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Freedom of Speech Is Under Increasing Assault Within the Jewish Community

Allan C. Brownfeld
Winter 2012

When it comes to discussing Israel and events in the Middle East, freedom of speech is coming under an increasing assault within the organized Jewish community.  
Even a brief look at organizational Jewish life reveals growing efforts to stifle free expression. In too many cases, these efforts are succeeding.  
The national umbrella organization for Jewish federations has removed critics of Israel from an online voting contest designed to identify “heroes” within the Jewish community. One of the excluded nominees, Jewish Voice for Peace Deputy Director Cecilia Surasky, was among the top ten vote getters in the Jewish Community Heroes contest when Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) officials pulled her name from the contest website.  
According to The Forward (Oct. 21, 2011), “Surasky’s organization takes no stand on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — today seen as a litmus test in much of the Jewish community for upholding Israel’s continued existence as both a Jewish and democratic state. JVP also does not condemn the movement for boycotting, divestment and sanctions against Israel and was instrumental in organizing a protest at the JFNA’s 2010 General Assembly, at which the protestors disrupted an address by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”  
Support for Israel  
Joe Berkofsky, a JFNA spokesman, says that, “One of the core values of the Jewish Federations is to support Israel, and our Jewish Heroes rules precludes us from accepting nominees whose aims run counter to our mission.”  
JVP argues that the contest changed its rules partway through. A comparison of current and cached versions of the JFNA’s website shows that the initial rules were amended to state that nominees are ineligible if they are “nominated for a cause that runs directly counter to the ideals of the JFNA.” No such language was evident a week before Surasky was removed.  
Now in its third year, the Jewish Community Heroes contest features an open nomination process, internet voting and a panel of judges to select a winner who will receive a $25,000 grant toward his or her philanthropic work. The contest is promoted heavily through social networking services and Jewish media websites. Surasky had nearly 1,500 votes when her voting page was taken down, according to JVP.  
In a press release, JVP pointed to the presence among the top vote-getters of Manis Friedman, a Chabad rabbi who in 2009 declared his belief in “the Jewish way” to fight a war against the Arabs: “Destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle).” He later allegedly retracted his comments. In Surasky’s view, the JFNA was treating her group differently than extreme right-wingers who opposed JFNA policies.  
Jewish Community Center  
Developments at the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center also reveal an effort to put an end to free and open discussion. Andy Shallal, an Iraq-born Muslim, was proud of the open conversation channel he had maintained with Ari Roth, longtime artistic director of Theater J, a highly regarded branch of the JCC. Together with another local theater lover, Mimi Conway, they created the Peace Café, an after-play forum, complete with plates of hummus and pita bread supplied by Shallal’s popular Busboys and Poets dining spots, that had become a mainstay of Theater J’s programming.  
The café, established ten years ago during the run of a politically charged play about the Middle East, has been important as an outlet for debate over issues raised by Theater J’s repertory. “It was an emotional experience for me, to walk into a Jewish community center, to grow up as a Muslim, thinking of Israelis as really scary people,” he says. “I walked through that door and it was a very beautiful experience.”  
According to The Washington Post (Aug. 7, 2011), “… suddenly, a few months ago, a curtain was drawn. The community center’s then-chief executive officer, Arna Meyer Mickelson, told Shallal that the Peace Café could no longer use the facilities of the center … The incident was further evidence of the corrosive turn that the political and artistic dialogue over matters related to Israel have taken of late in this country, particularly at, but not limited to Jewish institutions … Artists and devisers of programming say that a concerted move is afoot to smother any type of critical examination of Israel … In San Francisco, after the presentation by a Jewish group of a play about Rachel Corrie, an American activist run over and killed by an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza, a Bay Area organization, the Jewish Community Federation, imposed a ban on funding for any group espousing support for a political boycott of Israeli business interests.”  
Curbs on Financing  
In March, 2011, a group calling itself Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, headed by lawyer Robert G. Samet, asked that the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington look at imposing curbs on financing for Theater J. As evidence of the theater company’s intent to produce works that “demonize Israel and the Jewish people,” Samet cited Return to Haifa, a work by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon, that was performed at Theater J by Israel’s most renowned company, the Cameri Theater of Tel Aviv.  
Although a hit for Theater J, the play was viewed by Samet’s group as virulently anti-Israel. The piece was a portrait of an encounter between a Palestinian couple, returning for the first time to the home in Haifa they had fled at the time of Israel’s birth, and the Israeli couple who had moved in and raised a family. A key element of the play was its attempt to dramatize the exile stories of Jews and Palestinians as being intertwined, a dimension that some observers thought had struck a conciliatory chord. The play was performed in Hebrew in Tel Aviv. The Theater J production was the first to be done in Hebrew and Arabic.  
