Advocacy Gone Awry

Bid against JCC in Manhattan film festival part of disturbing trend.

Tue, 03/15/2011
Gary Rosenblatt
Gary Rosenblatt

Theodore Bikel, the 86-year-old actor most famous for his role as Tevye in “Fiddler On The Roof,” considers himself “a Zionist and ardent supporter of Israel.” But he is one of a number of Jews in the arts who will not perform at theaters in the West Bank, believing that the settlements are an obstacle to peace.

Does that place him inside or out of the pro-Israel tent?

This is a call for serious, informed and nuanced discussions among American Jews about how far one can go in criticizing Israeli policy and still be considered a Zionist.

Unfortunately, much of what we have seen to date in the way of discourse has shed more heat than light on the subject. On Sunday, for example, the essentially one-man group calling itself JCCWatch.org attracted about 20 people to a protest-style press conference in front of the JCC in Manhattan, charging the institution with partnering with groups supporting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.

Richard Allen, a JCC member who founded JCCWatch, called on the assembled to join him in “demonstrating and picketing to put an end to the JCC’s horrible ‘partnership’ with the BDS movement.”

Such allegations are more than unfair, distorting rather than clarifying the issue through a pattern of guilt by association that borders on the absurd.

In truth, I hesitated to write here about a one-man effort making demands on the JCC, one of the great institutions of New York Jewry. I generally agree with the logic of not giving such critics the attention they crave.

But I broach the subject now because there are many in our community who, if not made aware of the facts, may be inclined to agree with the broad strokes of the argument put forth by JCCWatch, which plans a wider advertising campaign.

Moreover, this new effort is representative of what Martin Raffel, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs senior vice president, calls a growing trend — the downside of the “democratization of advocacy.”

As head of a communal effort to counter delegitimization efforts, he sees more and more individuals and small groups able to mobilize sentiment easily and quickly on the Internet today, often with disturbing effects.

“There is very little filtering, verifying facts, putting issues in context, or looking at strategic objectives,” he said. “Anyone with a PC is an organization now, answerable only to themselves. And they are injecting themselves into the bloodstream of Jewish discourse, reaching thousands of people, and making our work more difficult.”

The new advocates tend to be “rebellious toward the establishment and feel they have the corner on the truth,” says Raffel, “and we have to grapple” with the fallout.

In addition, efforts like JCCWatch divert attention away from the real issues we should be confronting.

Because make no mistake: the BDS movement is dangerous for Israel and gaining momentum. But we should be focusing on the real threats, not imagined ones.

At issue here, in part, is that the JCC in Manhattan holds an annual Other Israel Film Festival, which seeks to create “social awareness” by presenting films about Israeli Arabs, who make up more than 20 percent of Israel’s population.

The way the slippery slope argument works: The JCC, via the Other Israel Film Festival, links to the Joint Distribution Committee's Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arabs, which has a resources section on its website that includes groups that advocate for Israeli Arab citizens. On the Other Israel Film Festival website, groups such as New Israel Fund and B'tselem are listed as having partnered with the festival last year. Groups like NIF and B'tselem are, according to JCCWatch, “pro-BDS organizations.”

But both are on record as opposed to the global BDS movement. (The use of “global” seeks to distinguish between those who seek to delegitimize Israel from those, like Theodore Bikel and others, who support boycotts related to West Bank theaters, products, etc.)

Some critics, like NGO Monitor’s Gerald Steinberg, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, acknowledge that such groups are now publicly on record as opposed to BDS. But he said recently that the new guidelines of the NIF are “tentative at best,” and that the group needs to be watched to see if its actions mirror its rhetoric.

In any case, to charge that the JCC supports groups that promote the BDS movement is a deliberately broad, provocative and untrue allegation.

To the charge that it needs transparent guidelines on these matters, the JCC says its position could not be clearer.

“The JCC in Manhattan does not support BDS and we do not partner with organizations that support BDS,” its statement reads. “We stand with Israel against delegitimization, and support open and respectful dialogue in our community.”

In the last few days JCCWatch has turned its focus to the need for balanced programming at the JCC when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict, complaining that NIF, B’tselem and J Street, the pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby, have been given a forum there. But JCC officials point out that groups on the right like Camera, which monitors the media, and AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby, have also been given forums, in keeping with the center’s policy of engaging the community in Jewish life and Israel in positive ways.

