Yoffie, don’t abandon human rights entirely

Rabbi Eric Yoffie at J Street, photo courtesy of Dan Sieradski

I suspect we direct our most bruised anger at those most likely to be our supporters…who don’t. That “self-hater” is such a cutting insult is part and parcel of that emotion. And it’s why it’s taken me a couple days to come down from the anger I felt towards Rabbi Eric Yoffie following his speech at J Street.

On Tuesday, he spoke strongly and provocatively. He did not shy from controversy and never wavered. He has the prophetic instinct to make himself unwelcome in his own house, which I support and commend. It’s a talent I value, admire and aspire to. Kol hakavod to him.

Most of his speech was right on the money, leading me to applaud many times, but two moments left me seething, ready to verbally skewer him and decry him as a traitor. Thanks to Noam Shelef of Americans for Peace Now, I now have a term for my eagerness to briefly disown Yoffie: the narcissism of small differences. I have since cooled off my anger and I wish to give Yoffie a second chance.

It began when Yoffie had just finished recounting the dire straights of Sderot children. Did he presume to lecture us on Israeli suffering? Or perhaps hoping by storytelling would align our sympathies only with Jewish blood rather than balancing it with Gazan strangulation? He seemed to justify in entirety Operation Cast Lead, without any mention of the negotiations which Israel abandoned, without any discussion of proportion. He drew no alternative — ironic for the head of movement founded on alternative interpretations — except crushing force and did it by omitting huge factors under debate. I expected more from a man of his prophetic talent.

But it was following Ben-Ami’s mellow response that I felt Yoffie slammed the door on his own prophecy, when Rabbi Ellen Lippman posed a question. Putting aside the charges of anti-Israel bias at the UN, she asked, “what will you do to further human rights in the region?” Yoffie’s position on the Goldstone report was already clear, having already berated Goldstone’s person at some length, when Rabbi Lippman handed him this opportunity to still affirm his commitment to human rights. Essentially, is there room in supporting Israel for supporting human rights in Israel, for both Israelis and Palestinians? Can we agree that Israel is not perfect and that we must investigate our abuses?

He ignored her question entirely. Worse yet, he returned to his impassioned diatribes against Goldstone. It was watching Yoffie talk and talk about Goldstone and let Rabbi Lippman’s question linger and linger until, at end, it went unanswered which made me yell at the screen in the overflow room, “Answer the question!” Scattered applause met my outburst.

Jeremy Ben-Ami’s response to Lippman was too light, by far. No Jewish press so far noted that the largest moment of disapproval for Yoffie was not the scattered boos but the resounding applause to Ben-Ami’s backhanded rebuke to Yoffie: The Goldstone report is not an excuse to ignore the mistakes of Operation Cast Lead.

I was hoping to see in Yoffie a similar relationship to Israel, yet all I saw was the behavior that disgusts me so much about the older generations. The charges of anti-Semites are too exciting to leave and let be, it seems. Yoffie preferred to fuel our sense of oppression, victimhood and unfairness than to deal with the root of the problem. Instead of an enlightened thinker, Yoffie represented at that moment the hallmark of all that I am very happy my generation is leaving behind. My eagerness to see his generation grow old and pass away was embarassingly palpable.

In a more extreme articulation: between human rights and Israel, Yoffie said the most important was Israel. My answer will always be human rights. As Matt Yglesias said the next morning, “I am not into fascism. I’m not about to endorse a Jewish dictatorship,” and that there is no pro-Israel unless it includes pro-peace and pro-democracy. Not only are human values more important, but you will not long have a Jewish state without them.

I am not sorry that Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a good man and visionary by all accounts, served as the conference’s lightning rod. He accepted the post willingly and spoke his words accordingly. Yet even as the narcissim of small differences makes us impassioned to fight bitterly over nuance, he should know that he cannot ignore wholesale Rabbi Ellen Lippman’s question. While I absolutely do not wish him personal ill, I would like to give him a chance to answer her question again.

So I ask Rabbi Eric Yoffie here to answer clearly and unequivocally where our obligation to human rights intersects with our relationship to Israel. You can always redeem in our eyes your leadership and worldview. I do not assume that you will frame your answer in the terms or contexts of my generation — but I at least expect an answer.

You can also thank him for coming and give him a polite nudge about responding to us.

Photo courtesy of Dan Sieradski’s awesome flickr feed.

10 Responses to “Yoffie, don’t abandon human rights entirely”

  1. Rabbi Yoffie is not one to throw red meat at a crowd. He often seeks to deliver mussar his audience.

    His constituency is a very large swath of American Jewry, and many of us outside the Reform camp are always interested in his perspective.

    I guess what I am trying to understand is what concessions/focus/changes precisely he wants from JStreet.

    OBviously, dismissing this sage because of his age/generation is inappropriate. Smart people grow wise with their years. Tension between old and young is how it is supposed to be. You may very well see things he does not. I suspect you do. But it is just as likely that Rabbi Yoffie sees even more that you and yours do not.


    DK · October 29th, 2009 at 2:08 pm
  2. An earlier version of this post used more violent words to describe my upset. Those have since been removed. Thanks to those who rightly took offense.


    Kung Fu Jew · October 29th, 2009 at 3:20 pm
  3. “My eagerness to see his generation grow old and pass away was embarassingly palpable.”

    I have not qualms with your dismay, but I do want to remind you that dissing the whole generationis inaccurate – people of that generation were fighting for their voices to be heard in the Jewish community before you were even born – look at the leadership of Rabbis For Human Rights (whom Rabbi Lippman represented) and at earlier organizations that fought and were crushed – your path was partially cleared by that generation – don’t dismiss them in your (rightful) anger at Yoffie.


