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Facing criticism of partisanship, head of Jewish Federations defends its legitimacy

“The demographics are changing,” said Irving Lebovics, co-chairman of the Agudah-affiliated Am Echad. “I’m not even sure who the federation represents today.”

JFNA president and CEO Eric Fingerhut. Source: Screenshot.
JFNA president and CEO Eric Fingerhut. Source: Screenshot.

The 3,000 North American Jewish leaders who are convening in Israel for the Jewish Federations of North America’s 2023 General Assembly were supposed to reflect their “eternal love for Israel that transcends any difference of opinion or political discussion,” stated Eric Fingerhut, CEO of the umbrella group, which represents 146 Federations and 300 smaller communities.

Controversy has brewed for some time at JNFA ahead of the four-day GA, which is to culminate on Israel’s 75th birthday on Wednesday on Yom Ha’atzmaut, with critics saying that the group is meddling in domestic Israeli politics.

Last month, 30 federation leaders expressed concern about judicial policy in Israel after a 24-hour Israel “fly-in.” In February, JFNA sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposite leader Yair Lapid with very specific policy prescriptions, including that Israel “make clear that a majority of just 61 votes of the Knesset is not sufficient to override a decision of the Supreme Court.”

Earlier this month, JFNA hosted Lapid in New York for an off-the-record meeting. Some of the opposition leader’s statements drew a public statement of “grave concern” from Am Echad, an affiliate of Agudath Israel of America, which represents Orthodox Jews. “We see these comments as sowing discord and delegitimizing not just the current Israeli government, but Israel itself in the eyes of the world, both Jewish and not,” stated Am Echad.

“The demographics are changing. I’m not even sure who the Federation represents today,” Irving Lebovics, co-chairman of Am Echad, told JNS. According to Pew Research Center data, 17% of Jews aged 18 to 29 identify as Orthodox, which is 70% more than Orthodoxy’s proportion of U.S. Jewry overall.

At the GA, Netanyahu canceled his speech ahead of expected protests on Sunday night, and on Monday, representatives of the Jewish Agency for Israel—a JFNA partner—were reportedly among those who repeatedly protested and heckled Simcha Rothman, a Knesset member who is a key figure in the government’s judicial reforms.

Lebovics had told JNS ahead of the GA that he was very concerned about what might happen. “My guess is that there will be a left wing that will try to co-opt that whole event and try to get the Federation to take a stance strongly supporting one side,” he said. Sunday evening New York time, he told JNS: “There is certainly a strong attempt being made to make that happen.”

Irving Lebovics, co-chairman of Am Echad. Credit: Courtesy.

When North American Jewish leaders meet with the Israeli opposition leader and publicly tell Israel what to do politically, they appear to muddy one of the contemporary examples appended to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism: “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”

If American Jewish leaders—whose websites tout the billions of dollars they collectively raise and distribute annually, including in Israel—dictate to Israel what to do, why is it antisemitic to hold world Jewry accountable for Israeli decisions?

“This is sort of unprecedented that an opposition leader from Israel comes to the United States to lobby the Jewish community to undermine an existing government, and at the same time, goes to the United States government and involves them in undermining an elected government,” Lebovics told JNS.

“It’s not healthy. It never worked in Jewish history for the last thousands of years when we try to involve foreign governments in our internal issues. It’s inappropriate,” he added.

He noted that Rashad Hussain, U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, tweeted on April 16 that he met Shmuel Rabinowitz, rabbi of the Western Wall (Kotel), and “reiterated U.S. support for implementation of the 2016 Western Wall agreement to expand the egalitarian space at the wall.”

“What does this have to do with the United States government? Are we opining about how the mosque be set up for men and women, or about how the National Cathedral should conduct a service?” posed Lebovics.

‘Always working on a bipartisan basis’

Fingerhut, the JFNA executive, told JNS that his organization seeks the Jewish community’s “broad center.”

