What a controversial panel says about the nature of Jewish discourse about Israel in the Bay Area today
On May 24, a panel of three Jewish activists and authors from the Bay Area will discuss the historical figures and ancestors that inspire their work today. The event was originally scheduled to take place at the Jewish Community Library, operated by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which is largely supported by the Jewish Community Federation (JCF, or "the Federation").
Leaders at the BJE canceled the event in January after discussions about its content with organizers of the panel, who then found another venue: Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. That seemed like a harmless turn of events that has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not directly.
But with the current state of discourse in the Bay Area's Jewish community, just beneath the surface are complex dynamics that raise issues of censorship, bonds forged by religion, whether certain criticisms of Israel should be off-limits, and a battle for the hearts of minds of Jews in the diaspora.
Anti-war activist Rae Abileah has found herself at the middle of this battle. She is on the panel to discuss her great uncle Joseph Abileah, an Israeli pacifist who was charged and tried in 1949 after he refused to join the army as part of Israel's mandatory military service.
Abileah is a member of Code Pink who is outspoken about her opposition to the Israeli occupation in Palestine. The panel is meant to discuss decades-old work, not the current state of affairs domestically or in Israel, but Abileah's inclusion made it too political for some.
In March, the panelists — which also include Julie Gilgoff and Elaine Elinson — and event organizer Diana Scott wrote an open letter to the Jewish Community Library saying, "We find it particularly troubling that an act of censorship has occurred at the Library — an institution that it supposed to be a symbol of open thought in learning in the Jewish Community."
David Waksberg, the director of the BJE who was instrumental in the decision-making process, said it was nothing of the sort. "We had very honest, productive, and respectful discussions about why the program wasn't for us," he told me.
The letter concludes: "We seek to make clear that Federation policies, designed to foster the appearance of Jewish solidarity by shutting down the vital exchange of ideas in the Jewish community, are divisive and intolerable. They are also ultimately ineffective in suppressing dissent, and, paradoxically, undermine the values and mission of some of our most cherished Jewish institutions."
"The Jewish Community Federation didn't tell us whether or not to do this program," Waksberg insists. "They didn't pressure us one way or another."
The open letter also discusses funding guidelines, adopted in 2010 by the Federation. The guidelines restrict funding for events that "endorse the BDS (boycott-divestment-sanctions) movement or positions that undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel."
The guidelines have meaning beyond these specific circumstances. They represent a conflict in what counts as diversity of opinion, what counts as dissent, and the incredibly loaded concept of "delegitimizing Israel."
The guidelines were a response to a controversial 2009 screening of Rachel, a documentary on the life of Rachel Corrie, a 24-year-old who was killed when she stood in front of a bulldozer on its way to level a Palestinian home. The film was screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival followed by speaker Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother. The film-going crowd yelled and booed, and the Federation threatened to quit funding the festival.