Michael Arria & Philip Weiss
Mondoweiss / August 4, 2023
In an important dissent, the Workers Circle has resigned from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations over its failure to condemn Israel’s judicial reform.
There’s news of an important dissent inside the Jewish establishment over support for Israel. The Workers Circle, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to “progressive Jewish identity” and social justice, has resigned from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
The Conference is the Jewish establishment; a Zionist organization of 51 member groups formed in 1956 so that American leaders would hear one voice from American Jewry, it works “publicly and behind the scenes.”
The last straw appears to be a statement by the Conference on July 24 after the Israeli parliament passed that bill ending the judiciary’s power to overrule government policies, despite massive protest. The Conference issued a statement on behalf of “Jewish leaders” calling the heated debate over the bill a “tribute to the fortitude of Israel’s democracy” and urging American Jews to stick by the Israeli government despite “concerns and questions.”
We must remember the dangers that discord and division can pose to the Jewish people…The Conference of Presidents will always advocate in support of the bilateral relationship between the United States and Israel, which is crucial to the security and well-being of both nations. Israel is a Jewish and democratic state.The Workers Circle resigned on August 2. It sent a resignation letter scoring the Conference’s “reluctance to critique Israel, its equation of such critique as antisemitism, its adoption and promotion of the IHRA [the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] definition of antisemitism, and its failure to condemn the Israeli parliament’s recent steps to erode democracy in Israel.”
“The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations should be a voice to advocate for democracy, rooted in Jewish text and traditions, that has served to protect our Jewish community for the past century — here and in Israel,” reads the letter. “We cannot be part of an organization that stands idly by in the face of these existential crises.”
“We believe that the time has come for us to separate,” the group’s CEO Ann Toback told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Our focus on democracy is not being reflected by this organization’s representation of us.”
The resignation sparked hope of a trend. The Conference includes a few liberal Zionist organizations that are critical of the Israeli occupation, among them Ameinu and Americans for Peace Now. APN even refers to “apartheid” in some of its commentaries. (And Weiss has repeatedly asked why Ameinu and APN don’t ditch the Conference.)
But the resignation won’t start an “exodus” of progressive groups, reports Jewish Philanthropy. It quotes Americans for Peace Now.
Other organizations that have similarly been critical of the Israeli government and of political developments in the U.S. have said that they plan on remaining in the umbrella group. This includes Americans for Peace Now, the only other member of the conference besides Workers Circle that voted against the adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
“We feel it is valuable for us to be there and to be part of the conference, even though it’s not perfect,” Hadar Susskind, president and CEO of APN, told JTA.
Ken Bob of Ameinu sent a similar message to us today:
We won’t be joining the Workers Circle in leaving the Conference of Presidents but we respect their decision to do so and often identify with their opposition to public stances expressed by the Conference leaders. Because the U.S.-Israel relationship is at the core of the Ameinu agenda, we find it constructive, while frustrating at times, to work within the Conference framework. One has to remember that much more goes on within the Conference beyond public statements and we believe we are successful in serving a progressive voice at the Conference table. We also have other venues for engagement like the Progressive Israel Network and the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable.
The National Council of Jewish Women also said it was sticking with the Conference. JTA:
“We’ve gone all in with the Conference of Presidents,” said Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, whose president served on the conference’s executive committee. “We’ve found the more we engage, the more opportunity there is.”
It must be noted that the Conference is an access organization. It represents huge political players in the Israel lobby, such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee and the ADL, and it can walk into the White House. Even liberal Zionists treasure that access, which is surely why J Street tried to join the Conference years ago (and wasn’t accepted).
The Conference of Presidents CEO William Daroff said he was blindsided by the decision: Workers Circle had never voiced concerns, and was in debt on dues.
Toback told Jewish Philanthropy that the Conference is out of step with mainstream Jewish opinion.
“We’ve seen that they’re not speaking for us in a way that allows us to be active participants in their work,” she said. “There’s no alignment [with our positions] so it made sense for us to step away.”
She noted that in the latest poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute, the top ranked issue for American Jews in deciding who to vote for in the upcoming presidential election was “the future of democracy,” which Toback said was one of Workers Circle’s core focuses.
The Jewish Electoral Institute has also done polling showing that three years ago a third or more of Jews under 40 say that Israel is practicing “genocide” and “apartheid” against Palestinians. That number has surely risen since.
The IHRA’s working definition (which has been adopted by hundreds of entities across the world) infamously lists a number of antisemitism examples, one of which is “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” Many Israel advocates admit that the definition can be used as a tool to stifle criticism of the country and support for Palestinians.
“In the US you can attack Israel and not be called an antisemite, which we know is not the case,” said IAC for Action Chairman Shawn Evenhaim in 2022. “If we want to define if this person is an antisemite or not, it is now very simple: we can go to the IHRA definition for antisemitism. It’s been used by many governments across the world and in the US, and now we need to make sure that it becomes part of the law in many states, as many states as possible, so they can use it to enforce the law and to prosecute people that violate it.”
Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss
Philip Weiss is senior editor of Mondoweiss.net and founded the site in 2005-2006