Tough Love

Do discussion guidelines like those created by the San Francisco Jewish Federation unite or widen the divide in the American Jewish community?

American Jewry 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
American Jewry 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
THE HEADLINE WAS compelling. “An Open Letter to All Jewish Communities: Warning!!!” In a half-page ad published in The Forward in early May, 72 prominent Bay Area scholars, rabbis, philanthropists, artists and community leaders warned that their “usually liberal community had set a dangerous precedent” that could “limit debate, threaten dissent and establish for the first time a litmus test for loyalty to Israel…”
The signatories, including Hebrew literature scholars Robert Alter and Chana Kronfeld, Jewish Studies scholars Steven Zipperstein and David Biale, founding president of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and former Knesset member Marcia Freedman, poetess Adrienne Rich and Rabbis David Cooper and Lavey Derby, were protesting against the new guidelines set by the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation (JCF) for funding organizations and projects in the US and abroad. These guidelines, they warned, would have a “chilling effect” on Israel discussion in the American Jewish community.
The guidelines say the Federation is committed to diversity and pluralism, but will not fund organizations that undermine Israel’s legitimacy or participate in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Controversy over Israel in the Bay Area is not new. In San Francisco, as in many other US cities, discussion surrounding Israel has become an issue that has been avoided, in order to minimize arguments, or has served as a lightening rod to attract the most passionate supporters and critics. Indeed, as reported in The Jerusalem Report (“Learning How to Argue,” November 9, 2009), the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council even sponsored a program to instill “a new civility” in Jewish discourse, especially with regard to Israel.
But this is the first time that any Federation in any community has articulated specific guidelines “on potentially controversial Israel-related programming.” The guidelines could potentially affect not only the relationships between philanthropists and grantees but also, and even more significantly, the relationships between the younger, secular base of Jewish support for Israel in the US and its relationship with the State of Israel.
THE GUIDELINES STATE THAT the Federation’s “core values include an abiding commitment to a secure Jewish community here and abroad, to the strong democratic Jewish State of Israel, and to mutual respect and diversity within Jewishlife.” They go on to say the JCF does not fund organizations that endorse anti-Semitism or “other forms of bigotry, violence or other extremist views,” proselytize Jews away from Judaism; or advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.”
The policy also explicitly prohibits co-sponsoring or co-presenting public programs on the Middle East with groups that “undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” Thus, an organization could find itself in violation of the federation’s guidelines not because of its own positions on Israel but as a result of the views of a speaker, panelist or co-sponsor for one of its programs.
To qualify for funding, organizations must produce documentation to prove their consistency with the JCF core values, or initiate the development of such documentation.
Federation representatives contend that the guidelines were intended not to hinder the conversation about Israel, but rather to provide “a measure of confidence about the ability for institutions to continue to present a broad range of views, which they might not have absent the guidelines,” Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), tells The Report. It was Kahn who was asked to bring together a group to formulate the guidelines, and it is Kahn and the JCRC that Federation-funded agencies are officially encouraged to approach for a judgment on potentially controversial Israel-related programming.
Jim Offel, the Federation’s chief operating officer, tells The Report that the guidelines were intended to “provide as much clarity as possible” as to what programming is consistent with the Federation’s mission and values, and “that are in line with our donors and funders.”
THE CRISIS LEADING TO THE publication of the guidelines erupted on July 25, 2009 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, the oldest and largest Jewish film festival in the US, surrounding the controversial movie, “Rachel,” about Rachel Corrie – the young American woman killed by an Israel Defense Forces’ bulldozer in 2003, as she stood before a Palestinian home in Gaza during a demonstration by the militantly pro- Palestinian International Solidarity Movement and other foreign activists against Israel’s policy of house demolitions. The Israeli military has ruled that Corrie’s death was an accident, but her parents are pursuing a civil case in Israeli courts.
The film was introduced by Dr. Mike Harris, a local pediatrician and one of the cofounders of the grassroots group called “SF Voice for Israel,” now affiliated with the rightleaning advocacy group Stand With Us. Only two minutes into Harris’s 10-minute introduction, however, the booing and catcalls from the audience exploded, as he declared that Rachel Corrie had intentionally put herself in harm’s way. He proceeded to name other “Rachels” killed in Israel by Palestinian terrorists, including Americans Jews. Facing continual catcalls and mocking laughter, Harris concluded his short introduction by stating that the film demonizes Israel and the Film Festival should not have included co-sponsors such as the leftleaning “Jewish Voice for Peace.” He left the podium accompanied by wild clapping and cheers of “Bravo!” as well as jeers.