In the case of San Francisco, 73 Bay Area rabbis, intellectuals and artists signed a full-page open letter in The Forward (May 7, 2010) warning Jewish communities of “the dangerous precedent” being set in their community. “This is a national issue,” said Rachel Biale, former Bay Area Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and one of the letter’s organizers. “The Bay Area is a pilot community. If it flies here, others may follow suit and even adopt stricter guidelines.”  
Undermine Israel  
The controversial policy, passed by the federation’s board, states, in part, that the organization will not fund groups that “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel … including participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” nor will it support programming that is co-sponsored or co-presented by such organizations.”  
The new policy followed a fracas at the 2009 San Francisco Film Festival which twice screened Rachel, an Israeli-made film about Rachel Corrie, the American who died under the wheels of an Israeli bulldozer during a Gaza protest. Michael Harris, of the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs spoke as well, but he was heckled and booed while the elder Corrie was applauded.  
According to The Forward, “Right-wing Israel advocates called for the heads of federation leaders, whom they said should never have permitted communal funds to be used in this way. Critics say they respect an organization’s right to set boundaries, but they don’t like the federation setting itself up as the arbiter of an issue under such hot debate.  
“Who’s to say what’s in Israel’s best interest?” asked Steven Zipperstein, professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford. “With regard to Israel, there is vast disagreement among Jews. Once such guidelines are imposed, we’re playing with fire that is potentially uncontainable.”  
Exhibit Shut Down  
In Chicago, the Spertus Museum shut down a provocative exhibition by Palestinian and Israeli women artists after some Jewish community members protested what they felt was the show’s critical view of Israel’s politics.  
An article with the headline “Jewish Groups Accused of Limiting Debate After Cancellation of Gaza Art Show” appeared in The Forward (Oct. 7, 2011). It reported: “The tweet from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay was unabashed: The Jewish establishment had succeeded in shutting down an art exhibit aimed at children that portrayed Israel critically. ‘Great news,’ the federation proclaimed. ‘The Child’s View From Gaza’ exhibit has been canceled thanks to some great East Bay Jewish community organizing.’”  
Sent on Sept. 7, 2011, the message celebrated the cancellation of an exhibit of 45 drawings by Palestinian children that had been scheduled to open at Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art. The museum’s decision was announced immediately following a meeting between Jewish groups and the museum’s directors. Advocates for the Palestinian cause charge that the Jewish community is now attempting to control debate about Middle East issues outside Jewish communal institutions.  
Pencil and Crayon Drawings  
According to The Forward, “The fact that the argument centers on pencil and crayon drawings by children puts an unusual spin on the matter, and solemn charges of censorship are coming from many quarters, including a passionate essay by Northern California resident Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. ‘I was absolutely floored,’ said Barbara Lubin, founder and executive director of the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), a not-for-profit organization that focuses on Arab children’s issues. ‘They have pressured other art exhibits around the country and in the Bay Area that had anything to do with Palestine. This is not our first time feeling that pressure.’”  
This protest against the Jewish establishment included Jewish groups and individuals, among them the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network-Bay Area, the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition and many Jewish members of MECA, topped by Lubin herself, a founder of the group. Much of the artwork was produced in children’s therapy sessions supported by funds from MECA after the 2009 incursion by Israel into Gaza that lasted more than two weeks and resulted in civilian Palestinian deaths, including those of children.  
The effort to intimidate Jewish critics of Zionism and of Israeli policies — a group whose numbers are growing dramatically — is becoming increasingly strident.  
The use of the term “self-hating Jew” is often applied to such critics. One place to find this label flung at Jewish critics has been the website Masada2000, whose “S.H.I.T. List” (“Self-hating and/or Israel-Threatening”) contained almost 8,000 names, often with photographs and personal and professional contact information before the site was taken off the web by its host service.  
“True Lovers of Israel”  
Francesca Yardenit Albertini, professor of modern Jewish philosophy at Hochschule fur Judische Studien (College of Jewish Studies) in Germany, notes that many of Masada2000’s targets are, in fact, “the true lovers of Israel.” She views criticism of some Israeli policies in parental terms: “Why do you criticize a friend of yours? Why do you criticize your children? Because you love them, you want to make them better and you know they have the capacities to improve. If you are not mature enough to accept that, you refuse every sort of criticism by saying those who dare to criticize are crazy, stupid, sick and/or disturbed people.”  
Daniela Fortiba Vorburger of the organization Peace Watch in Switzerland is another Jew who was charged with self-hatred. “The classification is absurd,” she said. “Why should I hate myself if I’m standing against injustice and for the dignity of other (non-Jewish) people? Why should I hate myself because I express criticism against a state’s policy which happens to be Israel? Do parents hate their children when they criticize them and tell them what kind of behavior they don’t like and what kind they support or respect? Why do critics go so far as to invoke pseudo-Freudian terminology? Jews still have this ghetto mentality that everyone hates us and is against us. Whenever there is a criticism, we see it as anti-Semitism, as pure hate. With this mentality, it’s even less acceptable if people ‘from within’ criticize the club. I’m proud to be Jewish but I also think it’s important to stand up and speak against injustice, crime, killings, etc., including when those crimes are committed by Jews. As long as the Israeli government is speaking in the name of all Jews, hence also in my name. I will also speak out against a policy committed in my name, with which I do not agree.”  
