'Reclaiming Jewish Activism': easier said than done

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This article has been updated

A panel in which three local activists will talk about how their Jewish ancestors inform their present-day work seemed harmless enough. But in the Bay Area’s friction-prone Jewish community, its cancellation has led the organizers to write a letter in protest and accusations that one of the area’s biggest funders of Jewish events, the Jewish Community Federation (JCF), is participating in McCarthy-style censorship.

The panelists- Julie Gilgoff, Elaine Ellinson, and Rae Abileah- are all authors and activists. Bend the Arc (formerly the Progressive Jewish Alliance) and the Workmens Circle organized the event. They planned to hold the panel in the Jewish Library, run by the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), which funds most of its grants and programming through the JCF.

In late January, the Library cancelled the panel. It will now be held at Congregation Sha'ar Zahav.In an open letter to the Library, the event organizers write, "six decades after McCarthyism's assault on progressives and their values, we reassert that censorship by association is dangerous and unconscionable."

David Waksberg, CEO of the Bureau of Jewish Education, said that the BJE didn't want to suppress the event all together. "In the end we decided not to do it with the understanding that they would be going forward at another location," he said.

"I don’t know how it's censorship when you agree, you guys go have your meeting, just don’t have it at my place. How is that censorship? No one's telling them they can’t speak," Waksberg said.

“The program involves two authors who have written about activism domestically,” Waksberg explained, “and another individual who has been involved with BDS related to Israel.”

BDS-  the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign that activists throughout the world have used as a protest against the Israeli occupation in Palestine- is at the center of the conflict, right beside Rae Abileah.

Abileah will take part in the panel to discuss her great uncle, Joseph Abileah, an influential Israeli peace activist and war resister in the 1940s. 

“I grew up in the Bay Area Jewish community,” Abileah told us. “I was part of the Diller Teen Fellowship,” a program BJE puts on, “where we had Jewish gatherings, trainings and meetings.”

She’s also outspoken in her opposition to Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Abileah works for CODEPINK Women for Peace and Jewish Voice for Peace. She has travelled to Gaza CODEPINK in 2009 for a Gaza Freedom March with participants worldwide. She has also organized BDS campaigns.

“In 2005 the Palestinian civil society called for BDS as tried and true nonviolent tactic to get the Israeli government to uphold international law. We decided to be in solidarity,” said Abileah. She has since organized to spread a boycott of Ahava products, “Dead Sea beauty products made in an illegal settlement in the West Bank.”

According to Abileah, “several stores in the Bay Area have stopped carrying it.”

Abileah says she is proud to support nonviolent forms of protest like BDS and hunger striking, noting the lengthy hunger strike undertaken by Palestinian prisoners that ended just yesterday.

The hunger strike was successful. Israel agreed to prisoners’ demands to end solitary confinement (for 19 prisoners), allow more family visits, and to free some of those held in “administrative detention,” or imprisonment without trial, although the demand to end administrative detention was not met.

BDS has had successes worldwide as well. And it has become a controversial issue in the Bay Area.

Waksberg said, “we were concerned this would be an event that would have a lot of people yelling at each other.” This would not be unprecedented.

The ongoing rift is possibly best exemplified by the controversy surrounding the 2009 screening at the SF Jewish Film Festival of Rachel, a documentary about the life of 24-year-old Rachel Corrie. Corrie was killed in 2003 when, as part of a campaign to stop Israeli settlements, she stood in front of a bulldozer on its way to demolish a Palestinian family’s home.

The showing of the film, as well as the festival board's decision to invite Corrie’s mother to speak after the film, sparked outrage. A portion of the audience booed and hissed at supportive references to the Israeli government.

Largely in response to that event, the JFC rewrote its funding guidelines in 2010. The guidelines outline a policy of not funding organizations that promote violence, attempt to “proselytize Jews away from Judaism” or work on “undermining the legitimacy of Israel.”

The idea of fighting for or against “Israel’s legitimacy” is invoked often but is vague- what exactly does it mean to oppose Israel’s “legitimacy” or “right to exist”? In In the guidelines, one thing seems to clearly do so: BDS campaigns.

In the guidelines’ section on “potentially controversial Israel-related programming,” the types of programs “not consistent with JCF’s policy” has three bullet points, all singling out support for BDS as unacceptable. The programs that are inconsistent are ones where the “overall experience” “endorse or prominently promote the BDS movement,”  “Individual programs that endorse the BDS movement or positions that undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” and co-sponsoring public programs featuring supporters of BDS.

The open letter states that "The Federation’s 2010 revised funding guidelines, which prohibit grant recipients from associating with organizations and individuals who oppose its strong support for Israel, apparently triggered the cancellation."

Wakberg says that these guidelines didn’t play a role in the BJE’s decision to drop the Reclaiming Jewish Activism panel.

“The JCF didn’t tell us whether or not to do this. This was our decision about what we thought was right for the library,” he said.

“There was going to be an event," Waksberg said, "and there is going to be an event.”

Yes, the event will go on. But so, it seems, will tensions in the Bay Area’s Jewish community.

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