Despite unseasonably warm weather across the globe, what really raised the temperature among some in the left-leaning constituency of the Dati Leumi (National Religious) community this week was the announcement of a new two-week summer program on scriptural approaches to “Jewish social justice,” to be held at Yeshivat Torat Yosef Hamivtar in Efrat, in partnership with the US-based non-profit Uri L’Tzedek (ULZ — roughly translatable as “awaken to justice”). Where is the tzedek, many challenged, in holding a seminar on Jewish social justice in a settlement?

Founded in New York City in 2006, ULZ is a self-described “Orthodox social justice organization” whose mission is “guided by Torah values and [which is] dedicated to combating suffering and oppression… towards creating a more just world.”

The non-profit primarily focuses on poverty and economic justice campaigns in the United States and has also been at the forefront of the movement for so-called “ethical kashrut,” providing its own certification of Tav Ha-Yosher (ethical seal) to restaurants that meet both dietary and labor standards. ULZ has emerged as an important member of a loose coalition of progressive Modern Orthodox institutions – the website featured testimonials from such figures as rabbis Jonathan Sacks, Avi Weiss, and Shlomo Riskin — and has built a strong, and well-deserved, reputation as a premier social justice group within the American Jewish community.

Occupying social justice

Part of a new partnership with Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, an educational institution within Rabbi Riskin’s Ohr Torah Stone framework, the ULZ summer program will be dedicated to analyzing the body of halakha and Jewish thought pertaining to the Torah’s approaches to social justice, devoting special attention to Jewish rights and duties, Jewish-Gentile relations, Jewish universalism vs. particularism, and other hot-button topics.

However, neither organization acknowledges the irony inherent in holding a seminar on conceptions of Jewish social justice in a settlement, nor do they plan to include any discussion of these tensions within the program. For its part, Yeshivat Hamivtar — which bills itself as place to “engage modernity and the State of Israel” — does not even acknowledge its own location within the occupied territories, describing its campus as “in the pastoral region of Gush Etzion, only a 15 minute ride south of Jerusalem.”

A Palestinian farmer plows his field inside the Jewish settlement of Efrat (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

A Palestinian farmer plows his field inside the Jewish settlement of Efrat (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

In a conversation Thursday, Uri L’Tzedek’s director, Rabbi Ari Weiss, defended the summer seminar program.

“One of our main goals is to deepen the conversation about social justice within the Orthodox community and we think this a real opportunity to do so,” he suggested. “It’s a way of expanding the imagination of yeshiva students to talk about social justice within a more traditional setting. [The program] is the first of its kind.”

Downplaying the program’s controversial location, he posited that “there has always been progressive Orthodox thought in Gush Etzion,” and stressed the importance of the partnership with a leading Modern Orthodox educational institution. “I think it’s a pragmatic issue,” Weiss said.

“Yeshivat Hamivtar is where Yeshivat Hamivtar is,” he added, brushing off the criticism and contending that most of the censorious voices were likely coming from outside the Modern Orthodox community.

Despite its alert, sensitive eye to domestic issues, Uri L’Tzedek is obviously asleep in the Israel-Palestine context. Its lack of self-consciousness in regards to both the location of the seminar and its curriculum requires comprehensive reconsideration.

An opportunity for new dialogue

By keeping the program in Efrat, Uri L’Tzedek could be creating a profound opportunity to open a new, bold, and innovative dialogue about the relationship between Jewish social justice and the Israeli settler movement, in an inclusive forum that encompasses participants from within the settlement enterprise itself.

Such a discussion need not conform to rigid political positions, treating both Palestinian political, economic, and social injustices under the occupation as well as Jewish claims to the whole of the Land of Israel. Yeshivat Hamivtar, widely considered a “liberal” Modern Orthodox institution under the leadership of Rabbi Riskin (a quixotic and sometimes-controversial leader who has spoken out on some of these issues), could provide an ideal setting. Moreover, the location of Efrat itself could also serve to enhance the resonance of issues — from the economic disparities between settlements to the fate of settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion under a final status agreement — that have created new “in” and “out” groups among the settlers themselves.

If Uri L’Tzedek has the courage to demonstrate leadership in this discussion within the Dati Leumi community, it truly has a unique opportunity to awaken new perspectives for the future.