Richard Levine, professor of population sciences at Harvard and another Masada2000 “victim,” considers the website’s use of the term “self-hating Jew” to be “abuse analogous to the use of ‘anti-American’ or ‘unpatriotic’ by some supporters (of the war in Iraq) … to prevent debate within our community. It is the height of arrogance to erase our 3,000-year history of disputation and demand support of the policies and actions of the present leaders of our communities as the price of admission to membership in our people.”  
Propaganda Slogan  
According to Joel Beinin of Stanford University, the phrase “self-hating Jews” has “no useful meaning except as a propaganda slogan. It is used to declare illegitimate those Jews who hold opinions … usually about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict — with which those who deploy this term disagree. No one has the right or the stature to declare a single interpretation to be correct or authentic … Dissent does not mean self-hate, and in fact can be an expression of deep concern and even love of the tradition in question.”  
In March, 2011, a Brandeis University chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) applied to become a constituent member of the school’s Hillel Foundation and was rejected. JVP then managed to collect signatures from l,000 students on a petition demanding that the decision be overturned. Following the Brandeis incident, the group released a petition signed by 50 rabbis and other Jewish leaders urging Hillel not to “exclude from your communal table Jewish students whose relationship with Israel may be one of thoughtful critique.”  
In their presentation to the Brandeis Hillel board, JVP members said they supported “a democratic state in Eretz Yisrael based on Jewish values,” a formulation that some Hillel members saw as purposefully vague and possibly indicating a vision of a one-state solution. “There is always going to be a question of how we create a tent in which people feel embraced and empowered in their Judaism,” said Larry Sternberg, executive director of Brandeis’s Hillel. “But we can’t have a referendum on the boundaries every day. And on Israel, the community expects us to reflect a certain core set of beliefs. Just like the community as a whole, we can’t be expected to compromise on those.”  
J Street is Thwarted  
Efforts by J Street, a group which calls itself “Zionist” and “pro-Israel,” but challenges some policies of the Israeli government, to become a part of organized Jewish life have been repeatedly thwarted. In Nov. 2011, the Jewish Student Union at the University of California at Berkeley decided by a one-vote margin to bar the university’s chapter of J Street from joining as a member organization. In Feb. 2010, the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel faced criticism when it hosted Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street for the national launch of J Street Local, the organization’s grass roots initiative. But rather than cancel the J Street event, Hillel hosted a lecture on another floor by an affiliate of AIPAC, whose stated position is never to criticize the Israeli government. In Nov. 2010, Ben-Ami’s speaking engagement at Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Massachusetts was canceled when members of the congregation spoke out against his organization.  
In Nashville, J Street’s status seems to be in flux. According to Bill Smith, chair of the local J Street chapter, the group hosted Israel Oron, a retired Israeli general at the local Jewish community center. But when J Street asked to bring in former Knesset member Yael Dayan, daughter of the late general and foreign minister Moshe Dayan, the JCC said no. More recently, the JCC — in addition to four local synagogues — declined to host Ben-Ami when he visited in Nov. 2011.  
What made Yael Dayan objectionable in Nashville was her own criticism of current Israeli government policies. During a week long speaking tour of the U.S. in 2010, Dayan urged her audiences to withdraw blind support for Israel. She discussed what she believes is the illegal occupation of Palestine, Jewish settlers uprooting olive trees that had belonged to Palestinians for generations, and the need for a two state solution. Her message to the American Jewish community was clear: stop unconditional support for Israel.  
Zionism Has Run Its Course  
While Dayan’s views may be unwelcome in Nashville and in other Jewish communities, they are growing. Newsweek (Nov. 7 and 14, 2011) featured an interview with Ruth Dayan, 95, widow of Moshe Dayan and Yael Dayan’s mother. She said: “We built this country inch by inch, and we lost so many lives. We built public and social institutions, schools, factories. What’s going on today is awful. They’re ruining the country. I am a proud Israeli. I’ve lived through every war, endured every moment of suffering, but I never stopped believing in peace. I lost friends and family members. I’m a peacemaker, but the current Israeli government does not know how to make peace. We move from war to war, and this will never stop. I think Zionism has run its course.”  
