S.F. federation: We won’t fund anti-Israel programming

With a newly approved policy in place, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation hopes never to see another “Rachel” debacle — at least on its dime.

The federation board voted overwhelmingly Feb. 18 to pass new mandatory guidelines for agencies and organizations receiving federation allocations.

Jennifer Gorovitz

Grounded in what its drafters call “core values,” the policy spells out uncrossable red lines regarding grantees’ Israel-related programming, as well as an enforcement mechanism to ensure that the federation will not support financially what it deems anti-Israel activity or expression.

Those core values include commitment to Israel, to the Jewish community and to respecting diversity within that community.

Under terms of the policy, the federation will not fund organizations that “through their mission, activities or partnerships endorse or promote anti-Semitism … actively seek to proselytize Jews away from Judaism; or advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel … including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.”

A clause was added to establish that co-sponsoring or co-presenting public programs on Middle East issues with “supporters of the BDS movement or others who undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel” is not consistent with federation policy.

The guidelines also apply to grants from the federation’s Endowment Fund.

“This really is brand new,” said the federation’s acting CEO, Jennifer Gorovitz. “We are the first federation in the country to find itself needing to provide guideposts to ease anxieties on all sides of this issue.”

The full text of the policy can be read at sfjcf.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/policy.

Providing impetus for the policy was the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s July 25 and Aug. 4 screening of the documentary, “Rachel,” along with inviting BDS advocate Cindy Corrie to speak after the first screening, and the festival’s partnering with Jewish Voice for Peace and the American Friends Service Committee as co-presenters.

“Rachel” tells the story of Rachel Corrie, a fiercely anti-Israel American activist killed in Gaza in 2003.

The SFJFF incident sparked a firestorm of controversy within the Jewish community. At one end of the spectrum, ardent defenders of unlimited free speech stood by the film festival; at the other, pro-Israel activists directed their anger at the federation for providing funding to the festival.

In a letter to the community posted on the federation Web site, Gorovitz said, “Had the policy been in effect prior to the event accompanying the screening of the movie ‘Rachel,’ we believe these guideposts would have made clear that such an event and co-sponsorships fall outside the bounds of the JCF’s funding.”

Film festival president Dana Doron declined to speak with j. for this story, but said in a written statement, “We are studying the federation’s new policy and look forward to working with them to clarify the guidelines and their implications with regard to the festival’s programming.”

Some critics of the federation’s response to the “Rachel” incident last year praised the new policy. Said KGO talk show host John Rothmann, “I fully support the federation resolution. I am delighted that the community has united around the very principles we first articulated when the incident took place. All the substantive issues were addressed.”

Zvi Alon, an Israeli-born South Bay business executive and outspoken critic of the federation last year, read the new guidelines and approves of them, though with some reservations.

“The first reaction was very positive,” Alon said. “[But] the crux of the matter is the enforcement. I don’t think they have the will.”

To aid with enforcement, the new policy requires federation grantees to produce documentation demonstrating “consistency with JCF’s core values,” most pertinently an “abiding commitment to … the strong democratic Jewish State of Israel.”

If a given grantee does not have such a policy on the books, it must abide by the language in the federation resolution until it develops its own pro-Israel policy.

Any perceived violation by a grantee would first face review from federation executives and officers. If a violation is determined to have occurred, then JCF would “take appropriate steps,” including possibly suspending funds or sponsorship.

That “take appropriate steps” clause was deliberately ambiguous,  Gorovitz said.

“Every case is different,” she said. “In the law, tests of circumstances are often applied. The federation does not want to micromanage the behavior of grantees. We want them to use common sense and good judgment within the framework of these guidelines, and come to their own conclusions.”

Since last November, a federation working group has methodically drafted the new policy. Daniel Grossman and David Stierman co-chaired the group, which was composed of community members representing a wide spectrum of views.

The group further divided into two subcommittees, one writing the new policy, the other working directly with the S.F. Jewish Film Festival to reach consensus on avoiding future controversies.

Because discussions between the subcommittee and the film festival are ongoing, Gorovitz declined to comment about the progress of those talks.

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, joined the working group and helped craft the final language of the resolution. He says JCRC will have a role in preventing future controversies.

“We believe that institutions engaged in Israel programming are well served by developing policies,” he said. “The [resolution] strongly encourages that and expects a process to begin. It doesn’t set a deadline, recognizing it is something that can take time to get right.”

Over the past several weeks, members of the working group vetted resolution language with a variety of Jewish community leaders and federation stakeholders. They also tested the policy in a variety of hypothetical scenarios.

Gorovitz says the new policy ensures balance, artistic freedom and diversity of views. A variety of forums and arts settings is permissible, as is the expression of views critical of Israeli government policies.

But there is a limit.

“A forum that gives someone a platform for BDS or undermines the legitimacy of Israel is not OK,” Gorovitz says. “We’re not trying to squelch attitudes in the community. We want to ensure federation funding is used in a way consistent with its values of a secure and thriving State of Israel.”

That means the S.F. Jewish Film Festival would put its future federation funding in jeopardy if it were again to involve an organization like Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports BDS in certain cases, according to its Web site.

In the weeks ahead, federation representatives plan to meet one-on-one with grantees to explain the policy and answer questions. It’s part of an effort to “heal the community,” as Gorovitz puts it. “It was really important to us to get this right.”

For critics like Alon, the proof is in the pudding. Until the next “pudding” comes along, he says he has made the decision to withhold his annual JCF donation.

“I am very positive about the policy,” he said, “but to me, what was missing was a very clear enforcement component. I would not donate. I want to see what actually happens in reality.”

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.