It was 35 years ago this month when I received the phone call.
As the San Francisco district president of the Zionist Organization of America, I had the responsibility of planning a program that would attract the community-wide attention that would serve to increase our organizational visibility.
The call was simple and direct and highly critical. “John,” the caller said, “how can you bring a right-wing extremist who has been a terrorist to our community?”
The individual who called me, a leader in our Jewish Community Federation, was blunt. “This is bad for our community and will be divisive. You must cancel the program.”
My response was swift and equally blunt. “The ZOA is not a federation-funded agency. Indeed, the federation has declined through the years to fund the ZOA. As an independent organization we have the perfect right to bring whomever we wish to speak in our community. The program will proceed as planned.”
The outrage at my response was vigorous. The debate over the decision to bring in this speaker was passionate. An ad that had run earlier, accusing the speaker of being a terrorist and signed by a number of prominent Jews, was distributed widely.
The speaker who generated such controversy? Menachem Begin.
Dissent in our community is not new. This community debated the role of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1970s and 1980s we argued passionately about the role of Breira and the New Jewish Agenda, two now-defunct groups viewed by many as too “dovish” and left wing when it came to Israel. At the same time, we were confronted with the militant Jewish Defense League, which had a small but active presence in our community.
Currently, much is being said about the New Israel Fund and J Street and their active presence in our community. Let there be no doubt that both of these organizations represent a “left of center” point of view. It should also be equally clear that both are pro-Israel, believe in a secure Jewish state and rightly claim the support of those who agree with their philosophy and stated political objectives.
It is important to point out that none of these organizations, past or present, received funds from the federation’s annual campaign. They have had, and continue to have, complete freedom of action in our community.
In 1987, Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee asserted “there is a myth that American Jews are unwilling or afraid to discuss difficult and controversial issues, lest the appearance of division within our community cause Israel embarrassment and give comfort to her enemies.” Bookbinder was correct in his observation.
That “myth” still persists. We are a diverse community and there must be, and always will be, room for vigorous discussion and debate.
Certainly my record of dissent over four decades has been clear, as I have often differed with the “establishment.”
My activism on behalf of Soviet Jews — including a stint as president of the Bay Area Council for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s — was once described as “radical” and “destructive” by a leader in this community. One federation officer in 1975 went so far as to say: “Can’t we just do away with that dirty word, Zionism?”
My vigorous support for the founding of the Holocaust Center of Northern
California, and the need to bring Holocaust awareness to the forefront, was once viewed as being too direct. The memory of the Holocaust, I was told, should be discussed in whispers lest it stir up emotions better left to rest. And besides, “it will only cause more trouble.”
The policy recently adopted by the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation was born out of vigorous dissent — dissent that many of us felt was imperative in light of what we believed was an initial lack of response by the organized Jewish community to the events surrounding the S.F. Jewish Film Festival last summer.
It took many months, but finally our often criticized dissent — encapsulated by a YouTube video critical of the SFJFF for its “Rachel” decisions and of the federation for its film festival funding — was the catalyst that caused the JCF to act in a clear, decisive and admirable fashion.
I believe that it is now clear that the organized Jewish community, as represented by the S.F.-based federation, speaks with one voice on a number of critical issues. We support the State of Israel even if some may disagree with a particular policy or government in Israel. As a united community, we will actively oppose those who call for boycott, divestment or cuts in aid to Israel. We believe in the free expression of divergent views, even when we are in disagreement with those views.
If one accepts funding from the JCF, one must abide by all of the conditions that go along with receiving funding. If an organization or agency does not receive JCF funding or chooses not to receive funding, it has the perfect right to pursue what ever course it chooses, understanding that a vigorous response will most certainly be forthcoming if there is disagreement.
Let my position be clear. We have serious issues to confront — issues that must be debated and discussed openly. I am pleased that in our community we have proved that an open debate can take place. We have demonstrated that despite the stresses involved and the passions aroused, civility can be maintained.
We now know that a united organized community can move forward to meet the challenges that we will most certainly face in the days ahead.
John F. Rothmann has been a Jewish community activist and leader for four decades. He has been a member of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council since 1974 and is a talk show host on KGO 810 AM.