“We don’t dress alike. We don’t eat alike. We don’t pray alike. And yet, we have to care for each other,” he said. “We are very practiced at working across the broad center, and encouraging dialogue and discussion when we engage in any issues that are governmental. We always are working on a bipartisan basis in North America, so we carry that over to our work with Israel.”

Other public JFNA statements suggest otherwise.

Rather than stating that many of its members had one perspective and a minority held a different view, JFNA recently tweeted that it was “deeply troubled” by a federal judge’s ruling on the abortion drug mifepristone. Last year, JFNA stated that it was “extremely concerned about the medical risks” posed by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study—conducted in 2007 and 2014, with responses from 35,000 Americans—83% of Jews said that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 15% said it should be illegal in all or most cases. That may sound like a strong mandate for JFNA to comment as it did, but in its letter to Netanyahu and Lapid, it stressed: “The essence of democracy is both majority rule and protection of minority rights.”

Fingerhut told JNS that JFNA balances questions of majority and minority “with great care and great intentionality.”

“We are always aware of the differing opinions in our community. It is an absolute requirement of our work that we listen to all of those opinions,” he said.

Israel ought to conduct its own political debates, but when the Jewish state’s actions “deeply affect” North American Jews, JFNA has a responsibility to communicate that, according to Fingerhut.

“It is impossible to overstate how important Israel’s fundamental democratic nature is to American Jews, and to our ability to build support for Israel in our community and in the broader community,” he said. “We could not see how we could square that provision with our description of Israel as the robust democracy, the model democracy it ought to be.”

Asked if JFNA’s role as financial patron looms in the background of its conversations with Israeli officials, Fingerhut denied that money was a factor. “If the implication is, does the fact of funding or not funding something—is that what’s driving this—the answer is not at all,” he said. “I’ve never heard it at all.”

He wouldn’t name participants in private meetings, but Fingerhut claimed that “a number” of officials in the coalition told him they realized that they went too far or made mistakes. “I think we’ve been enormously judicious and only going to those things that matter,” he said.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid speaks during a Yesh Atid Party faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 13, 2023. Photo by Erik Marmor/Flash90.

‘A very partisan time’

U.S. politics has gone through “a very partisan time,” stated Fingerhut.

“There’s no question that certainly the four years that President [Donald] Trump was in office, and frankly, much of the time, I’m sure our friends on the right would say that during the Obama administration, they felt similarly,” he said. “The rhetoric has been ratcheted up very high in America. I’m afraid that some of that has spilled over also into Israel now. And I think it’s not a very good trend.”

Fingerhut would not confirm whether Agudah was invited to the event with Lapid, citing its off-the-record nature. “I have a great, wonderful relationship with Agudah,” he said. “Certainly with the OU.” (The Orthodox Union has been named as an attendee.)

Agudah, which was not invited to the meeting, referred JNS to Lebovics, who said Am Echad was also not invited. Lebovics thinks if Am Echad had been invited, the organization probably would have declined, following consultation with rabbinic authorities.

Of the relationship between JFNA and Agudah, Lebovics said: “The leadership has a cordial relationship.”

Agudah had tried to get JFNA and other Jewish organizations to sign a statement with it about the importance of dialogue, according to Lebovics. Eric Goldstein, CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, who edited the document, and Fingerhut were ready to sign, noted Lebovics. “That was what I was told. All of a sudden, they put out a statement—I don’t think they meant it maliciously—but they put out a statement saying basically that the demonstrators have a right to demonstrate in Israel,” he said.

“That basically undermined the entire concept that we were trying to create. We put our statement out alone. It was, in my mind, a tremendously lost opportunity,” he said.

“You have a group of leadership, both in America and Israel, on the left that sees the vulnerability of this government and is going in for the kill. They’re basically trying to get the government out,” said Lebovics. “What they couldn’t do in the election, they are trying to do in the street.”

With U.S. Jewish demographics changing and a continued strong Orthodox Jewish commitment to Israel, Lebovics again raised the question of JFNA’s constituency.

“Forty percent of the Jewish population is unaffiliated,” he said. “Who exactly are you representing when you say, ‘We talk for the majority?’ ”

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