SYDNEY, Australia -- Legitimate criticism or illegitimate dissent? Censorship or free speech? Fighting for a democratic Jewish state or sleeping with the enemy?
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These are some of the vexing questions Australian Jewry is grappling with in the wake of a controversy surrounding Limmud-Oz, the Australian arm of the global festival of Jewish learning, and the recent establishment here of a New Israel Fund chapter.
Earlier this month, Australia’s Limmud dropped two presenters from its June 11-13 conference for being “vocal advocates” of boycotting Israel. That prompted two others to withdraw, citing a breach of Limmud’s policy of being apolitical. Organizers say they acted within their rights.
The controversy comes on the heels of another community brouhaha surrounding the criticism of Israel when the New Israel Fund opened a branch earlier this month in Australia. The arrival here of the organization, which promotes equality and democracy for Israeli minority groups and has come under criticism for its support of some Israeli Arab organizations that seek to strip Israel of its Jewish character, prompted some community leaders to consider putting the organization “on notice,” JTA has learned.
Earlier this month, some leaders of the Zionist Federation of Australia
considered issuing a warning to NIF and its president, Naomi Chazan, who
is planning to come to the country in mid-June for the formal launch of
the Australian chapter. But two internal e-mails obtained by JTA reveal
that others on the federation convinced the majority that it would
appear “very heavy handed” and “a grave error of judgment” to do so.
The debate came amid accusations by some in Australia that NIF funds
nongovernmental organizations that support the Boycott, Divestment and
Sanctions campaign. NIF issued new guidelines last year precluding
funding for groups that support the BDS campaign.
Passions surrounding the BDS issue have been running high in Australia
since last December, when the Marrickville Council in Sydney voted to
adopt a boycott of Israel. The proposal was overturned in April under
Ron Weiser, a former Zionist Federation of Australia president who has
led a campaign critical of NIF, said Marrickville’s attempted boycott
“crystallized” that BDS could be used as “a marker” to determine whether
people were inside or outside the “Zionist tent.”
Though he stressed that NIF is “within the Zionist tent,” he says he
remains concerned that NIF has “strayed” from the “good social and
welfare work it does.”
Chazan, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset, was due to visit
Australia in February 2010 but canceled at the 11th hour following a
controversial campaign waged against her in Israel by Im Tirtzu, a
right-wing Israeli group that sprang up after the Goldstone report on
the Gaza war, and made NIF and Chazan central targets.
Im Tirtzu, which distributed posters portraying Chazan wearing a horn
labeled NIF, issued a report claiming that 16 NIF-affiliated
organizations were cited as sources in the Goldstone report, which
accused Israel of committing war crimes in the Gaza Strip. The author of
the report, Richard Goldstone, recently retracted some of the report’s
For its part, NIF says the work of Israeli human rights organizations it
supports were credited with helping provide information for dozens of
follow-up investigations of the month-long Gaza war in the winter of
2008-09 by the IDF. Those investigations “led the IDF to improve its
operational procedures and also enabled Judge Goldstone to revise his
conclusions,” the NIF said in a statement.
Danny Lamm, the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry,
was among those who opposed Chazan’s planned visit last year. A few days
ago he issued a letter to colleagues saying that “The ECAJ and other
organizations around the world continue to monitor NIF's activities.”
Chazan’s planned visit was challenged last week when the Shalom
Institute, which runs Limmud-Oz, confirmed that a major donor had
threatened to withdraw funding for Shalom if Chazan, who also is
scheduled to speak at Limmud-Oz, was not removed from the program.
Shalom Institute CEO Hilton Immerman told JTA that he would not accede to the pressure.
“We believe that she is a patriotic Israeli who has contributed much to
the Jewish homeland,” Immerman said of Chazan. “We will not bow to any
pressure to withdraw her from the program.”
Naomi Paiss, NIF’s communications director, told JTA that “The New
Israel Fund has always been an integral part of the pro-Israel,
pro-democracy and pro-peace community, in Israel and overseas. We
believe that as the Australian community becomes more familiar with our
accomplishments and our work, we will overcome the misrepresentations
that are fostering exclusionary attitudes.”
Robin Margo, the inaugural chair of NIF in Australia, said,
“Unfortunately, this is the sort of thing that happens when hysteria is
whipped up in a community. I applaud the Shalom board for refusing to
cave in to the pressure.”
But Immerman said the decision to drop from the program the two BDS
proponents -- Peter Slezak, a co-founder of Independent Australian
Jewish Voices, and Vivienne Porzsolt, a spokeswoman for Jews Against the
Occupation -- was justifiable.
“In supporting BDS, these individuals advocate denying free speech to
Israeli academics and performers, on whom we depend for Limmud-Oz, yet,
ironically, claim this right for themselves,” Immerman said.
They may, however, attend the festival, he noted.
“Limmud-Oz remains a very broad tent," Immerman said. "The program includes and celebrates a wide diversity of opinions.”
Porzsolt slammed the ban, saying it “smacks of excommunication.” Slezak accused organizers of “moral and intellectual weakness.”
The decision to “boycott the boycotters” was a “clear breach” of
Limmud’s pluralist principles, said Jenny Green and Joel Nothman -- the
two presenters who withdrew last week from Limmud-Oz in protest.
“We abhor the idea of being associated with an event that bans ideas,”
they said. “Dissent on the question of Israel is not tolerated at all.”
Larry Stillman, an executive member of the leftist Australian Jewish
Democratic Society, told JTA that he was equivocating over whether to
withdraw from a panel debate on Jewish dissent.
“I don’t feel like being used by the organizers to demonstrate that they
allow ‘acceptable’ dissent,” he said. “There is a history of this
censoring kind of activity in Australian Jewry.”
Novelist Alan Gold, who has participated in Limmud-Oz since it began in
1999, said the notion that Limmud-Oz is practicing censorship is absurd.
“Just as no rabid right-wing racist or virulent Islamophobe would be
given a platform at Limmud-Oz, so it is not incumbent on the organizers
to give a platform to those who advocate the delegitimization of
Israel,” he wrote in an open letter.
Philip Mendes, co-editor of the book Jews & Australian Politic
told JTA that “The overwhelming majority of Jews are opposed to the
BDS, and although some may have felt the Limmud-Oz scenario was handled
poorly, there is very little sympathy for the actual views of Slezak and