Members of the Boston Workmen’s Circle attending a rally. Credit: Boston Workmen’s Circle via Facebook.
By Sean Savage
(JNS) — The decision in January by the Boston Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) to pass a resolution declaring that any member organization supporting the BDS movement could be expelled from the council has generated a wider discussion among Jewish leaders as to where to draw red lines when it comes to Israel.
The resolution — adopted overwhelmingly by a vote of 62-13 with eight abstentions — resolves that no member of the JCRC “shall partner with — in particular by co-sponsoring events primarily led or co-led by, or by signing on to statements primarily organized or co-organized by — a self-identified Jewish organization that declares itself to be anti-Zionist.” The resolution was primarily in response to a move by one of its members, the Boston Workmen’s Circle, which has aligned itself with the anti-Israel Jewish Voice for Peace group.
David Bernstein, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs—an umbrella group of Jewish community relations network made up of 125 community relations councils and 17 national Jewish agencies—told JNS that his organization fully supports the move by the Boston JCRC.
“[It] is very in line with what JCPA would do as well. We would not support an organization that openly embraces BDS or denies Israel’s right to exist, coming or staying in our network,” he said.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, applauded the work of Boston JCRC and its executive director, Jeremy Burton, for navigating such a loaded issue.
“I have tremendous respect for Jeremy and the Boston Jewish community—one of the leading and most innovative JCRCs in the country. Over the years, they have tackled very difficult issues, and I’m sure the decision was done in an inclusive manner and a thoughtful manner,” he told JNS.
Barry Shrage, who served for more than 30 years as president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and is now a professor at Brandeis University, told JNS he was “very proud” of the decision made by the JCRC.
What the decision by the JCRC did was to set a red line for the Jewish community as to where it should stand on certain issues. In this case, Jewish groups that partner or embrace anti-Zionism is outside of the so-called Jewish “big tent.”
The Boston JCRC decision ‘should set a precedent’ for Jewish community
Calls to remove the Boston Workmen’s Circle from JCRC began to mount last summer when the group signed a petition organized by the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace group.
The JVP-led petition criticized efforts by supporters of Israel to “target organizations that support Palestinian rights, particularly the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement.”
A statement released by Burton noted that the Boston Workmen’s Circle’s decision to align with the global BDS movement “triggered questions and concerns within our coalition, given our long-established view that support for BDS is contrary to our mission.”
As such, that alignment led to a months-long investigation by JCRC’s membership committee involving its large network and member organizations, which culminated in the vote on Thursday.
For its part, the Boston Workmen’s Circle slammed the resolution, saying in a statement by its board of directors that the decision “conflicts with traditional Jewish values that respect diversity of opinion and encourage robust, honest and inclusive dialogue.”
“It sets a dangerous precedent of condemnation by association by placing a political litmus test on Council membership based on partnerships.”
Shrage believes that the decision by the Boston JCRC may set a precedent for the wider Jewish community on how to handle decisions by member organizations that may partner or align with groups that are deemed anti-Israel, anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic.
“It allows for everyone to take a look at the issues in a serious way,” he said. “I think it should set a precedent; I don’t think many communities would have a problem with it.”
Nevertheless, Halber contends that each Jewish community and its representative organizations are unique—both geographically and demographically—and what occurred in Boston may be different than what other communities face.
“I think that often when a certain JCRC takes an action, that question [of precedent] naturally comes up. The reality is that JCRCs—whether part of a federation or on their own—are autonomous and represent their own communities,” he said.
He added that it does “provide guidance if this situation replicates itself in the future. Does that necessarily mean if Boston went one way that every other JCRC would follow suit? Not necessarily.”
Halber, who said that his own community hasn’t really had to contend with one of its own members aligning or partnering with an anti-Zionist group, said that this could indeed be a future challenge. “This is all very new, and the situation they dealt with was rather unique. Time will tell whether it really is a local issue that Boston had to deal with or whether something other JCRCs could extrapolate from.”
Judaism’s changing nature in America
The Jewish community has always wrestled with its place in American society. Like many other religious groups in the country over the decades, those in the Jewish community have become increasingly secular and assimilated into the broader American culture. Leaders have attempted to grapple with how to maintain a Jewish identity amid this trend.
That has had a polarizing effect on the community, especially when it comes to younger generations who shy away from religious practice for a more universal approach to the world. While Orthodox Judaism has maintained its ranks in tight neighborhoods and clustered communities, more liberal streams of Judaism—Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic—and unaffiliated secular Jews have gravitated towards social justice and progressive politics under a general umbrella of tikkun olam, the healing or repair of the world.
Shrage explained that while it’s important for the Jewish community to be particularistic and universalistic in its approach, that doesn’t mean the Jewish community should give up on its own identity.
“The Jewish community can be particularistic with a concern about Israel, Jewish identity and Jewish education, but at the same time, universalistic and express concern about immigrants, human rights and related issues,” he said. “Our credentials as a community that cares deeply about tikkun olam and the world are clear, but that doesn’t mean giving up our own claim on our own identity and our claim on Israel. Those things are not to be sacrificed.”
“The bottom line is we are a community that is Zionist,” he said. “And we are happy to welcome anyone in our tent that is straightforwardly Zionist. We are here to fight for its [Israel’s] existence; we believe in its existence and we believe in what Israel means to the Jewish people and our struggle over thousands of years. That is not negotiable.”
Nevertheless, in recent years there has been growing concern regarding how Jewish communities should handle both Jewish individuals and organizations that are avowedly anti-Zionist. In 2018, the Jewish community in Durham, N.C., came under scrutiny for employing activists with the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace group.
Additionally, groups such as IfNotNow — an anti-Israel group that has drawn headlines for pushing the Palestinian narrative at Jewish summer camps, as well as accosting Birthright groups at airports — have many members who are graduates of very same Jewish institutions, including summer camps, Birthright and campus groups, they now seek to question, undermine or even abolish.
Similarly, Boston Workmen’s Circle, which has deep roots in socialism that was prevalent among early Jewish immigrants from Europe, has now taken on this mantle of extreme progressive politics that has become a bridge too far for most of the mainstream Jewish community.
“I think this is most painful for JCRC because in a way, the Workmen’s Circle is a storied organization with their focus on the disappearing secular Yiddish culture and their outreach to individuals who may not have chosen other forms of Jewish education,” noted Shrage. “But on the other hand, when they choose to align themselves with inherently anti-Israel or anti-Zionist or non-Zionist groups, it means that they chose not to be part of what is virtually a wall-to-wall Zionist commitment of the Jewish people.”
Halber said the goal of the groups such as the JCRC is to not be the thought police of the Jewish community.
“We are here to broaden the table — to bring people into the community and provide a space for them. I deal with everyone from the Americans for Peace Now to CUFI [Christians United for Israel]. And I have no problem working with both groups. That’s a testament to both the broad table and nuance we are able to bring,” he said.
“We are interested in expanding the tent, not closing the tent. One event doesn’t make a relationship, but it would definitely create internal debate in the JCRC if one our member organizations were involved in a consistent relationship with an anti-Zionist group,” he said.
Shrage added that Judaism has many different components — religious, spiritual, social — but that is also has a deep commitment to the idea of a Jewish people.
“There are 7 million Jews living in Israel. Anything that endangers them really endangers every part of the Jewish identity.”