JCF resolution takes aim at anti-Israel advocates, but some argue it should have been stronger

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation board last week overwhelmingly rejected a proposal to prohibit federation support of events and groups that “defame” Israel or partner with those calling for boycotts, divestment or sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Instead, at its Nov. 19 meeting the board of directors passed a different resolution opposing the anti-Israel BDS movement. (Click here to read the resolution.)

After what acting federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz called a “lively and respectful and open discussion,” the board voted down two proposals by board member Anat Pilovsky of San Francisco. Pilovsky provided the only aye vote for each, and resigned from the board the next day.

Gorovitz said the board “was rejecting not the principle [of Pilovsky’s proposal], but an overly simplistic formula, however well-intentioned, that would have made the federation the decider and enforcer-in-chief of very subjective language.”

The approved anti-BDS language replicates a resolution passed Nov. 9 in Toronto at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. It calls for an “effective response” and “proactive strategy” to oppose the BDS movement, along with training, education and community mobilization efforts.

Gorovitz said the S.F.-based federation is the first federation in the country to adopt the G.A. resolution, adding the goal is “to heighten awareness … of the urgency of the BDS issue, and to ensure that the national [federation] system is committed to exploring how best to respond to the tactic.”

The board also approved a change in the federation’s grant-making process and grant agreements with beneficiary agencies, stressing the need to “utilize resources such as the Jewish Community Relations Council in advance of potentially controversial programs,” according to a federation statement.

It also voted to task an existing board working group with polling diverse voices in the community – including voices critical of the federation — and to craft guidelines for federation grantees’ boundaries of “expression on Israel beyond BDS.” Board members Daniel Grossman and David Stierman will co-chair the working group, which is slated to report to the full board in February.

Pilovsky’s second proposal was in regard to the working group. She proposed that several community members — none of whom sit on the federation board — join the group to help devise solutions, and have voting power in the group. This, too, was rejected.

Though federation board meetings are closed to the press and the public, one visitor attending the Nov. 19 meeting was Akiva Tor, the consul general of Israel for the Pacific Northwest. Gorovitz had invited the S.F.-based diplomat to address the board, though he did not participate in the debate over the issues.

“I’m happy the federation found the way to formalize its commitment to combating groups that are trying to delegitimize Israel and Zionism,” Tor said of the approved resolution and actions.

Pilovsky said the approved measures are “a good start” but do not go far enough. “Let’s look at the BDS movement,” she said. “Let’s train local professionals, but [the approved resolutions] do not address the issue of this kind of fiasco happening again.”

The “fiasco” she referred to is the still simmering community reaction to last summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film

Festival screening of “Rachel,” a documentary about  pro-Palestinian activist Rachel Corrie, who died in 2003 while protesting the Israeli presence in Gaza.

Compounding the controversy, at the film fest’s invitation Rachel Corrie’s mother, Cindy Corrie, spoke at the screening, which was co-presented by Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel.

Upset over federation funding of the film festival, an ad hoc group of federation donors, board members and community activists immediately began contacting federation staff, lay leadership and donors to demand the organization take action, such as cutting its funding to the festival.

The federation has long provided funds to the S.F. Jewish Film Festival, with its most recent donation totaling around $35,000.

The activists drafted a resolution that called on the federation to withdraw support of “events or organizations that demonize or defame Israel. Nor will it support organizations that partner in their events with individuals or groups that call for [BDS] against Israel.”

A full-page ad in j. Nov. 13 included the text of the proposal and urged federation board members to pass it. The ad was signed by 46 community members (described as a partial list). In the final version Pilovsky put before the board, the word “demonize” had been removed.

News of the proposal spread far and wide, with Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick referring to it in a piece last week, and Rabbi Daniel Gordis, senior vice president of Jerusalem’s Shalem Center, also drawing attention to it in a recent syndicated opinion piece.

Pilovsky had been lobbying fellow board members for weeks, and while she admitted she did not expect her proposals to pass, she also did not expect to be the only person voting in favor of them.

 “I was shocked,” she said. “I talked to six people [who] said, ‘Yes I will support you, I’ll be there,’ and when it came to the vote, suddenly there was nobody. When the meeting was over, I took my papers and I walked out. Nobody said a word to me.”

Said Gorovitz of Pilovsky’s resignation: “We’re saddened that a disagreement about how to handle this has caused her discomfort.”

KGO talk show host John Rothmann, a prominent critic of the film festival and the federation’s response to the “Rachel” controversy, is unhappy with the board’s decisions. Rothmann narrated a YouTube video blasting the festival and signed on as a supporter of the now-rejected resolution.

“People are very disturbed at the rejection of the resolution,” he said, “and people are very disturbed about the process that has gone on around the resolution. The effort made by the federation at the urging of many in this community is a good first step. The federation is not the enemy of anybody. After all, we are all part of the federation. But there is a desire for the federation to take a clear, unambiguous stand on a very simple proposition.”

Though Gorovitz became acting CEO months after the “Rachel” blowup erupted, she has pondered why the incident continues to roil the community.

“This thing has legs because of the high level of vitriolic accusations and misrepresentation cast at the federation,” Gorovitz said, “which is absurd and shocking. One reason this festered … was the festival not only crossed the line from art to politics but did so in a way that was careless.”

