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

by uriel heilman, jta

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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
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


Posted by paul
02/27/2014  at  08:46 PM
Jewish Voice For Peace, is the Jewish Voice Pro War

I would like to tell every body that so-called Jewish Voice for Peace policies are pro wars, pro Holocaust and, anti democracy. The so-called JVP,wants to destroy Israel. They are anti USA as well because, we support Israel. The so-called JVP, doesn’t want two states solution. The solution to this problem,is only two states,period. One, is for the Jews, called Israel. The other one is for the Arabs, called Palestine. The JVP, doesn’t want peace. How can the so-called JVP claim to be so-peaceful if some one from this group, attacked me on the Bus Stop in San Francisco and, this person is still attacking me every time he see me in the city or,on the counter demonstration where I Stand with Israel? I will continue to love and to support the State of Israel and IDF. The Jewish Institutions aren’t going to host the JVP and their allies because their activities against Israel. The JVP, doesn’t promote peace between the Jewish State of Israel and Arabs State of Palestine but,rather going to the ongoing war against Israel.

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Posted by Dave Peters
02/28/2014  at  04:17 PM
Venue vs Censorship

The issue is not censorship, as there is no call to prevent anti-Israel anti-Semites from speaking, somewhere else other than a Hillel.
The issue is providing a venue, and therefore an implicit condoning of a view so opposite to the stated goals of the organization.
Noting stops Hillel members from going to hear anti-Israel speakers; everything should preclude Hillel from providing a forum for their anti-Semitism.

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Posted by paul
02/28/2014  at  05:41 PM
Dave, let me tell you

Dave, let me tell you that, the Hillel is 100% for Israel. So, why should they invite the so-called Jewish Voice for peace if no one from this group doesn’t want Israel to exist? For me as Israel supporter, the issue is a censorship. The Jewish Voice for peace, shouldn’t be invited to the Jewish Institutions with their allies to speak about their anti-Israel agenda and how to support BDS against Israel. I do not want the JVP have any access to the Jewish Community. JVP has only one and, only one “THANK GOD”, venue,J. J will publish their letters against Israel. Jewish Voice for Peace, promote anti-Semitism. To be against Israel, it is a stereotype of the anti-semitism. Boycott Divestment Sanctions which the JVP support, doesn’t promote peace. The JVP, is anti-democracy, anti-Israel,anti-America group that promote only the war, Holocaust, hate, and, destraction of the State of Israel, period. They shouldn’t have a venue.

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Posted by Michael Harris
03/02/2014  at  03:39 PM
It's just common sense

No organization that stands for something will allow someone openly hostile to that group’s mission to promote their viewpoint. And if our Jewish community organizations don’t stand for Israel, the democratic state that is the home of half of our people, then they don’t really stand for anything.

The issue of “open debate” is a smokescreen. Groups such as JVP aren’t interested in open debate; they’ve refused to accept my challenge to such a debate within the pages of J Weekly. (that challenge is still open, by the way). What they want is to subvert Hillel and other community institutions into places where they can spread their lies. 
I can also point out that I’m still waiting for an invitation to speak at any of the many anti-Israel groups in the Bay Area. So let’s not pretend that the anti-Israel groups are interested in “open debate”, any more than they are interested in peace between a Jewish state of Israel and its neighbors.

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Posted by gitelsura
03/06/2014  at  09:51 AM
Exodus from the closed tent

Censorship of voices critical of Israel exists right here in the Bay Area, where the S.F.  Jewish Federation has issued guidelines that effectively defund any Jewish venue (like JCC’s) that hosts speakers who support BDS.  That means that the Jewish community, alone among Bay Areas communities, may not hear within their own centers of discourse such leading intellectuals and artists as Tony Kushner, Noam Chomsky, Eve Ensler, Naomi Klein,  and numerous rabbis who are JVP members and BDS supporters. Nor may they hear the many other intellectuals and artists who support BDS, including Israeli Prize laureates and former high-ranking Israeli officials. Just HEAR them, not necessarily support their views. 

