Fostering Jewish community unity is always a challenge. At a time of political polarization, it’s vital that Jewish agencies represent a broad consensus on the issues that matter to our collective future.
I am proud to identify as a progressive Zionist and to advance these values, which is why I serve as chair of the World Union of Progressive Judaism. Similarly, I believe Canadian Jewry needs a central advocacy organization, a place where the energy and talents of our diverse community – across the political spectrum – come together. Every big tent has limits, but, aside from the extremes, the mainstream Jewish community must welcome all who genuinely care for the future of Jews in Canada, Israel and around the world.
This is why the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the advocacy agent of Canada’s Jewish federations, is a natural fit for the broad mainstream. Like federations, CIJA is a crucial meeting point for Jews of all stripes – left and right, religious and secular – to work in common cause. That’s why I volunteer with CIJA, and why I was puzzled by Andrew Cohen’s column suggesting CIJA is partisan and holds positions on Israel at odds with many in our community. My personal experience as a progressive Jew tells me that Cohen has the wrong impression.
As evidence of partisanship, Cohen claims that CIJA’s CEO “opposed” the Iran nuclear deal. Although CIJA did indeed raise concerns, its moderate press release urged “caution,” stating CIJA “share(d) the goal of a diplomatic solution … the success of today’s agreement depends on Iran’s actions, not its words.”
Interestingly, criticism from Eitan Cabel, the chair of Israel’s Labour party and a member of the Knesset, was much stronger. “I refuse to join those applauding the agreement with Iran,” he said, “because the truth is it keeps me awake at night.”
Centrist Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid was more direct: “On the Iranian nuclear issue there is no opposition.… We are all concerned that the Iranians will circumvent the deal.”
He may not agree with CIJA’s skepticism, echoed by Israelis from various parties as well as many throughout the Diaspora, but Cohen cannot dismiss the reality that CIJA’s position was rooted in broad Jewish consensus.
Nor is it accurate to suggest that CIJA is a partisan, pro-Conservative organization. As a volunteer, I have been a part of CIJA’s efforts to reach out to officials across political lines and champion issues in the best spirit of progressive Judaism, and I have witnessed that CIJA is highly regarded across the political sector as a responsible, constructive interlocutor. Cohen may be unaware that CIJA leads Jewish delegations at Canadian Pride Festivals, supporting young LGBTQ Jews to express their identity. He may not know about CIJA’s leadership in pushing Parliament to strengthen hate crime laws protecting trans Canadians. Or about CIJA’s advocacy for more affordable housing, support for people with disabilities, and greater access to palliative care, or CIJA’s Seek Peace initiative, which promotes Israeli organizations building a foundation for peace by bringing Jews and Arabs together. While no political party has a monopoly on these causes, they are certainly in keeping with the best traditions of progressive Jewish advocacy.
Constructive criticism is valuable for any community organization, but criticism without engagement is not usually constructive. I invite Cohen to attend a CIJA event, meet with volunteers like me and advocate for the issues he cares about at the next CIJA grassroots consultation. I’m confident he’ll discover what many progressive Jews have found – that although not above critique, CIJA navigates the divides within our community, reflects a broad Canadian Jewish consensus, and unites us in common cause on issues that matter.
Carole Sterling is former president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism and Temple Sinai Congregation, and a past chair of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Women’s Campaign.