It was as if someone lit a match to a volatile, fume-filled enclosure: the San Francisco Jewish Community exploded. The Jewish Film Festival organizers, who had for decades attracted the largest and most varied Jewish members of the community, were under fire, as was the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties (JCF), which had provided some of the funding for the Festival.
Always a Jewish community with a wide range of opinions – including extremes on both the left and the right – San Francisco had fissured again. Bullying e-mails and blog posts drew imagined links between the festival, the Goldstone Report, J Street, President Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Within months, Federation board member Anat Pilovsky submitted a resolution to the board calling for prohibiting support of events that “defame” Israel or partner with anyone who calls for boycotts, divestment or sanctions (BDS) against Israel. When the resolution failed, Pilovsky resigned.
But the controversy continued. Jennifer Gorovitz, acting Federation executive director since October, established a committee to create guidelines for the funding of grantees who sponsor Israel-related programming. Ironically, Gorovitz had assumed her position when her predecessor, Daniel Sokatch, ended his short stay at the Federation to head the New Israel Fund – which has subsequently also come under attack by right-wing Israel-supporters for its ostensible anti-Israel activity.
On February 18, 2010, the Federation formally approved the “Funding Policy for Grantees on Potentially Controversial Israel- Related Programming.”
THE FEDERATION STATES THAT its policy “supports free speech and constructive debate in our community.
In fact, we were concerned that the absence of such a policy would inhibit free speech and constructive debate as our partners would not know the boundaries.”
But predictably, the guidelines have drawn extensive, heated criticism, especially from left-leaning individuals and organizations.
“This is too blunt an instrument,” agrees Robert Rubin, director of litigation for the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. “The Federation has issued a memo telling Jewish agencies what is verboten [forbidden]…The community has a right to say who is ineligible to be a member, but I’m questioning where the line is being drawn, and the timing.”
Describing himself as an active member of the Jewish community, Rubin says that “the essence of the Jewish people is to question responsibly, to challenge and not be afraid of the depth of competing ideas. That’s what searching and real solutions are all about.”
Professor David Biale, chair of the history department at the University of California- Davis, tells The Report that he fears the guidelines will be used by the more right-wing elements of the community as a tool to “pressure the Federation to de-fund organizations” or stymie Israel programming and discussion in the community.
Steven J. Zipperstein, who holds the Koshland Chair in the Jewish Culture and History Department at Stanford University and was a signee of the ad in The Forward, tells The Report angrily, “To say that it’s OK to be critical of Israel [is not acceptable]. I don’t need permission. Anything one loves one can love critically. This is worse than gratuitous.”
Both the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and J Street have issued statements against the Bay Area Federation’s funding guidelines.
PJA, a liberal or left-leaning group, states, “We are particularly fearful of the effect these rules may have on a younger generation of Jews who are grappling with their Jewish identity, their relationship to Israel and their place in the larger community, precisely by engaging in the time-honored Jewish tradition of questioning.”
Indeed, as Peter Beinart writes in his upcoming article in the New York+ Review of Books, (June 10, 2010): “For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.”
The guidelines may impact the ability of some Jewish organizations to partner or cooperate with Christian, Quaker or Muslim groups, many of which support some sort of Boycott- Divest-Sanction (BDS) movement. In this regard, Zipperstein says that he also doesn’t like “the way in which the document punishes funded organizations for indirect sins, such as co-sponsorships to their programming. We should be judged on who we are and not with whom we speak.”
And noting that the guidelines essentially set up the JCRC, a consensus-oriented body, as the designated arbiter of approval, he snaps, “I also don’t agree with anybody serving as adjudicator.
Doug Kahn won’t be there forever.
Who will serve that function after him or, for that matter, elsewhere in the country if the guidelines are picked up by other Jewish communities?” Kahn counters that “the concept of a funding agency to set some reasonable criteria for grantees…is unexceptional.” Arguing that the guidelines are only formalizing what had been informal, he says, “The JCRC has always been consulted by agencies about sensitive programming and speakers. It’s important for an organization to have consultation before a program so they’ll know the potential reaction from the community.” Furthermore, he says, “The guidelines emphasize that not one size fits all.
