Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who will be completing his 16-year tenure as head of the Reform movement at the end of the year, has never been afraid to speak his mind. He has been an advocate for greater Torah study and observance of Jewish ritual within the Union of Reform Judaism, taken President Barack Obama to task for publicizing his disagreement with Israel over settlements, called on a major Muslim American group to engage in more dialogue with Jews, and chided J Street members, at their annual convention, about some of their criticisms of Israel.
Now Rabbi Yoffie has spoken out sharply against a number of proposed Knesset bills aimed at limiting financing from foreign governments for left-wing nonprofit groups. In an interview with Haaretz, the rabbi described the bills as “anti-democratic” and said they could have “a catastrophic impact on relations between Israel and the Jews of the diaspora — especially American Jews.”
Rabbi Yoffie certainly is not the first prominent figure to warn of the damage that passage of these bills could have on Israel’s image at home and around the world. But as a religious leader representing the largest denomination within American Jewry, his words are particularly significant. Especially when he notes that “when rabbis and Jewish leaders speak in communities and synagogues about the Jewish state, what they emphasize, with great pride, is Israel’s democratic character. But what will they say if these anti-democratic laws are approved by the Knesset?”
A number of human rights groups have described the bills as attempts by the right-wing Israeli parliament to silence critics of the government. Others worry about legislation limiting funds to groups in Israel viewed as too “political.” What is too political in Israel?
Most of the groups that would be limited or heavily taxed on monies received from foreign governments or government-supported foundations are those that champion Palestinian rights. European governments and the European Union provide tens of millions of dollars a year to Israeli and Palestinian groups highly critical of the government. Proponents of the legislation say Israel should be proactive, limiting foreign support for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) opposed to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
Whereas left-wing NGOs in Israel rely on funding from foreign governments and their foundations, right-wing NGOs tend to receive donations from overseas private groups and individual donors. Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson, Florida real estate magnate Irving Moskowitz, and Evangelical Christian groups were cited by Rabbi Yoffie as able to “pour money into Israel for political purposes” on the right, while groups assisting those on the left would be penalized.
One does not have to support the views of left-leaning NGOs — and we have our issues with aspects of their agenda — to recognize the unequal application of the law if the proposed bills are voted into law.
Not to mention the diplomatic and political damage to Jerusalem, already struggling to defend its character in Western countries. Israel’s efforts to convince Europe to clamp down on Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be made all the more difficult.
But the primary reason to oppose the legislation is that it smacks of inequity, and credit goes to Rabbi Yoffie for saying so.