    KRG · October 29th, 2009 at 3:52 pm
  4. KFJ, I applaud you for giving your thoughts and raw emotions a few days to settle before writing this. Your post is better for it.


    Avigdor · October 29th, 2009 at 6:02 pm
  5. KFJ:

    I find it fascinating that you claim to represent a movement which wishes to broaden the debate about Israel but are so intolerent of even the slightest deviation from your own beliefs. You state that Rabbi Yoffe is a “traitor” for believing that Israel’s position is essentially just. Have you considered what the vast majority of Israelis would think of those who think like you?

    By the way, I thought that progressives prided themselves on their tolerance and openness to dialogue. When you state that you essentially wish him dead (“My eagerness to see his generation grow old and pass away was embarassingly palpable”) I can only imagine what your original unedited post said. It seems that you are thrilled to hate.


    Mitch · October 29th, 2009 at 11:41 pm
  6. Have you considered what the vast majority of Israelis would think of those who think like you?

    Only KFJ can gives his own views on that.

    But it is telling that the freely elected Israeli government doesn’t work with a self-proclamed pro-Israel organization.


    Jonathan1 · October 30th, 2009 at 12:29 am
  7. Mitch, let’s say for the sake of it that you’re absolutely right. What have you just accomplished? You think KFJ is going to break down and cry, see the error of his ways, repent and join the board of AIPAC? What are you going to do, psychoanalyze people into submission?

    KFJ is being open (most importantly, with himself) about the emotions he felt – emotions we can all feel from time to time in the heat of debate – and the fact is, he’s making a serious effort to think through and express the substance of his disagreements. What more can we ask of him?

    I, for one, would like Rabbi Yoffie to step more broadly into this discussion, as KFJ requests. The man is no fool, and has decades of experience in pro-peace, pro-human rights and yes, pro-Israel advocacy. Moreover, he speaks not for himself, freed of the consequences of his decisions, but for the URJ and, more broadly as a well known Jewish leader, for the Jewish people. There needs to be, in my view, a serious engagement between the mainstream left he represents and young progressive leaders like KFJ.

    To me, it seems self-serving to proclaim a man prophetic when he agrees with you, then discredit him in fairly blunt terms when he doesn’t and dangle your praise within his reach if he repents. Rabbi Yoffie has earned respect for decades of work, has earned the responsibilities entrusted to him through leadership and vision, and no doubt has taken a nuanced position that reflects his faith, his values, the reality he sees before him and the future he desires. If we truly value him – his experience, his perspective and his insight – then to dismiss his views outright, or to mischaracterize them for the purpose of erecting a straw man, does not seem well reasoned.

    I am not so sure that there is a generational gap which is causing this fissure, nor should we be gloomy that a mutually honest engagement won’t achieve at least partial reconciliation. Rabbi Yoffie, in the wisdom of his years, should respectfully and honestly engage the young progressive Jewish community, and not just he alone. It is time to shed the talking points and speak plainly and truthfully – above all, truthfully.


    Avigdor · October 30th, 2009 at 12:55 am
  8. Mitch:

    I cannot control my emotions, and in those moments I was intensely angry with Yoffie. It should be clear in this post how I walked through those feelings, analyzed why, and now am doing my best to put them aside without jumping to conclusions.

    Maybe Yoffie had more to say about human rights beyond the time restrictions granted to him. Maybe he was just making a point. Maybe he revels in playing (as I do) the devil’s advocate.

    I hope he answers us.


    Kung Fu Jew · October 30th, 2009 at 2:46 pm
  9. No word from Yoffie, although I have corresponded with his office.

    And Mobius’ own conversation with Yoffie immediately after his remarks can be found at the NY Examiner. It seems that Yoffie is determined not to address human rights at all. Choice quote:

    With his remarks against the Goldstone report, Yoffie was only proving my point. So I stopped him in the hallway after his speech, and said as much to him.

    “Rabbi Yoffie, how can you decry young American Jews’ disaffiliation from Israel, while at the same time asking them to both be progressive and renounce and undermine international law?”

    He evaded my question. “The Goldstone report was unbalanced.”

    “So is Israel’s military advantage over those it occupies,” I said.

    “Gaza’s not occupied,” he replied.

    “Oh no? Israel controls the air, the sea, the borders, the electricity and water.” Moments later, a woman would hand me an unsolicited copy of Amnesty International’s latest report on the violation of Palestinian water rights by Israel.

    “That’s not occupation,” he said. I stared at him in disbelief. “We gave them back Gaza. They could have used it as an opportunity to build a viable state and a stable economy. Instead they chose to rain down rockets on Sderot.”

    “What’d you expect from unilateral withdrawl without a negotiated settlement?” I asked. “Sharon’s senior advisor, Dov Weisglass, told Haaretz just before the disengagement that their plan was to demonstrate that land for peace was a failed proposition by withdrawing without a peace accord. They knew exactly what would happen.”

    “Good for Weisglass,” he said sarcastically, haughtily implying that he knew better than a designer of the disengagement himself. “Besides, you’re blaming Israel.”

    My face reddened with the kind of frustration I’ve often experienced at Shabbat dinner tables around Jerusalem.

    I asked, “Who was it that said, when you take your boot off their neck, they will pop you in the nose?”

    “Three years of rocket fire is more than a punch in the nose,” Yoffie replied.

    “Forty years is a damn long time to have a boot on your neck.”


    Kung Fu Jew · November 2nd, 2009 at 10:52 am
  10. I’d just like to point out that Rabbi Ellen Lippman is, if I remember correctly, from the same generation as Rabbi Yoffie, so please refrain from wishing death upon a whole generation (if you cannot refrain from wishing death upon a person). As a member of that generation, and no blind supporter of Israel (although I am a supporter), it is very upsetting to read.


    Lizzie · December 22nd, 2009 at 9:06 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik