State of debate

What a controversial panel says about the nature of Jewish discourse about Israel in the Bay Area today

Rae Abileah, shown here protesting a product created in an illegal Israeli settlement

On May 24, a panel of three Jewish activists and authors from the Bay Area will discuss the historical figures and ancestors that inspire their work today. The event was originally scheduled to take place at the Jewish Community Library, operated by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which is largely supported by the Jewish Community Federation (JCF, or "the Federation").

Leaders at the BJE canceled the event in January after discussions about its content with organizers of the panel, who then found another venue: Congregation Sha'ar Zahav. That seemed like a harmless turn of events that has nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least not directly.

But with the current state of discourse in the Bay Area's Jewish community, just beneath the surface are complex dynamics that raise issues of censorship, bonds forged by religion, whether certain criticisms of Israel should be off-limits, and a battle for the hearts of minds of Jews in the diaspora.

Anti-war activist Rae Abileah has found herself at the middle of this battle. She is on the panel to discuss her great uncle Joseph Abileah, an Israeli pacifist who was charged and tried in 1949 after he refused to join the army as part of Israel's mandatory military service.

Abileah is a member of Code Pink who is outspoken about her opposition to the Israeli occupation in Palestine. The panel is meant to discuss decades-old work, not the current state of affairs domestically or in Israel, but Abileah's inclusion made it too political for some.

In March, the panelists — which also include Julie Gilgoff and Elaine Elinson — and event organizer Diana Scott wrote an open letter to the Jewish Community Library saying, "We find it particularly troubling that an act of censorship has occurred at the Library — an institution that it supposed to be a symbol of open thought in learning in the Jewish Community."

David Waksberg, the director of the BJE who was instrumental in the decision-making process, said it was nothing of the sort. "We had very honest, productive, and respectful discussions about why the program wasn't for us," he told me.

The letter concludes: "We seek to make clear that Federation policies, designed to foster the appearance of Jewish solidarity by shutting down the vital exchange of ideas in the Jewish community, are divisive and intolerable. They are also ultimately ineffective in suppressing dissent, and, paradoxically, undermine the values and mission of some of our most cherished Jewish institutions."

"The Jewish Community Federation didn't tell us whether or not to do this program," Waksberg insists. "They didn't pressure us one way or another."

The open letter also discusses funding guidelines, adopted in 2010 by the Federation. The guidelines restrict funding for events that "endorse the BDS (boycott-divestment-sanctions) movement or positions that undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel."



The guidelines have meaning beyond these specific circumstances. They represent a conflict in what counts as diversity of opinion, what counts as dissent, and the incredibly loaded concept of "delegitimizing Israel."

The guidelines were a response to a controversial 2009 screening of Rachel, a documentary on the life of Rachel Corrie, a 24-year-old who was killed when she stood in front of a bulldozer on its way to level a Palestinian home. The film was screened at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival followed by speaker Cindy Corrie, Rachel's mother. The film-going crowd yelled and booed, and the Federation threatened to quit funding the festival.


I appreciate this thoughtful presentation of some of the issues Jews are grappling with in the Bay Area.

Our community, too, has it's 1%. Though this minority's Likud-like positions are increasingly discredited, it is fighting desperately to maintain its control over the discourse. The reflexive efforts to censor progressive views are examples of this desperation. (See the blog Muzzlewatch, devoted to reporting on these acts of censorship.)

Bend the Arc did not used to be called Jewish Voice for Peace (an admirable organization in its own right, very much alive and well, both in the Bay Area, where it was born, and now nationally). Bend the Arc used to be called the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

Posted by Lion of Judah on May. 23, 2012 @ 3:06 pm

=v= I don't know what to think on this issue until Eric Brooks lectures us on it.

Syria just massacred a bunch of children, time for a BDS movement against them?

Posted by Jym on May. 26, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

He got upset by all the jokes about the SF Green Party

Posted by Guest on May. 26, 2012 @ 4:25 pm

Unfortunately it's a lot more than that. But one definitely does get the sense that they're losing ground as more people begin to ask questions. And they're very afraid of the scrutiny, because in the end, Israel in it's current form is a mass of contradictions that doesn't withstand the scrutiny of logic and compassion.

As for Syria... I'm all for not supporting Syria. Let's stop all military aid to them as well. Oh wait... we don't give them any military aid!

Turth is, American intervention almost always makes things worse. Let Syria solve its own problems, and let Israel solve its own problems. If Israel "made the desert bloom," then I'm sure they're perfectly capable of getting by just fine without an American subsidy that works out to about $1000 per Israeli every year. Right?

Posted by Greg on May. 27, 2012 @ 8:03 am

about the middle-east.

Obsessed much, Greg?

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2012 @ 8:31 am

What's with the whole "much" thing these days? It's the most idiotic hipster expression I've ever heard.

FYI, I was responding to another poster above who used used the term in reference to a minority of people in the Jewish community. I wasn't the one who "found a way" to insert the term. I just responded. But someone clearly decided to use any excuse, however thin, to criticize me.