This refusal to open eyes and ears and minds is part of the dumbing-down of the Jewish Community.  It reflects a hasbara agenda to create a reactive, monolithic, uncritical Jewish community in the U.S. that feeds on fear and hatred, and abandons its once glorious place as a center for vibrant discourse and debate.

As for Michael Harris’ repeated “generous offer” to debate JVP in J Weekly’s pages,  he should finally accept that JVP and other BDS supporters do not have to agree to such restrictive venues, since they are very busy speaking and debating at many venerable spaces of learning across the country.  As we see with the Open Hillel movement, and in centers where young Jews gather,  the “big tent” must either open up to become more inclusive, or there will be, and there already is, an exodus to spaces where critical thinking is not only allowed, but cherished.

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Posted by paul
03/06/2014  at  03:40 PM
Gitelsura, what you said in

Gitelsura, what you said in your comments to support Jewish Voice for peace who doesn’t want peace, doesn’t promote peace,period. And, the reason, why so-called the JVP is too busy by speaking and debating across the country because, they want to spread their lies all over the world. Let’s you and I have on open debate on this page. The JVP, shouldn’t have a venues,period. The policies of the JVP are pro war, pro Holocaust, anti democracy, anti America and anti Israel. And, I will repeat it if I need to do so. Gitelsura, I’M wondering if you are Cecily Surasky,or Rae Abileach from the JVP and Code Pink. Code Pink and JVP policies are racists. Gitelsura, have you ever been to Israel? I invite you to visit because, it’s a beautiful country. All those who support the JVP and BDS against Israel together with the Rabbis who are members of the JVP, are self hate Jews. What does your fellow JVP know about Judaism? What does the JVP know about the Torah and Halftarah? Does the so-called JVP know how to chant the Torah and Halftarah? Does the JVFP know any Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino or Arabic? How dare can you and your fellow JVP to be against yourselves? Do you know what a Torah says about Israel? Torah says, if some body attack Israel then, Israel has the right for self defense. Torah says that, if some body attack me then, I have a right for self defense. How can the so-called JVP claim to be so-peaceful if some one from this group, attacked on the bus stop in San Francisco and, this person is still attacking me every time he see me in the city or on the counter demonstration where I stand with Israel? The Jewish Centers together with the Jewish institutions, aren’t going to host JVP with their allies because of their activities against Israel. Gitelsura, you do not promote peace in your comment. The JVP isn’t interesting in open debates because, they don’t want to hear any negatives opinion against them. JVP, doesn’t understand what a peace is because, they don’t want two states solution. Gitelsura, do you know that 72% of Americans are support Israel and view Israel as a beautiful country? I’M with them. Let me tell you that the so-called JVP, need to know that two states solution is important to bring a peace and to stop that conflict. But, the JVP doesn’t want this. Gitelsura, do you really believe that Jerusalem is occupaid by Jews? Let me tell you, Jerusalem was found on dunes in the 1909 by Jews from Eastern Europe. Where do we go if the Arabs kick us out? In a good time and bad time, in a time of peace and time of war, Israel supply every thing to Gaza including, food, water medicine, money and education. When Israel go to the war against Hamas, I repeat this, against Hamas and not civilians, Israel call to every house in Gaza and ask them to evacuate themselves. I don’t know any country of the world that would do the same. Israel safe lives. The JVP, is truthful the Jewish Voice for war and destruction of the State of Israel.

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Posted by Michael Harris
03/08/2014  at  05:40 PM
BDS fears genuine debate

Gitelsura, at least be honest. JVP and other BDS supporters fear any type of debate (“restrictive” of course meaning that you don’t get to rig it in your favor, just like BDS discussions in other institutions). Rather, you’ll continue to stand proudly with supporters of terrorism and anti-Semitism, as you have done for years.  And while your fondest wish (aside from the elimination of Israel) is the subversion of our Jewish community institutions, that won’t happen either.

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