Jewish institutions struggle over decisions to host speakers who are critical of Israel

Just how open should Jewish institutions be when it comes to talking about Israel?

That’s the question at the center of a flurry of recent controversies involving Jewish museums, an Orthodox high school and Hillel chapters on college campuses.

A Jewish Voice for Peace activist protests outside New York City’s 14th Street Y in May 2012 after the Jewish institution canceled a JVP event. photo/jta-courtesy jewish voice for peace

For years, Jewish institutions have been grappling with where to draw red lines when it comes to criticism of Israel. Should they open their doors to groups like the Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, which is allied with the BDS movement and takes no position on whether or not Israel has a right to exist? Should they host speakers who espouse positions some might consider anti-Israel, or close themselves off to these viewpoints to send a clear message that such positions are inappropriate? Is a call for boycotting West Bank settlements out of bounds?

The recent cases underscore just how much shifting ground there is on the Israel debate — and how much Jewish institutions are looking over their shoulders.

The quandary was captured by a statement issued last week by the head of Ramaz, an Orthodox high school in Manhattan, after he nixed an invitation by the school’s student political club to Arab-American academic Rashid Khalidi.

“We are working with [the students] to navigate a delicate political situation, respecting their wish for open exchange of ideas, but also being mindful of multiple sensitivities within our varied school constituencies,” the school leader, Paul Shaviv, wrote.

Following the cancellation of the event with Khalidi — a Columbia University professor who has argued that Palestinians living under Israeli occupation have a legal right to resistance and that supporters of Israel use McCarthyite tactics to silence debate in America — some Ramaz students launched an online petition to reinstate the invitation.

“I believe it is critical that Ramaz students are exposed to different perspectives and that open dialogue be encouraged at Ramaz — not limited,” the petition reads.

At Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., students at the Hillel-affiliated Jewish student union announced their decision last week to embrace unfettered dialogue on Israel, saying they would not abide by Hillel International’s rules limiting Israel-related speech.

The decision follows a similar move last December by students at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia, who declared an “Open Hillel,” objecting to Hillel’s policy on Israel. More than 100 alumni of U.C. Berkeley are urging that school’s Hillel to do the same (see story, 3).

Hillel President Eric Fingerhut declined a JTA request to be interviewed. In a written statement, he reiterated Hillel’s commitment to pluralism but stated that the organization will not “give a platform to groups or individuals to attack the Jewish people, Jewish values or the Jewish state’s right to exist. This includes groups or individuals that support and advance the BDS movement, which represents a vicious attack on the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”

On the museum front, literary theorist Judith Butler, an affiliated faculty member of U.C. Berkeley’s rhetoric department, pulled out of a March 6 talk she was scheduled to give on Franz Kafka at New York’s Jewish Museum amid protests over her support for boycotting Israel.

“While her political views were not a factor in her participation, the debates about her politics have become a distraction making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended,” the museum said in a statement.

According to the Forward, the museum scrapped the entire event when Butler cancelled. She said in a statement that she regretted the entire incident.

“I was very much looking forward to the discussion of Kafka in The Jewish Museum, and to affirm the value of Kafka’s literary work in that setting,” Butler said in a statement released by the museum.

It’s not clear whether these controversies, which seem to be growing in number, are signs of a crumbling of the American Jewish consensus on supporting Israel.

“There’s a real dispute in the scholarly world about whether what we’re hearing is a small, noisy minority or whether what we’re seeing is a harbinger of change,” said Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “It certainly is the case that we are seeing more of these issues at the moment.”

The question facing American Jewish institutions is what kind of criticism of Israel they should allow.

Concern for donors’ wishes may be the guiding principle, says journalist Peter Beinart, who advocates boycotting West Bank settlements but rejects boycotts against Israel. Beinart was himself disinvited to present a talk about Israel at the Atlanta JCC in the fall of 2012.

“The sociological reality is that so many Jewish institutions are reliant on a small group of very large donors, and they don’t have a large donor base anymore,” Beinart said. “Just one or two of them can strike terror into the hearts of a Jewish organization.”

Some Jewish institutions want to avoid just that.

Last week, New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust rescinded an invitation to John Judis, the author of a controversial new book on President Truman and Israel that suggests Truman was strong-armed into accepting the establishment of the Jewish state by a powerful American Zionist movement.

On Feb. 23, the museum’s director, David Marwell, reinstated the invitation, saying he wasn’t aware staff had already invited Judis when he made the decision not to hold the event.

As canceling the talk would have raised the “ugly specter of succumbing to pressure and giving in to outside influence,” Marwell wrote on the museum’s website, the talk would go forward.

It is now scheduled for June 1