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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March-April 2012, Pages 50-51

Israel and Judaism

Freedom of Speech Under Increasing Attack Within the Organized Jewish Community

By Allan C. Brownfeld

When it comes to discussing Israel and events in the Middle East, freedom of speech is coming under an increasing assault within the organized American Jewish community.

Even a brief look at organizational Jewish life reveals growing efforts to stifle free expression. In too many cases, these efforts are succeeding.

The national umbrella organization for Jewish federations has removed critics of Israel from an online voting contest designed to identify "heroes" within the Jewish community. One of the excluded nominees, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) deputy director Cecilia Surasky, was among the top 10 vote-getters in the Jewish Community Heroes contest when Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) officials pulled her name from the contest Web site.

According to the Oct. 21, 2011 Forward, "Surasky's organization takes no stand on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—today seen as a litmus test in much of the Jewish community for upholding Israel's continued existence as both a Jewish and democratic state. JVP also does not condemn the movement for boycotting, divestment and sanctions against Israel and was instrumental in organizing a protest at the JFNA's 2010 General Assembly, at which protesters disrupted an address by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu."

Explained JFNA spokesman Joe Berkofsky, "One of the core values of the Jewish Federations is to support Israel, and our Jewish Heroes rules preclude us from accepting nominees whose aims run counter to our mission."

JVP argued that the contest changed its rules partway through. A comparison of current and cached versions of the JFNA's Web site shows that the initial rules were amended to state that nominees are ineligible if they are "nominated for a cause that runs directly counter to the ideals of the JFNA." No such language was evident a week before Surasky was removed.

Now in its third year, the Jewish Community Heroes contest features an open nomination process, Internet voting and a panel of judges to select the winner of a $25,000 grant toward his or her philanthropic work. The contest is promoted heavily through social networking services and Jewish media Web sites. Surasky had nearly 1,500 votes when her voting page was taken down, according to JVP.

"One of the core values of the Jewish Federations is to support Israel."

In a press release, JVP pointed to the presence among the top vote-getters of Maris Friedman, a Chabad rabbi who in 2009 declared his belief in "the Jewish way" to fight a war against the Arabs: "Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle)." The rabbi later allegedly retracted the comments. In Surasky's view, the JFNA was treating her group differently than extreme right-wingers who opposed JFNA policies.

Developments at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center also reveal an effort to put an end to free and open discussion. Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-born Muslim, was proud of the open conversation channel he had maintained with Ari Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, a highly regarded component of the JCC. Together with another local theater lover, Mimi Conway, they created the Peace Café, an after-play forum, complete with plates of hummus and pita bread supplied by Shallal's popular Busboys and Poets dining spots, that had become a mainstay of Theater J's programming.

The café, established 10 years ago during the run of a politically charged play about the Middle East, has been important as an outlet for debate over issues raised by Theater J's repertory. "It was an emotional experience for me, to walk into a Jewish community center, to grow up as a Muslim, thinking of Israelis as really scary people," said Shallal. "I walked through that door and it was a very beautiful experience."

According to The Washington Post of Aug. 7, 2011, "...suddenly, a few months ago, the curtain was drawn. The community center's then-chief executive officer, Arna Meyer Mickelson, told Shallal that Peace Café could no longer use the facilities of the center....Artists and devisers of programming say that a concerted move is afoot to smother any type of critical examination of Israel...In San Fransisco, after the presentation by a Jewish group of a play about Rachel Corrie, an American activist run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza, a Bay Area organization, the Jewish Community Federation, imposed a ban on funding for any group espousing support for a political boycott of Israeli business interests."

In March of last year, a group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, headed by lawyer Robert G. Samet, asked that the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington look at imposing curbs on financing for Theater J. As evidence of the theater company's intent to produce works that "demonize Israel and the Jewish people," Samet cited "Return to Haifa," a work by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon, that was performed at Theater J by Israel's most renowned company, the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv.

Although a hit for Theater J, the play was viewed by Samet's group as virulently anti-Israel. It portrayed an encounter between a Palestinian couple, returning for the first time to the home in Haifa they had fled at the time of Israel's birth, and the Israeli couple who had moved in and raised a family. A key element of the play was its attempt to dramatize the exile stories of Jews and Palestinians as being intertwined, a dimension that some observers thought had struck a conciliatory chord. The play was performed in Hebrew in Tel Aviv. The Theater J production was the first to be done in Hebrew and Arabic.

