Borderline Views: JNF Canada’s boycott of Ahinoam Nini

In the same week that the Canadian government passed a motion in Parliament making BDS illegal, on the basis of discrimination, the Canadian branch of JNF put an anti-Israel boycott into practice.

Ahinoam Nini (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahinoam Nini
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the same week that the Canadian government passed a motion in Parliament making boycott and BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) illegal, on the basis of discrimination, the Canadian branch of the Jewish National Fund put an anti-Israel boycott into practice. JNF withdrew its support from the Vancouver Jewish Federation’s intention to host one of Israel’s most popular and charismatic singers, Ahinoam Nini, as part of their forthcoming Independence Day celebrations, using the false allegation that she herself supports BDS – which she has made clear from the outset that she does not.
If that had indeed been the case, then any normal- thinking person would have asked why she had agreed to appear on behalf of Israel on such an occasion – marking the independence of a state which, her protagonists argued, she wants to boycott. It just needed a small amount of common sense.
Following wall-to-wall condemnation of this blatant act of boycott – there is no other term to describe it – and the welcome decision by the Israeli embassy in Canada to support the event, the JNF came out with an even more surprising semi-apology. In a statement issued three days ago, its spokesman announced that while the organization may have got it wrong about Nini’s support for BDS, her left-of-center views – which she expresses as part of the great democratic freedom which we in Israel enjoy and which, it would appear, JNF Canada do not subscribe to – were not to the liking of many of its members and donors. It was therefore decided to withdraw support from an event celebrating Israel’s Independence Day.
The most hypocritical part of the JNF statement was the comment that it is an organization which supports and funds Israel in its entirety and that it was therefore inappropriate to support an event featuring someone whose political views represented only part of Israeli society. This despite the fact that Nini is one of Israel’s most popular singers, with a unique style combining eastern and western music, whose concerts throughout the country are always overflowing and are attended by an entire cross-section of the Israeli population, young and old, left- and right-wing. But then, why should a Diaspora organization know anything about what is going on within Israeli society when it comes to arts, culture and music – if it isn’t security, terrorism, defense and anti-Semitism (both real and perceived), the lowest common denominator around which it is so easy to unite – why should they be more knowledgeable? Given the fact that the JNF worldwide has taken upon itself to focus all of its fund raising and development projects on the Negev (while the Joint Israel Appeal [JIA], focuses its own projects on the Galilee and the north of the country) the decision to boycott Nini is all the more surprising. My own university, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which has done more than most to develop the Negev during the past 40 years, was more than proud to host Nini as its main star at the annual Board of Governors meeting which took place two years ago, in a gala event which was held at Mitzpe Ramon. The many foreign guests and members of the BOG, not all of whom are exactly known for their leftwing views, were delighted to attend the event and to applaud this symbol of contemporary Israeli culture, as part of what makes this country so dynamic and exciting.
The JNF response was all the more troubling because, without even thinking about it, it expressed an alarming trend which has impacted the fundraising scene during the past decade, as a host of Israeli and Jewish institutions compete with each other for the limited pocketbooks of Jewish donors and philanthropists around the world, especially in North America. What the JNF effectively said was that it has to tailor its fundraising projects to the political preferences of potential donors. It is therefore best to avoid any events, concerts or speakers featuring prominent Israeli citizens – academics, public figures, authors and artists – whose views do not correspond with those of the potential donors. Rather than portray the diversity of views which makes Israel the vibrant democracy that it is, they prefer to hide those voices, keep them in the closet, so as not to annoy a potential donor who may shift their support to an alternative Israeli institution or university.
During the past decade, many institutions – and my own university fundraisers in North America are, unfortunately, no exception – have consciously avoided inviting any speakers or lecturers who will address issues of contemporary political or social concern, for fear of annoying a potential donor, preferring instead to focus exclusively on the technical issues of scientific development, be it medicine, water research or nano-technology, all of which are of critical importance and are at the forefront of Israeli scientific development.
But the days when an interesting debate by faculty members, be it at community events around the world or at plenary sessions at the annual Board of Governors meetings held in Israel, on the various political and strategic options facing Israel would draw out much larger crowds have long passed. The numbers of foreign guests attending most Board of Governors meetings in Israel has experienced a dramatic decrease in recent years, programs have become repetitive and lacking in originality while the interesting dynamics of social, political and security issues are largely ignored altogether or left to the independent think tanks (the Herzliya and Sderot conferences, the Institute for National Security Studies or the Israel Democracy Institute, to name but a few of the more prominent) who revel in their newfound status as the informal policy makers of the State of Israel.
Let’s be clear about it. Every well-intentioned donor and philanthropists has the right to give his/her hardearned wealth to whichever project they feel most comfortable with, and if they for whatever reason do not like the political positions held by an individual or an entire university department, it is their prerogative to give to other causes and other institutions. The days when Israeli institutions could browbeat foreign donors into giving to projects which they may otherwise have ignored is long gone. Individual donors, particularly a newer and younger generation, are more knowledgeable and more savvy about what is going on in Israel and they increasingly demand value for their money rather than contributing to a general pot and allowing the institution decide what to do with the funds based on its own internal political preferences.
The JNF has, to all effects, practiced boycott. There is no other term to describe its recent actions, and this is a policy which is being practiced by many other Israeli institutions in not inviting or supporting the “right” sort of people up front. Organizations such as the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and all of Israel’s universities have done an amazing job at promoting and supporting projects and scientific development throughout the country and will, no doubt, continue to do so even in a period when Israel’s global image continues to slide. Woe betide these institutions however if, because of the power of the checkbook, they are party to trampling on Israel’s internal diversity and pluralism of ideas, from religious to secular, and from right- to left-wing. Adopting such policies causes more long-term damage and harm to Israel’s image as a vibrant and open democracy and, in turn, feeds into the discourses of the real detractors who promote BDS and boycotts and who are only too eager to depict Israel as a country which silences voices of opposition, open debate and freedom of expression.
If JNF-Canada wishes to work for the entirety of the State of Israel, it must go a step further. It should issue a public apology to Ahinoam Nini and openly support the concert she will be giving on behalf of the entire State of Israel as it celebrates its Independence Day.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of geopolitics at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.