The culture of a Hillel on a university campus is different than the culture of the arts community.”
Rabbi Amy Eilberg, who directs interfaith dialogue programs in Minneapolis/St. Paul, tells The Report that she is most concerned by “the impulse that says listening to people with whom we strongly disagree is dangerous.”
The Jewish value of pursuing peace, she says, “within the Jewish community requires we be in respectful conversation with those with whom we disagree. It makes sense that people want to be in an echo chamber about passionate issues; we want to be in conversation with people we’re most comfortable with. But that’s not high level communication. It blocks learning and it’s unhealthy for the fabric of a community.”
Refusing to comment on the guidelines specifically, Eilberg contends that the “question of whom we can’t talk to is the wrong question. The question of who the Federation should fund is a difficult question, especially during tight economic times.
But the question that stands before the Jewish community is how can we expand the conversation with those we disagree with and can learn from.”
THE FACT THAT THE GUIDELINES specifically mention the Boycott- Sanction-Divest movement may be an indication of the extent to which this movement had been gaining traction, at least on the West Coast and its campuses. To many in the Jewish community, any organization promoting or even associated with the BDS movement is considered to be guilty of delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, especially since the BDS movement draws clear parallels between Israel and the apartheid state of South Africa.
In fact, a recent report by the Tel Aviv-based, non-profit Reut Institute identified the Bay Area as one of the global hubs for the BDS movement. The report warns that the “effectiveness of the catalysts of delegitimization stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others by blurring the lines between delegitimization and criticism. They do so by demonizing Israel, deploying double standards … and promoting grassroots activities such as boycotts, divestments and sanctions that are aimed primarily at tarnishing Israel’s face.”
Similarly, in a recently-published position paper, written following the Global Forum Against Anti-Semitism held in Jerusalem, in July 2009, Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and currently a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, wrote that “we need to point out how BDS crosses the line from legitimate criticism to historically laden, anti-Semitic messaging.” The report suggests cooperation with the Israeli foreign minister to put in place “legislative prohibitions against the BDS which can then be applied to different communities” and “pursuing a strategy of ridicule and satire, especially on the Internet.”
Troy also suggests expelling boycotters from international organizations.
Troy, together with a group of others from the left and the right in Israel, is currently working on a document that speaks of delineating what falls between the “blue and white lines affirming Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “the red lines beyond which people shouldn’t go.”
The guidelines will have a particular affect on one of the Bay Area’s largest Jewish organizations, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which supports divestment from companies that profit from the occupation and was one of the controversial sponsors of the film. But Dana Bergen, San Francisco JVP board chair tells The Report that her group only wants to support boycott and divestment from companies that support and profit from the Israeli military and the occupation. “Our work is for human rights for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
“We see BDS as a non-violent, moral strategy to end the occupation,” adds Penny Rosenwasser, member and former national board member of JVP. “I’m fighting to save the soul of my people.”
At this point, the guidelines, which claim to strive for greater consensus, seem to limit only the left-wing organizations. Visual artist, musician and composer Laurie Polster started an endowment fund held at the SFJF 22 years ago.
In an e-mail interview with The Report, she relates that she has, in the past decade, become increasingly involved in what she defines as Israel/Palestine peace work and has shifted the focus of her giving towards Israeli and US nongovernmental organizations that focus on peace and human rights work. In 2003, 2006 and 2008, she requested a grant from the SFJF for JVP, which was approved, as were requests for grants for “Courage to Refuse,” an Israeli group that encourages conscientious objection from the Israeli military, the Israel Committee Against Home Demolitions (ICHAD), a radical-left Israeli group, and others.
However, Polster tells The Report, on March 8, she made another request for JVP, which was still officially on the Federation Endowment’s list as an approved recipient; the request was denied because, Polster says she was told, JVP did not meet the new guidelines.
If, she demanded to know from the SFJF, left-wing organizations are excluded for political reasons, then why are not some right-wing organizations, which support settlements and other non-consensual activities, such as the Hebron Fund and the Central Fund for Israel, similarly excluded? SFJF executive director Gorowitz says that the Federation “is not reviewing an entire list of accepted charities, but is reviewing each one as a grant is requested.
Attorney Rubin warns that, at least in the short term, “we will run into the law of unintended consequences. We will see less debate and more toeing of the line, especially in this kind of economy where organizations are fearful of losing funding.”
