnected from the larger Jewish community,” Jacobs added. “So if CJP does not excommunicate Fein – if it has no red lines – it will show just how disconnected it has become.”

Shrage said CJP does have red lines. Advocating for the destruction of Israel or harming Israel are “stances that place people outside the community,” but Fein is “a Zionist” and working with him does not cross a line, despite his stance on Ariel, according to Shrage.

“The line here is whether you are anti-Zionist, anti-Israel,” he said.

Fein told JNS that while he called for a boycott of Ariel because its location 10 miles beyond the 1949 armistice line presents “a very distinctive problem” and “essentially destroys the possibility of a two-state solution,” he opposes the broader Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

“I think each potential target of that kind of approach of boycott, divestment and sanctions needs to be treated on its own terms, on its own merits, or lack of merits,” Fein said, explaining that he disagrees with a movement that issues boycott calls “with a broad brush,” like the BDS movement does.

Manhattan's 92nd Street Y drew criticism for hosting anti-Israel activist Alice Walker earlier this year.

Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y drew criticism for hosting anti-Israel activist Alice Walker earlier this year.

New York: Shrage called hosting Fein a “far cry” from hosting BDS activist Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, who appeared at New York’s 92nd Street Y in May. The Y also scheduled an event this spring with rocker Roger Waters, the anti-Israel former member of Pink Floyd, which was ultimately canceled.

On Sept. 12, JCC Watch and Americans for a Safe Israel partnered on a protest outside the UJA-Federation of New York building that called for Jews to stop donating to the federation due to a lack of guidelines preventing federation funding of programming that gives a platform to anti-Israel voices like Walker and Waters. The Y receives $900,000 annually from the federation.

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