Dayan declares: “I reject Netanyahu’s policy; it is a recipe for disaster. He is unwilling to address the issue. It’s a bunker mentality. We had the Oslo accords, which established Palestinian control over certain areas in the West Bank and Gaza, while other areas remained under mixed control. The accords established the Palestinian Authority and police force, but nothing has changed. The number of settlements has increased from 60 to 200, military checkpoints are everywhere, and freedom of movement is virtually nonexistent. Violence is still the only spoken language. I don’t try to instill optimism in my Palestinian friends. Out of courtesy, I tell them that I hope something will change, but I don’t speak about peace any more. I don’t have the courage. I’m friends with so many Arabs … The government does not represent my values. It’s gone so far. Both sides think they are freedom fighters.”  
Asked whether the security measures are justified by terrorism, she said: “Oh, please, nothing will stop terrorism except dialogue. (Yitzhak) Rabin could have achieved peace. He fought terrorism as if there were no negotiations, and negotiated as if there were no terrorism. Today we must apply the two-state solution because we have grown apart, and it would be best if everyone took care of his own business. We are a mob that can’t even get along internally.”  
Strident Attacks  
Attacks on Jewish critics of Zionism and Israeli policies are growing  
increasingly strident in an effort to silence and isolate the increasing number of men and women who are speaking out.  
One time New Left radical, and now an outspoken neo-conservative, David Horowitz has issued a pamphlet through his David Horowitz Freedom Center entitled Jewish Enablers of the War Against Israel. Written by Steven Plaut, it states that, “One of the most wrenching facts of this war against the Jews is the troubling role played by Jewish enablers of anti-semitism … These figures, American and Israeli … have given legitimacy to the revival of Jew hatred.”  
Among those listed are M.I.T. Professor Noam Chomsky (called a “defender of Holocaust Deniers”), retired Princeton Professor Richard Falk, who has investigated human rights abuses for the U.N. Human Rights Council (who is accused of “one-sided indictments of everything Western and a one-sided exoneration of everything anti-Western”), Jennifer Lowenstein, associate director of the Middle East Studies Center at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Professor Marc Ellis , director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University (accused of building “a theological case for the destruction of Israel”), Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun (referred to as “Rabbi for Jihad”), Joel Beinin, professor of history at Stanford (charged with “subversion of Middle East studies”), and Professor Judith Butler of the University of California at Berkeley (said to “promote Israel’s annihilation”).  
Many others are named, including a number of prominent Israelis. Among them are Professors Shlomo Sand and Gadi Algazi of Tel Aviv University, and Neve Gordon and Oron Yiftachel of Ben Gurion University. The author concludes: “The consequences of the venomous words of these Jewish enablers of the war against the Jews are readily apparent.”  
Effort to Silence Critics  
The vitriol used — referring to critics of particular Israeli policies as somehow being engaged in a “war against the Jews,” is an effort to silence Jewish critics. To the dismay of those engaged in this enterprise of silencing dissent, the number of critics is growing dramatically.  
Columnist Caroline Glick of The Jerusalem Post, launched a similar attack upon New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. She wrote (International Jerusalem Post, Dec. 23-29, 2011): “For decades, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman balanced his substantively anti-Israel position with repeated protestations of love for Israel. His balancing act ended last week when he employed traditional anti-Semitic slurs to dismiss the authenticity of substantive American support for Israel. Channeling the long-standing anti-Semitic charge that Jewish money buys support for power-hungry Jews best expressed in the forged 19th century Protocols of the Elders of Zion and in John Mearshimer’s and Stephen Walt’s 2007 book ‘The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy.’ Friedman wrote: ‘I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics. That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.’ It would be nice if Friedman is forced to pay some sort of price for finally coming out of the closet as a dyed-in-the-wool Israel hater. But he probably won’t.”  
The Jewish tradition of open debate and discussion — the searching after justice — is now being sharply challenged by those who would stifle all dissent. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles in the middle of the night with a mysterious being. Some commentators say it is a messenger of God. Others say this is a figurative wrestling match in which Jacob engages in an internal struggle with his own personal circumstances. Regardless, Jacob is permanently transformed through the experience. The symbolic representation of this transformation is the changing of Jacob’s name to Israel, literally “one who wrestles with God.”  
Wrestling with Truth  
The Jewish tradition of wrestling with, among other things, the truth, is now under attack by those who would silence open discussion. This is leading to the alienation of many, in particular young people. Rabbi Sid Schwartz, the founder of Panim, the Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, speaking of young people in the Jewish community, writes: “In the past decade, I note that fewer and fewer identify as Zionists. Israel plays a much less significant role in their identity formation … and an astounding number hold the organized Jewish community in contempt. I believe the way our community has chosen to ‘defend Israel’ has profoundly alienated the next generation of American Jews … A generation of Jews who see themselves as global citizens will not identify with a community that offers them anything less.”  
Freedom of speech, and a search for justice, are essential elements of the Jewish tradition — as is “wrestling” with God himself. It is time for the organized American Jewish community to return to those values.  
Allan C. Brownfeld

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