BDS brouhaha threatens to taint Limmud Australia

Australian Jewry is grappling with controversy following the banning of BDS-aligned speakers, establishment of New Israel Fund chapter.

June 1, 2011 23:13
Limmud Conference

Limmud backpack 311. (photo credit: Jerrold Bennett)


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SYDNEY, Australia -- Legitimate criticism or illegitimate dissent? Censorship or free speech? Fighting for a democratic Jewish state or sleeping with the enemy?

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.

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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 extreme pressure.

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 accusations.

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 Politics, 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 Porszolt.”

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