Stalking much?

Posted by Greg on May. 27, 2012 @ 1:58 pm

Just couldn't resist, huh?

Whatever happened to Occupy anyway? And exactly when it did it degrade into a week-end playtime once a month or so? Wasn't it supposed to herald a revolution?

Posted by Guest on May. 27, 2012 @ 3:12 pm

After years of internal discussion, there is a pretty new consensus in the Jewish community that being critical of Israeli policies is welcome and needed. This is not our parents and grandparents Jewish community any more, but one which acknowledges how complicated the situation in the middle east is. Even young middle school children in Jewish day schools speak about their support for the Palestinians and the challenges faced by all sides.

Might there be some introspection needed by the progressives too? their idea that organizations and communities shouldn't work in their own interest seems strange. And isn't it in the interest of all of us to see this conflict resolved rather than support only one side or the other?

Posted by Guest Hannah on Jun. 05, 2012 @ 2:30 pm

The reporter didn't quite get the story of the presentation of "Rachel" by the SF Jewish Film Festival in 2009 quite right. Neither Cindy Corrie nor the film were booed. The booing and jeering were reserved for a speaker who gave a pro-Israel speech prior to the film being shown. I was that speaker, invited by the SFJFF because of community outcry about the invitation to Cindy Corrie who serves as a fundraiser for the International Solidarity Movement. You can see it for yourself at

The fact that the Jewish Film Festival had programmed an event which attracted an audience which had a distinctly anti-Israel audience (many not Jewish) is what led directly to the guidelines to prevent similar misuses of Jewish community funds.

Criticism of Israel is not the issue. Peter Beinart appeared at the SFJCC recently without any significant community protest. Jeremy Ben Ami has spoken at the Berkeley JCC and at least one Bay Area synagogue without any significant community protest.

The difference is that the BDS movement has at its core the goal of eliminating Israel entirely. It's not about the occupation, unless you also believe that Tel Aviv (founded on sand dunes in 1909) and Jerusalem (which has had a Jewish majority since 1900) is "occupied Arab land". Omar Barghouti, BDSer in chief, believes that his movement will be "euthanasia" for Zionism.

This is an important distinction. People can legitimately criticize Israel (Israelis, even Knesset members, do it all the time) without calling for its destruction. People legitimately criticized Bush for launching a war in Iraq without openly siding with al Qaeda. But when criticism of Israel is aimed at its destruction, then the Jewish community says such discussions can take place in venues outside our own institutions. After all, would an LGBT center host speakers claiming that gays can (and should) be "converted"? Did African-American cultural centers host programs defending apartheid South Africa? Of course not. So Jewish community centers aren't going to host Rae Abileah's activities that promote not peace between a Jewish state of Israel and an Arab state of Palestine, but rather ongoing war against Israel.

Posted by Michael Harris on Jun. 05, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

To Rae Abileach and so-called Jewish Voice for peace:
What does Rae and her fellow Jewish Voice for peace knows about Judaism? What do you know about Torah? Do you know how to read or chant the Torah? Do you know any Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino or Arabic? Let me tell you what a Torah says. I suggest you to read the Book of Etz Hayim where it says that, if some body attack Israel then, Israel has the right for self defend. Torah says if some body attack me then, I have a right for self defend, The so-called Jewish Voice for peace policy are pro War and destruction of the State of Israel. Abileach and JVFP are self hate Jews. How dare can you be against yourself? Now, I took one quote from Hamas and Koran. Let see what it says. The Hamas Charter is Violent and Racist. Here what Hamas says: "Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it".
When Israel left Gaza,Hamas was elected the new governing party. The founding document of Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel and murder of the Jews. It is disturb me very much.

Koran says,Oh Muslimi! There is a Jew behind that three, come and kill him. As long as this remains the guiding document for Hamas and Hezbollah or the Palestinian people, the dream of peace remains impossible. Now, the so-called Jewish Voice for peace, is a brain washed against Israel. How, can they claim to be peaceful if some one from this group attacked me on the bus stop in San Francisco and, this person is still attacking me every time he see me in the city or on the counter demonstration where I stand with Israel? I would fight if I were Palestinian. I would fight for the human rights and against Hamas and Hezbollah because, I would realize that those two organizations would deny me basic human rights as individual. I would never fight against Israel. I would continue to support and love Israel and, I would make a lot of friends from Israel. Hamas and Hezbollah would ask me or member of my family and friends to go and to blow our selves up among Israelis. Why would I do this? Why would I hate my life? I love my life and the life of my family members and friends. And, I love Israel. I will continue to support Israel as long as I live. The Code Pink, is truthfully the Code for War and destruction of the State of Israel. The Jewish Voice for peace, is truthfully the Jewish Voice for War and destruction of the State of Israel

Posted by paul shkuratov on Feb. 23, 2013 @ 11:08 am

Ok Difi.......

Posted by Guest on Feb. 23, 2013 @ 11:30 am

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