The debate in the UK is about exactly this issue. According to the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the representative organization of British Jewry, the reports brought back by the Ecumenical Accompaniers are unbalanced and completely anti-Israel. Below you may read the letter written by Mr. Jonathan Arkush, Vice-President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, answering Debbie Weissman’s Rosh haShana letter:
Open letter to Debbie Weismann from the Board of Deputies of British Jews
As the Tower of Babel rose in the valley Shinar, the Bible offers an intriguing detail. "God went down to see the city and the tower, that the children of men had built. (Gen. 11:5) But an omnipresent God need not journey down to pass judgement, asks the biblical commentator Rashi. Nonetheless, answers Rashi, God descends to teach humanity an important lesson. So vital is it to really see a place, to descend into its intricacies and nuances, before passing judgement, that even God himself will abide by this rule to teach human judges to act in a similar manner. As Hillel intones in the Ethics of the Fathers, "never judge your fellow until you stand in his place." The Anglo-community would sincerely have wished that you had 'come down' to see how the Ecumenical program is being played out across churches and Quaker meeting halls here in the United Kingdom before passing judgement from Jerusalem.
During the summer we made our position on EAPPI incredibly clear. We were explicit in our concerns, leaving little room for doubt. We did not accuse EAPPI of antisemitism or that an endorsement of EAPPI by the Church of England would spell the death of interfaith relations, as you suggested in your letter. Palpably that assertion is absurd. And, crucially, we never implied that support of EAPPI was a declaration of an anti-Israel stance. Rather, we highlighted our real, genuine and legitimate concerns about the current structure, delivery and balance of EAPPI. We expressed those concerns in a dignified and moderate way and stand by those expressions.
In your letter, you questioned the claim we made that Ecumenical Accompaniers spend just a few days of the three month programme in Israel. You stated unequivocally that the EAPPI program actually spends 18 days in Israel speaking with Israelis. We have had our own contact with representatives of the Quakers, who run the programme in the UK, and they were unable to clarify your assertion.
For two months since you wrote your original letter, we have asked the UK EAPPI Director to share with us the actual itinerary of a past EAPPI program, and to be open and transparent with how EAPPI engages, during these 18 days in Israel, with Israelis. They tell us they are ‘working’ on this information, and referred us again to the day they spend in Sderot, and another in Yad Vashem. In short, they have refused our simple request.
Debbie, we are very concerned that you either misunderstood or were misled in quoting this schedule of 18 days of dialogue. I would ask you to query your EAPPI contact with the same question that we have been asking here in England for two months now. Ask them to show you an actual itinerary of a real EAPPI program. But we fear that you have missed our point and hence missed the reason for the hurt that the EAPPI has caused in this country. This is surely a symptom of commenting on situations on afar.
Whether they spend 3 days or 30 days in Israel during their programme, the Ecumenical Accompaniers (EAs), on a regular basis, return to the UK and give imbalanced, ill-informed and at times toxic talks about the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In a talk during October 2010, a returning EA stated that the Israel government is bent on control of all the land between the Nile and Euphrates. This claim was illustrated using maps taken from a website which referred to the holocaust as the ‘Holohoax’.
At a meeting in Essex in September of that same year, when a Jewish member of the audience questioned the points espoused by the Accompanier, a member of the audience shouted out “There are too many Jews at this meeting.” One EA made unsubstantiated claims of settlers sexually abusing Palestinian school children. Another returning EA, in an August 2012 event in Twickenham, claimed that Israeli soldiers sexually abused Palestinian women at check points. When asked to substantiate these allegations, EAPPI was unable provide any details. When we wrote a personal letter to the Director of EAPPI here in the UK, she responded that the EA in question had heard this information from an Israeli source, though she could not tell us who that source represented, or why the EA decided during her presentation to share it as her own personal account without verification.
Our issue here is not one of criticism of Israel. It is not one of fulfilling quotas of days spent in Israel. Our issue is one of a programme which in its conception, application and outcome creates cohorts of incredibly partisan spokespeople. Spokespeople who are often considered to be experts on the Israeli Palestinian conflict despite actually observing a specific, isolated component of that conflict.
And more importantly, our concern is that the EA’s are returning home, here to the UK, to create a toxic environment in Churches and Friend’s Houses throughout the country, in which our fellow Jews have been made to feel scared and threatened when they announce their faith and raise their questioning voices.
The intentions of your letter are clearly honourable and the need to pursue justice at the checkpoints is essential. But unlike the Almighty descending to understand Babel, you are speaking from afar. We invite you to ‘come down’ to the UK and experience the often divisive talks, panels and symposiums spearheaded by the returning EAs. We invite you to listen to the Jewish communities in Newcastle, Twickenham, Reading, Richmond, Essex, Edinburgh to name but a few, who have written to us with their concerns and their fears about an EAPPI talk in their locales.
In order to discern the voice of our community one need only listen, closely.
Jonathan Arkush, Vice-President Board of Deputies of British Jews.
(Link to the Rosh haShana Brief of ICCJ President Dr. Deborah Weissman: