JCRCs coexistence plank wins national support at Washington plenum this week

They anticipated a slugfest. Instead, they had a walk in the park.

Despite predictions of acrimony, a resolution calling for American Jews' continuing support of Jewish-Arab coexistence projects in Israel sailed to an easy passage Monday at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs 2001 Plenum in Washington, D.C.

"There were concerns that after the [recent] violence had erupted…that there might be a reaction within American Jewish communities to pull back on promoting Arab-Israeli coexistence projects," said Mark Schickman, president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which sponsored the resolution. "I think the exact opposite is true. It's time to increase efforts at coexistence."

Schickman estimates that several hundred voting cards were raised in favor of the resolution, with only "around five" votes against it.

Some had expected conflict based upon a few strongly worded sections of the resolution. While stating that "grievances, even legitimate ones" could not justify rioting and acts of lawlessness, it said such behavior "demonstrates that legitimate grievances of the Israeli Arabs should be addressed seriously and systematically."

The resolution also cited "troubling social and economic disparities between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens," which can be chalked up to a variety of factors. They include "neglect of the Arab sector by successive Israeli governments" and "significant budgetary gaps between Israeli Jews and Arabs in areas such as housing, education and employment."

Schickman said that it's possible to point out Israel's shortcomings yet still be pro-Israel, "just like you can be pro-American and say America hadn't done enough for its minorities as [Rabbi] Abraham Joshua Heschel did in the '60s."

Similarly, Schickman drew parallels between rumblings among Israel's 1 million non-Jewish citizens and America's civil rights movement.

"We in America went through this experience," he said. "But Israel is a younger country than we are, and we can provide some leadership on this."

The resolution underwent several stylistic changes before it was ratified in its final form. At the behest of the Orthodox Union, the resolution "categorically rejects any suggestions that would compromise the institutions that make Israel a Jewish state" and condemns Hamas, Hezbollah or "anyone who expresses support for any acts of terrorism."

In fact, observers pointed out that this year's plenum was remarkably free of debates and conflict over resolutions. In addition to the JCRC-sponsored resolution, a second declaration passed overwhelmingly, expressing support for the peace efforts of Prime Minister-elect Ariel Sharon and appreciation for those of outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

In addition to resolutions, John DiIulio Jr., director of the controversial new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, addressed the council on Monday.

Knowing in advance that he was facing a tough crowd — many Jewish leaders have publicly questioned the wisdom and feasibility of allotting government funds to religious organizations — DiIulio highlighted several successful programs run by community and/or religious groups.

He pointed out that many beneficiaries of housing, rehabilitation and mentoring programs were not congregants of the faith-based organizations and were never required to alter their religious beliefs in order to receive services.

Yet such a situation is not unimaginable, DiIulio admitted.

"I'm not suggesting to you that our worst fears may not be justified," he said. "The most systematic research, if anything, moderates these kinds of concerns."

DiIulio was received politely, but didn't seem to change many minds.

The plan received high praise from Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs. However, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, blasted DiIulio's plan, saying it would corrupt religion and force religious groups into competition.

Richard Foltin, the American Jewish Committee's legislative director, agreed with Saperstein, deriding the faith-based plan as a "fundamentally misguided mission."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.