In the case of San Francisco, 73 Bay Area rabbis, intellectuals and artists signed a full-page open letter in the May 7, 2010 edition of The Forward warning Jewish communities of "the dangerous precedent" being set in their community. "This is a national issue," said Rachel Biale, former Bay Area director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and one of the letter's organizers. "The Bay Area is a pilot community. If it flies here, others may follow suit and even adopt stricter guidelines."

The controversial policy, passed by the federation's board, states, in part, that the organization will not fund groups that "advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel...including participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement," nor will it support programming that is co-sponsored or co-presented by such organizations.

The new policy followed a fracas at the 2009 San Fransisco Film Festival which twice screened "Rachel," an Israeli-made film about Rachel Corrie. The festival sponsors invited Corrie's mother to speak at one of the showings. Michael Harris, of the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs spoke as well, but he was heckled and booed, while Cindy Corrie was applauded.

Playing With Fire

"Who's to say what's in Israel's best interest?" asked Steven Zipperstein, professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford. "With regard to Israel, there is vast disagreement among Jews. Once such guidelines are imposed, we're playing with fire that is potentially uncontainable."

In March 2011, a Brandeis University chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) applied to become a constituent member of the school's Hillel Foundation and was rejected. JVP then managed to collect signatures from 1,000 students on a petition demanding that the decision be overturned. Following the Brandeis incident, the group released a petition signed by 50 rabbis and other Jewish leaders urging Hillel not to "exclude from your communal table Jewish students whose relationship with Israel may be one of thoughtful critique."

In their presentation to the Brandeis Hillel board, JVP members said they supported "a democratic state in Eretz Yisrael based on Jewish values," a formulation that some Hillel members saw as purposefully vague and possibly indicating a vision of a one-state solution. "There is always going to be a question of how we create a tent in which people feel embraced and empowered in their Judaism," said Larry Sternberg, executive director of Brandeis's Hillel. "But we can't have a referendum on the boundaries every day. And on Israel, the community expects us to reflect a certain core set of beliefs....we can't be expected to compromise on those."

Efforts by J Street, which calls itself "Zionist" and "pro-Israel," but challenges some policies of the Israeli government, to become part of organized Jewish life have been repeatedly thwarted. In November 2011, the Jewish Student Union at the University of California at Berkeley decided by a one-vote margin to bar the university's chapter from joining as a member organization. In February 2010, the University of Pennsylvania's Hillel faced criticism when it hosted Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street. In November 2010, Ben-Ami's speaking engagement at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Massachusetts was canceled when members of the congregation spoke out against his organization.

In Nashville, J Street's status seems to be in flux. According to Bill Smith, chair of the local J Street chapter, the group hosted retired Israeli Gen. Israel Oron at the local Jewish community center. But when J Street asked to bring in former Knesset member Yael Dayan, daughter of the late general and foreign minister Moshe Dayan, the JCC said no. More recently, the JCC—in addition to four local synagogues—declined to host Ben-Ami when he visited in last November.

What made Yael Dayan objectionable in Nashville was her own criticism of current Israeli government policies. During a week-long speaking tour of the U.S. in 2010, Dayan urged her audience to withdraw blind support for Israel. She discussed Israel's illegal occupation of Palestine, Jewish settlers uprooting olive trees that had belonged to Palestinians for generations, and the need for a two-state solution.

As the above examples make clear, the Jewish tradition of open debate and discussion—the searching after justice—is now being sharply challenged by those who would stifle all dissent. This is leading to the alienation of many, particularly young people. Rabbi Sid Schwartz, the founder of PANIM, the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, speaking of young Jews, writes: "In the past decade, I note that fewer and fewer identify as Zionists. Israel plays a much less significant role in their identity formation...and an astounding number hold the organized Jewish community in contempt. I believe the way our community has chosen to 'defend Israel' has profoundly alienated the next generation of American Jews....a generation of Jews who see themselves as global citizens will not identify with a community that offers them anything less." 


Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.

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