Workmen’s Circle, JCRC at odds on bill

By Brett M. Rhyne
Advocate staff

BOSTON – The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston and one of its member organizations, Boston Workmen’s Circle, appear to be in conflict over the latter’s support of a petition opposing a JCRC-created bill working its way through the state Legislature.

The bill, “An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts,” would prohibit the state from contracting for goods or services with entities that discriminate against individuals based on a number of characteristics, including national origin. Introduced in the Massachusetts House and Senate Jan. 17, the bill’s sponsors intended for it to combat the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

During the week of Jan. 30, the pro-Palestinian group Jewish Voice for Peace Boston posted on its website a petition urging legislators to reject the bill and “recognize the capacity of boycotts to bring about positive change in Palestine/Israel.”

On Feb. 3, the Brookline-based Boston Workmen’s Circle Center for Culture and Social Justice, one of 41 JCRC member organizations, appeared among the petition’s signatories, but by Feb. 6, its name no longer appeared.

Workmen’s Circle Executive Director Jen Kiok told The Jewish Advocate that her organization’s name appeared there due to “a miscommunication.”

“Our name appeared there in error,” Kiok noted in an email. “JCRC knows that.”

Yet on Feb. 9, in a statement clarifying its position on the bill, Workmen’s Circle chastised the organizational Jewish community for excluding oppositional voices.

“As an organization, we are committed to ending the Israeli occupation of Palestine, ensuring a just and lasting peace for Israelis and Palestinians, and making room for a diversity of views on these issues,” it noted. “We are proud to be an inclusive Jewish community that welcomes all members regardless of their political beliefs. We decline to draw lines around who is permitted to be a part of our community based on their position on Israel.

“We are saddened by and oppose the practice of exclusion from the institutional Jewish community of Jewish individuals or organizations whose political views are deemed unacceptable,” it continues. “The claim that this is a consensus bill representing the Jewish community ignores the growing divide that exists among Jews on this issue.”

“While the bill makes no mention of Israel, Palestine, or BDS, it is clear from public statements made by the bill’s supporters that the bill’s motivation is to intimidate those who express opposition to Israeli policy through economic boycott,” the statement noted.

“While Boston Workmen’s Circle does not take a position on BDS,” it continues, “we oppose the intended application of ‘An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts’ to restrict First Amendment-protected political expression.”

When contacted by The Advocate, JCRC Executive Director Jeremy Burton declined to comment. “I will not be responding to direct requests for comment on this or any matter,” he wrote in an email, referring all communication to spokeswoman Sasha Fastovskiy.

“All member organizations of the JCRC, including the Workmen’s Circle, commit themselves to alignment with JCRC’s mission including advocating for a safe, secure, Jewish and democratic state of Israel,” Fastovskiy noted in an email. “Though a small percentage of individuals and organizations within the American Jewish community do not share our commitment to the national aspirations of the Jewish people, they are not members of the JCRC.”

The bill “is supported and welcomed by a range of organizations and individuals representing the breadth and diversity of the organized Jewish community in Boston,” Fastovskiy wrote.

When asked for specific examples of members of the “institutional Jewish community” and “Jewish individuals or organizations” to whom its statement referred, Kiok referenced a Forward story published the day after Workmen’s Circle posted the statement. The story described a report penned by the national Anti-Defamation League and the Israel-based Reut Institute suggesting Israel advocates take more of a “big tent” approach, but mentions no specific organizations.

The statement does not refer to the Jewish Voice for Peace petition.


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