Indeed, in April, after two lengthy, turbulent meetings at the University of California- Berkeley, the board of regents upheld its decision not to accept their student senate’s recommendation that they divest their holdings in General Electric and United Technologies, two companies that have reportedly profited from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, the expansion of settlements and the demolition of Palestinian homes. The decision was widely regarded as influenced by the new guidelines, since UC-Berkeley and other California campuses, including Davis and Santa Barbara, as well as Stanford, have received grants from the Federation and other Jewish donors for decades, despite the often stridently left-wing positions critical of Israel and supportive of BDS by their faculty and guest lecturers.
“SUCH EXCLUSIONARY language has a long history,” Marcia Freedman, former member of Knesset and one of the organizers of the Open Letter, tells The Report. “Let us not forget that not too long ago advocacy for a two-state solution was considered beyond the pale. In the past, even discussions with Palestinian or Muslim groups were considered out of bounds.”
But Kahn, who has been with the JCRC over 20 years, says the “schism in our community is the greatest I’ve ever seen. We’ve reached a point in the polarization that it is harder to engage around Israel at all.”
Kahn proudly tells The Report, “We have treaded where no Federation has treaded before. We may have been the first community to realize the critical need, and by no means, the last. Why San Francisco? Because Israel-related issues play out particularly intensely here. We are encountering an explosion of anti- Israel feeling here.”
Will the guidelines spread throughout the country? A spokesman for the Federation umbrella group, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), refused The Report’s requests for comments on the guidelines and would not comment on whether these guidelines will be adopted elsewhere. But in a recent New York Times article, William Daroff, vice president for public policy of JFNA, defended the San Francisco Federation’s decision. “An open exchange of views within the pro-Israel community is good,” he was quoted as saying.
“But there has to be some sort of line between constructive discussion and destructive communication that does not recognize Israel as the eternal home of the Jewish people.”
In contrast, Dr. Steven Nasatir, president of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, tells The Report, “We don’t need guidelines on how to behave as far as Israel.” Other Jewish organizations around the country, however, have in fact created similar policies to those in San Francisco. Rabbi Howard Alpert, executive director of the Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, tells The Report that in March his group passed a “set of policies regarding use of Hillel resources for Israel or other controversial programs.”
Alpert says that his group’s focus, however, is different. “Our primary question is, how do we create an inclusive Jewish community among Jewish students, recognizing that there are parameters? We want to cast as wide a tent as possible.” Those parameters, he says, include the exclusion of “anyone advocating harm to the Jewish community, or boycotting and other punitive measures against Israel.”
But Sokatch, the former SF Federation executive director who now heads the New Israel Fund, predicts that both sides of the aisle will test the guidelines. The right wing will “try to shut up or shut down” organizations they don’t like. “The bullies on the hard left have left the community and the more progressives who are committed to the Jewish community will try to test the guidelines to see if they are being applied evenly and equally to organizations, regardless where they stand on the ideological spectrum.”
Meanwhile, Peter Stein, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival (SFJFF), slated to present its films July 24 to August 9, says the festival is still committed to its mission of “showcasing a broad range of stories for our very diverse community, and to encouraging conversations through film, even about difficult topics.” However, “in order to avoid some of the issues that arose last year, the SF Film Festival will handle its partnerships differently this year,” he tells The Report. “The distinct missions and activities of SFJFF’s many partner organizations should never be confused with those of SFJFF. To avoid this confusion, SFJFF will recognize our partnerships in ways that we hope will eliminate any misinterpretation about their role in individual SFJFF programs. At SFJFF’s discretion, institutional partners may be acknowledged as assisting the Festival as a whole, without connection to individual programs or issues.”
SFJFF’s founding director Deborah Kaufman and its founding board president Alan Snitow lament what they consider regression in the community. “For us in the Bay Area, with our history of liberalism and free speech, it’s particularly egregious,” Snitow tells The Report. Referring to the guidelines, Kaufman said, “This is completely unprecedented. A lot of us in the middle are feeling under siege. It’s making us feel like we can’t have a Jewish community with life and vibrancy.”
Jewish historian David Biale concludes soberly that “the range of opinion permissible in the Jewish community in America ought to be as broad as it is in Israel,” where the documentary “Rachel” premiered at the Haifa Film Festival and recently played at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque without much ado.