She added that after the community turmoil erupted over the “Rachel” screening and surrounding events, the federation “ought to have been out front by declaring outrage over the behavior.”

Instead, the federation released a cautiously worded statement noting that it “objected to the recent Film Festival event that featured Rachel Corrie’s mother as a speaker. The Federation expects its grantees to exercise responsibility and respect with regard to sensitive program choices.”

The Israel-born Pilovsky — a longtime federation volunteer and South Peninsula campaign co-chair — said she does not necessarily advocate donors upset about federation policy withhold their annual gifts.

“While I do not necessarily advocate that everyone should withdraw their pledges or stop giving, I think that people should wait and see if the federation develops a new policy,” she said. “If there is no new policy, people should draw their own conclusions.”

Meanwhile, Gorovitz is optimistic the board’s actions will help restore calm to the community and avoid replication of another “Rachel”-type incident.

“I have every confidence,” she said, “that our board, the JCRC and our community generally will work together in the coming summer.”

 

Resolution against Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement

Background

In recent years, anti-Israel activists have honed in on Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) as a tactic to isolate and demonize the State of Israel. This strategy was intensified after the infamous 2001 United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa. The goal of the campaign is to draw the odious and spurious comparison between Apartheid and the Jewish state.

The BDS tactic has been endorsed by 170 pro-Palestinian parties, organizations, trade unions and movements. Many of these groups are loosely connected and share similar materials. Common to most BDS calls are distortions and outright fabrications of facts, misrepresentations of international law, and a false assertion that the proffered action somehow will improve the condition of Palestinians. Although often focused on “occupation” as the root of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict, almost all BDS activists embrace, in some form, an end to Israel as a Jewish state – some as a direct position, most through anti-Zionist stances and a call for a Palestinian “right of return.”

The spheres in which the BDS movement operates include, but are not limited to, Campus/Academic, Church, Civic, Corporate, and Cultural. Efforts to combat BDS draw from some common strategies, particularly the importance of solid relationships with decision leaders.

In each sphere, though, our efforts must employ strategic considerations, messaging, and organizing that are unique to the particular sector.

Examples

Campus/Academia: Anti-Israel divestment campaigns have been waged at dozens of colleges, many tying to the false analogy of campus anti-Apartheid activity. These strident efforts, including inflammatory street demonstrations, have caused tremendous stress to Jewish students. To date, all such campaigns have failed, although activists have claimed success in a few instances due to media attention or votes by campus bodies that were later reversed. In Europe, however, a robust campaign to boycott Israeli academics continues to be parroted by a handful of North American academics.

Churches: BDS activists had a fleeting victory when the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted a resolution in 2004 declaring Israeli actions to be at the “root of evil acts” committed on both sides of the conflict and calling for “phased selective divestment” of companies operating in Israel. Presbyterians replaced the call with a more general endorsement for socially responsible investments. The United Church of Canada has twice rejected divestment resolutions as have other denominations including the United Methodist Church. Virulent anti-Israel campaigns continue in several denominations, including the publication of anti-Israel polemics by groups supporting BDS. Internationally, the World Council of Churches and the Anglican Church in England have embraced BDS.

Civic: Several city councils, as well as voters in Somerville, MA, have rejected calls for municipal divestment of Israel. In Europe, there have been repeated efforts in labor unions. In North America, labor leaders have publicly condemned BDS.

Corporate: A longstanding BDS effort has focused on Caterpillar, Inc. Shareholder resolutions have repeatedly failed, and the company has rejected calls to restrict its sales in contravention of American law. Smaller scale efforts have been waged against a range of companies including sellers to Israel’s defense forces, construction industry, and even retailers that sell Israeli products or have operations across the ‘green line.’

Cultural: The newest front in the BDS campaign are artistic, athletic and other cultural activities, as was recently experienced with a film festival in Toronto that successfully highlighted 10 films from Israel and celebrated Tel Aviv’s centennial, despite a BDS campaign. There have been sporadic protests of Israeli entertainers. Overseas, Israeli athletes and teams have been ostracized in several national tournaments.

Action Recommendations

The Federation system has the unique capacity, including grassroots infrastructure, to defeat this challenge. BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED, that recognizing and respecting the right of individual organizations and communities to determine their own specific preferred courses of action, The Jewish Federations of North America should:

Declare that the BDS movement be regarded with the utmost urgency;

Lead an effective response and devise a proactive strategy to the BDS movement through appropriate vehicles within the system, especially the Israel Advocacy Initiative, a joint project of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) and the Jewish Federations of North America. Components of this strategy include:

• Conduct research to develop the most effective messages and strategies for the major sectors of BDS activity;

• Educate Federation and JCRC Professionals and Lay Leadership about the nature, tactics and dangers of the BDS movement;

• Train local leadership on how to counter BDS initiatives in local communities;

• Mobilize the Federation and JCRC network to be on alert for BDS initiatives and support each other as necessary. n

Submitted by: The Jewish Federations of North America–JCPA Israel Advocacy Initiative

This is the Resolution against Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement passed by the Delegate Assembly on Nov. 9 in Toronto.

Dan Pine

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