As the new CEO of the 100-year-old Jewish social action organization Ameinu, Gideon Aronoff said he “pleads guilty to idealism.”
Since the start of July, the South Orange resident, who spent 12 years as an executive at HIAS, six of them as its president and CEO of the American-Jewish community’s international refugee aid agency, has been working to balance the pro-Israel politics of labor Zionism and what he considers “very clear differences with the Israeli government” on peace and social justice issues.
In a drive to straddle the Left and Right on negotiation issues between Israel and the Palestinians, Aronoff has proposed what he calls “the Third Narrative.”
“One narrative says Israel right or wrong and makes no recognition of the many claims the Palestinians have, including the West Bank occupation, the settlements, and discrimination against Israeli Arabs,” he said.
A second narrative argues “that every part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is due to the existence of Israel and that the behavior of Israel is both morally wrong and practically wrong.”
To Aronoff, “the pro-Israel people who take the ‘Israel right or wrong’ position are leading Israel down the road to ruin, and people on the far left who blame Israel for everything are doing nothing to bring about a Palestinian state.”
What’s more, he said, “the stakes now for both Israelis and Palestinians are so high that we have to break through these entrenched narratives, and go in a different direction toward peace.”
While ideas at both ends of the spectrum appear to keep hardening, he believes Ameinu (the Hebrew word means “our people”) “has the best chance of being able to really connect with well-meaning people on the left to create progressive support for Israel and to counter those who are seeking to demonize Israel,” he said.
Aronoff said Ameinu’s work with a younger generation of Jews in Israel and North America who are committed to social justice can also help defang some left-wing critics of Israel.
“By being engaged in the progressive world, we think that we will have a platform to engage in a dialogue over a two-state solution.”
Inside Israel, Aronoff’s organization is engaged in fighting discrimination against Bedouins in the Negev, arguing for religious pluralism embodied by the demands for egalitarian worship made by the Women of the Wall, and opposing attempts to expel asylum-seekers from Africa.
“There is a whole agenda that will make Israel a more compassionate, just, and democratic state,” he said. “It is a partner to the work we’re doing on the Israeli-Palestinian front because, without a two-state solution, Israel as a Jewish-Democratic state is imperiled.”
Ameinu has chapters in nine U.S. cities as well as two in Canada and is setting up links with kibbutzim to house young visiting activists from North America.
Aronoff said his “unapologetically progressive, and unapologetically Zionist” organization is also committed to such domestic American causes as strengthening trade union membership and voting rights.
“We have been involved in advocating against some of the union-busting legislation in states like Wisconsin, where the public sector unions are being attacked,” he said.
Far from the fringes of Jewish-American politics, Ameinu has a seat at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations alongside such mainstream groups as Hadassah, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America, and the World Zionist Organization.
“We are part of the Zionist movement,” Aronoff said, “and so we have an opportunity to speak within our community with a credibility that’s based on the more than 100 years of activity in the Zionist movement. I think that we are well received as an organization, but many people have yet to come to agree with our policy goals. That’s our challenge.”
It is one of many challenges Aronoff has faced at a series of jobs in Jewish communal service.
Raised in East Lansing, Mich., Aronoff came east to attend college at Brandeis University, then Cornell Law School.
He spent some 14 years in Washington, DC, as part of what he called “a very active community…of non-practicing attorneys.”
He was an organizer in the movement to free Soviet Jewry before joining HIAS in 2000, running its Washington operations, then becoming its CEO —a post he left a year ago.
Aronoff is also an active member of the Community Relations Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
“Gideon has been an important voice on the CRC,” said its director, Melanie Roth Gorelick.
“He was involved in fighting genocide in Darfur and human trafficking, and he is also interested in deterring anti-Israel resolutions from moving forward with some of the mainline Protestant Church bodies,” she said.
Aronoff is the father of an eight-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son and a member of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.