Jewish Journal

Just say yes

by Rob Eshman

Posted on Feb. 16, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Should Jewish communal funds find their way into the hands of groups that condone or actively engage in the boycott of Israel?

No, you say, of course not. Why should Jews finance people or groups who want to punish Israel?

But it’s not so simple. 

As mainstream organizations attempt to deal with this question, they have to balance the desire for open dialogue, the need to address concerns of influential donors who are on opposite sides of the Israel debate, the very real threat of a successful worldwide boycott of Israel and the American tradition of free speech.

One model, which amounts to a boycott of the boycotters, is being touted as the answer, and many in the Los Angeles community are looking to bring it here.

Yes, you say, of course. Let’s show those nasty boycotters where we stand. 

But, not so fast.

Last year, the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation enacted rules put forward by the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) that prohibit funds from supporting artists and groups that the Federation believes undermine “the legitimacy of Israel as a secure, independent, democratic Jewish State, including participating in the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, in whole or in part.”

The rules, titled “JCF Funding Policy on Israel-Related Programming By Its Grantees” outline specific “Guidelines on Potentially Controversial Israel-Related Programming.” This policy came about after a Federation-funded Jewish film festival in San Francisco screened the documentary “Rachel” in 2009, a film that implicates Israel in the death of the young American activist Rachel Corrie.

That event, which turned into an anti-Israel hate-fest, was supported by Jewish communal dollars. In its wake, Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the San Francisco JCRC, helped forge the first-in-the-nation guidelines with the hope of preventing future such debacles.

There already were rules in place forbidding Federation dollars from going to organizations that “endorse or promote anti-Semitism, other forms of bigotry, violence or other extremist views” or that “actively seek to proselytize Jews away from Judaism.”

To these stipulations the guidelines added “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish State, including through participation in BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, in whole or in part.”

One insider told me that Federation leaders in New York and Boston are resisting the kind of guidelines that San Francisco enacted because they lead down a slippery slope of some committee deciding what constitutes “kosher” art.

“You really don’t want to do this,” said the insider, who requested anonymity. “What if someone says, ‘I don’t want to fund gays and lesbians.’ Are you really ready to have this argument over every controversial issue? Who gets to legislate?”

Federations and Jewish foundations administer thousands of donor-advised funds that give money to hundreds of nonprofits. Any 501(c)(3) is eligible. Once you begin to regulate what they can or can’t do, every cause on the left, right and in between becomes fair game. It plays into the hands of Israel’s worst critics to engage in what is bound to be seen as censorship and suppression of dissenting views.

Kahn told me in a phone interview that the intention is not censorship, but to “restore the distinction” between legitimate criticism of Israel and the BDS movement.

“The policy makes it crystal clear that it is not intended to eliminate the presentation of a broad range of ideas,” he said.

That said, critics have pointed out that the same guidelines don’t address groups on the far right that stop short of advocating violence but whose policies can be equally harmful. Then there are the gray areas. The San Francisco rules ban monies from supporting artists who have trafficked with groups that may have cooperated with some aspects of the BDS movement, “in whole or in part.”

Right off the bat that eliminates Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angels in America” playwright, who is on the board of Jewish Voices of Peace, and Theodore Bikel, who has signed on to the artist boycott of Ariel, a settlement over the Green Line.

Should we really be saying, in the center of America’s creative community, such formidable artists are beyond the pale of the Jewish communal support? Kushner’s ideas and writings are of more lasting value to the Jews and the world than any number of JCRCs, and Bikel does more for Jewish life and culture in a year than most Jewish organizations do in their lifetimes. When the big tent of Jewish life gets too small to cover those two, I’d rather stand outside.

Inside this very newspaper this week, for instance, we offer an opinion piece penned by a member of Jewish Voices for Peace. Jewish Voices for Peace has the political subtlety of a tantruming kindergartener, but sometimes that voice, too, needs to be heard.

So, what’s the alternative to red-line guidelines?

Why not spend more communal time and money focusing on positive alternatives to the BDS movement? This past week, the Grammy Award-winning singer Macy Gray got on a plane and flew to Israel despite a concerted, targeted effort by the BDS movement to keep her away.

A just-as-energetic effort by some dedicated, open-minded activists who understand Israel and the Palestinians, spearheaded by media entrepreneur Dan Adler, ultimately persuaded Gray that the best way to help the Middle East conflict isn’t to reject one — and only one — party to it. 

“I honestly believe that if musicians are more aggressively invited to Israel, you, on either side, have the opportunity to educate and influence and inspire them to spread your beliefs,” Gray wrote on her blog on Jan. 26. “We bring with us one of God’s most important and powerful gifts, music. It is the best we can do for change right now.”

Leave the rejection, red-lining and boycotting to others; our focus should be outreach, outreach, outreach.

How ironic — no, scratch that; how incredibly shortsighted — that just as Egypt starts to open up, an American Jewish community would start to clamp down.

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