The Crisis of Zionism author Peter Beinart cancels KPFA talk in Berkeley

A mid-April talk in Berkeley by “The Crisis of Zionism” author Peter Beinart has been canceled — by Beinart himself.

But it took an intriguing turn of events to get to that point.

After learning a Jewish Voice for Peace board member was scheduled to moderate the talk by Beinart, the JCC of the East Bay withdrew its co-sponsorship of the event, according to a March 21 statement issued by the JCC.

Consequently, Beinart canceled the appearance, which was being co-sponsored by left-wing Berkeley radio station KPFA. On the station’s website, it was listed as a “KPFA upcoming event” for April 17 at the Hillside Club in Berkeley.

Peter Beinart at a talk in 2009 photo/creative commons-center for american progress

According to its statement, the JCC withdrew sponsorship because “KPFA selected a moderator [Penny Rosenwasser]… whose organizational affiliations were not disclosed to us proactively. We will not sponsor a speaking platform for a representative of an organization [JVP] that calls for withdrawal of economic support for Israel.”

Rosenwasser is a leader of Jewish Voice for Peace, an Oakland-based organization that calls for an end to Israel’s presence in the West Bank and has urged “withdrawing [Israeli and American] support from the occupation.” Her role for the lecture was to have been to introduce Beinart and help field audience questions.

Sally Kauffman Flinchbaugh, executive director of the JCC of the East Bay, said, “I have to take responsibility. I didn’t know who [Rosenwasser] was. It was not clear until the poster came out that she was the moderator. For us, we can’t have a [JVP] moderator up there. It slanted the whole thing.”

Once the JCC pulled out, KPFA events coordinator Bob Baldock spoke to Beinart, telling him KPFA “would not jettison [Rosenwasser] on this basis.” He told j. that Beinart requested time to consider his options. “The next day,” Baldock continued, “we got a call from Beinart’s publicist saying, ‘Sorry, guys.’ ”

Neither Beinart nor his publicist could be reached for this article.

While acknowledging that it was Beinart who chose to cancel the talk, Jewish Voice for Peace sent out a statement that placed blame on “an increasingly McCarthyite atmosphere in the Jewish institutional world … more and more, Jewish institutions are required to police speakers and events based on the narrow requirements of a handful of influential funders.”

Referring to guidelines established two years ago by the S.F.-based Jewish Comm-unity Federation (which set limits for grantees in terms of anti-Israel speech), Rosenwasser told j., “I don’t fault the JCC. I think it’s the guidelines. Part of the motivation for the guidelines is fear. A lot of Jews have a lot of fear because we were nearly wiped out 70 years ago. But we can’t let that get in the way of fairness.”

The JCC of the East Bay, which has locations in Berkeley and Oakland, is in the region overseen by the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, which has not issued funding guidelines similar to those of the S.F.-based federation.

Flinchbaugh denies the guidelines or any outside pressure played a role in the decision to withdraw sponsorship.

“It was the board’s feeling that we can’t support this,” she said. “There was serious board involvement. I won’t deny I had a handful of phone calls [from] a couple of individuals who said you can’t do this, but nobody from federation said ‘Sally, you have to pull out.’ ’’

She also emphasized that the JCC’s sponsorship meant nothing more than helping to publicize the event.

Beinart’s new book, “The Crisis of Zionism,” has stirred controversy for its harsh condemnation of Israel’s presence in the West Bank. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Beinart called for a boycott of Israeli goods produced in the West Bank.

He is still scheduled to appear April 16 at the JCC of San Francisco, with host Janine Zacharia, former Jerusalem bureau chief and Middle East correspondent for the Washington Post.

As for Beinart’s call for a boycott of good produced in Israeli settlements, Rosenwasser said, “I think it’s very brave of him to take a clear stand. He’s young, and talks about young Jews who are disaffected by the Jewish establishment’s beliefs and policies.”

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Dan Pine

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