Internal divisions

Cease-fire chants reveal divides at Jewish Social Justice Roundtable assembly

JCPA's Amy Spitalnick: 'This has been a particularly painful time to be a progressive Zionist'

Israel’s war against Hamas drove a wedge between the members of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable at last week’s assembly, with some representatives starting a chant calling for an immediate cease-fire during one of the sessions, which other attendees considered alienating.

The gathering was held Nov. 14-16 in Baltimore immediately following the March for Israel. It was the first meeting of the Roundtable since 2017. 

Sessions at the assembly, planned before the war in Israel started, were not designed to address the conflict, but several of the some 300 attendees told eJewishPhilanthropy that they found themselves debating the conflict during hallway chatter. 

As the Wednesday session was wrapping up, chants for an Israel-Hamas cease-fire broke out from a small group of participants, according to attendees at the closed-press event, leading others to express feelings of isolation. None of the participants who spoke to eJP knew which groups took part in the cease-fire chants. IfNotNow and Jewish Voice for Peace, which have been calling for an immediate cease-fire, are not members of the Roundtable but attendees said staffers who are involved in the organization were in attendance. IfNotNow did not respond to eJP’s request for comment. 

Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, told eJP that “The Roundtable provides such a critical space in the Jewish communal landscape, it’s critical that it remain truly inclusive for all its members, which Wednesday evening was not.”

“This has been a particularly painful time to be a progressive Zionist –— with the grief of Oct. 7 and its aftermath compounded by a failure to recognize that grief and complexity in certain progressive spaces,” she said.

Abby Levine, executive director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a network of 76 Jewish organizations, said that the assembly was expected to include disagreement. “Of course there were divisions; we are a diverse community,” she said.

“We have organizations with a lot of different views; there’s a lot of differences between these groups… many of our groups do work in coalition with each other, for example in LGBTQ equality [or with refugees]. We thought this was a more important time than ever to convene the field.” 

Session topics included racial equity and organizational culture. “Our priority as a network is to help organizations build healthy strong organizational cultures,” Levine said. 

“Our role is to strengthen and align these organizations in order to make justice a core expression of Jewish life and to help create an equitable world,” she continued.

“The three days held an extraordinary amount of differences,” Levine continued, adding that she’s “particularly proud that this was a very multiracial group.” “It was the conference that had the most Jews of color at it, speaking and leading, outside of specific Jews of color convenings.” 

Cindy Rowe, executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action, said that the cease-fire chanting was “an example that people are in different places” on the issue of Israel. She said she believed the assembly allowed for “respectful” debate.

Rowe said the Roundtable gave participants “a place for people to have those conversations and provided a wonderful opportunity for people to share feelings.” 

“We’re a family,” Rowe said of the groups in the Roundtable. “There’s always disagreement in the family, that’s why we come together. And we must come together to rise above antisemitism.” 

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, president and CEO of Reconstructing Judaism, has attended the past three assemblies and said this year’s “felt as normal as anything feels right now.” 

“The moment felt more intense and the war was present,” she said. 

Waxman was already heading out when the cease-fire chanting started. “I was leaving anyway. It didn’t call to me to stay, but I don’t think it was intended to be disruptive.” 

“The Roundtable has articulated norms, and I saw everyone adhering to the norms,” she said, noting that conversation was heated but “intense talking is everywhere now.”