For more than 30 years, my relationship with Jewish federations, Israel Bonds, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, J Street and Hillel has been the focus of my life.
I have chaired federation and Israel Bonds campaigns, led and helped create Jewish day schools in both Milwaukee and Tucson, Ariz., and donated millions of dollars to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other pro-Israel causes, from AIPAC to J Street.
That is why I am so saddened and frustrated by the recent decision of Federation and Hillel of Greater Philadelphia to co-sponsor a divisive film screening that demonizes a fellow Jewish group — in this case, J Street. Their decision is beyond disappointing. It flies in the face of everything that the Federation system claims to represent.
The film, “The J Street Challenge,” is nothing more than a lengthy political attack advertisement, featuring testimony from like-minded right-wing pundits, and funded by well-known J Street detractors who are trying to move, from the fringe, to defining the parameters of what can be discussed in our community. The event was packaged as an educational event titled, “What It Means To Be Pro-Israel.”
The Federation reportedly decided to sponsor the viewing at the behest of a few wealthy donors, bypassing its own Israel Advocacy Committee and jettisoning the guidelines for Israel programming that the committee had spent two years writing.
On its website, Federation proudly boasts its commitment to “One People. One Community. One Federation.” But its decision to sponsor this film paints a different picture. According to the filmmakers, there are two camps: the good, realistic Jews who love and support Israel, and the naive, fantasy-addicted Jews who are threatening the survival of our people.
This message may resonate with some in our community, because it reaffirms everything that they already believe. Sadly, it will also alienate the large portion of the community — myself included — that has a different idea of what it means to be pro-Israel.
Indeed, given their shared missions of creating a broad and inclusive Jewish community, it is not clear what Federation and Hillel hoped to accomplish by spon soring this event. What they succeeded in doing was to send a clear message to their many caring pro-Israel friends and neighbors who support J Street that both they and their opinions are unwelcome.
That is personally painful to me as a supporter of Federation, Hillel and J Street, and, I am certain, to many others, as well, who are not in the J Street camp but who also don’t wish to see a large and growing segment of the Jewish community alienated from the community as a whole.
And who benefits here? A handful of wealthy Jewish donors out to smear a pro-Israel organization whose success and message of openness apparently frightens them?
Our community has a vibrant diversity of opinion, and we should embrace that. Whether you are a fan of this film or are one of the thousands of Jews who identify with J Street, or are among the millions of Jews who are trying to sort out these complex issues, we all love and care about Israel. If we disagree about the proper course for Israel to take, we should debate those differences openly instead of slinging mud.
That’s why I’ve urged Federation leaders in my hometowns of Tucson and Milwaukee and around the country to speak out against this trend of Federations and Hillels working to stifle open discussion by promoting divisive programming driven with ad hominem attacks on members of our own community. It’s not because I can’t handle those who express ideas with which I disagree, but because it would mean that Federation has transformed from a force that builds community into one that destroys it.
I am sure that Federation staff and leadership in Philadelphia have done wonderful and important work in their community. However, on this occasion they undermined that work, and should be ashamed of themselves.
As a person who has worked so hard and invested so much in building our Jewish communities, it saddens me profoundly to see so many of the very organizations and people whom I believed shared common Jewish values and a commitment to open respectful conversation suddenly behaving in such destructive ways.
Larry Gellman is a financial adviser and Jewish community leader who has lectured in the United States and Israel on the subject of Judaism and business ethics.