It is not every day that Rabbi Eric Yoffie gets booed by a lefty crowd. But that is one of the risks when standing up as a keynote speaker at the J Street conference.
Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and a leading dovish vote in American Jewry, was one of the earliest critics of J Street. He came out, in an article published in the Forward against J Street’s opposition to the Israeli military operation in Gaza last December.
The boos had nothing to do with Yoffie’s disagreement with J Street over the Gaza war. They came after he condemned South African jurist Richard Goldstone for his report accusing Israel of war crimes during the Gaza war. “Richard Goldstone should be ashamed of himself,” Yoffie said. The audience didn’t like the harsh tone, although J Street as a group also expressed reservations about the Gaza report.
After a lengthy discussion, involving questions from the audience and tweets sent in, it turned out that differences between the Reform leader and the new dovish lobby are not as significant.
Yoffie, in a speech that thoroughly laid out his viewpoint on American Jewish relations with Israel, was unapologetic on the issue of the Gaza war. “If I have a complaint against the government of Israel, it is that I wonder if it should not have acted sooner in Gaza,” he said.
But Yoffie also made clear that he is far from being a hardliner. While making a distinction between settlements west of the separation wall to those on its east, he stated that all settlements east of the wall need to be removed in order to allow a two-state solution. Settlement freeze, Yoffie stressed, will not be sufficient. There needs to be dismantling of settlements in the heart of the West Bank.
“There are those who proclaim that Israel will simply defy the world. It will retain the settlements and Israeli rule, and the world be damned. I am among those who believe that it cannot and will not, and to suggest otherwise is to misread both what is happening in the world and the extent of Israel’s power.”
Yoffie accused Jewish groups of having “their heads in the sand” on the matter of settlements and a two-state solution. “Too much of the American Jewish community responds to this problem by saying things that convince no one,” he said.
Trying to pave the way forward, Yoffie suggested adopting a plan proposed by Middle East scholar David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which calls for Israel to negotiate the borders of the Palestinian state even if it is not possible now to reach an agreement on other issues. This plan, Yoffie said, would make clear that Israel made an offer, and it is now up to the Palestinians to decide if they accept it.
It was not an easy ride for Yoffie at the event. The audience did not like his statement that Israel’s blockade on Gaza is not a violation of international law, but Yoffie left the hall with the crowd applauding and received a warm embrace from Ben-Ami.