“We strive for balanced programming, we welcome it, we encourage it and we are committed to it,” said Rabbi Joy Levitt, executive director of the JCC.

JCCWatch’s tactics of contacting the media and holding a public protest, with speakers coming close to calling the JCC anti-Israel, is exactly what we don’t need as a community. Pitting Jews against Jews in the name of support for Israel, and tarring the JCC with broad and misplaced criticism, is only making it more difficult to hold intelligent discussion and debate about the parameters for dissent of Israeli policy, particularly regarding artists who tend to view society from the margins.

While Sunday’s demonstration was being held, seeking to lump the JCC with those focused on bringing down the Jewish state, the center was holding a Purim carnival for 1,000 kids, including 100 with special needs. In addition, 200 youngsters were taking part in a swim meet, just an example of the kind of ongoing programming that attracts thousands of people to the center on a daily basis, primarily through cultural rather than political activities.

And consider that the Joint Distribution Committee, perceived as part of the link toward BDS support, is the non-political and leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization, currently spearheading efforts to provide emergency aid to victims of the earthquakes and tsunami in Japan.

Should the JCC be viewed as hurting Israel?

Should the JDC building be the next site for a protest?

While the tactics being used by the JCCWatch are damaging, there are, indeed, worthy and delicate issues at play here concerning the tension between creating a big-tent approach to pro-Israel support and making that structure so wide that, without walls, it collapses.

David Eisner, a local Jewish leader, has written op-ed pieces in Jewish newspapers about his concern that today’s boycotter of West Bank activities may be tomorrow’s boycotter of goings-on in Tel Aviv. But he acknowledges that his position has evolved in complexity in recent weeks, based on private talks with a wide range of other Jewish leaders.

“Boycott is demonization,” he maintains. He said he sees a difference in the potential motives of a global boycott supporter, who seeks the dissolution of the Jewish state, and an individual who boycotts a West Bank project because of opposition to the settlements.

However, he believes that “Jewish leadership needs to be willing to call a demonizing act for what it is — irrespective of the actor’s possible motives.

“How much harm do you have to do to be out of the [pro-Israel] tent?” he asks.

He and others are also concerned about films, many of them Israeli-made, that portray Israeli Jews in a one-sided, negative manner and are funded by Jewish foundations and organizations.

Eisner says his goal is to bring these difficult issues to the surface. “I don’t have all the answers,” he says. “I want Jewish leaders to struggle with this, to find it difficult.”

Indeed, it is.

But let’s start by agreeing that targeting our own, aggressively and irresponsibly, hurts our cause and our community.

 

 

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I think we’ve hit a dangerous trend in the American Jewish community. Right wing groups are resorting to Neo-McCarthyism in an effort to determine if other Jews pass their pro-Israel litmus test. These groups should not be the sole arbitrators of what it means to be pro-Israel. This would be the equivalent of saying that only 1 political party in the US is sufficiently patriotic. While Americans may disagree on issues ranging from whether or not go to war to what the correct tax rate should be, we do so out of deep concern for our nation. The same principle should be applied to supporters of Israel. Those who criticize settlements and home evictions in the West Bank are not anti-Israel. They believe that this ultimately hurts Israel as it sends the wrong message about its intention to carry out the two-state solution. Further, it serves as a great recruitment tool for groups like Hamas. Of course, part of the reason that liberal-minded Jews criticize the settlements is out of concern for the plight of the Palestinians and a commitment to social justice but it is also out of great concern for the future of Israel, which depends on the implementation of the two-state solution.

When are JEWS going to stop called Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, "settlers" in the "West Bank"???? It's bad enough that the rest of the world has adopted the Arab designation, but our fellow Jews too?

Keep in mind that the Arabs view ALL OF ISRAEL as occupied territory, and all the Jews living there as "settlers".

It's so ridiculous to call New Israel Fund pro-BDS. Their whole M.O. is to give money to Israeli organizations, the opposite of "divestment." I think someone here claimed J Street is pro-BDS, another falsehood, check their policy on it.

Since when has "advocacy" become redefined as even-handedness?

Doesn't Israel have enough detractors without the piling on by fellow Jews? Let someone else show Arab films, boycott the settlements, and take the Palestinian point of view.

Just as advocacy has been turned on its head, so your commentary turns blame on its head. Who is "targeting our own" --- those that oppose boycotters of Israel who partner with New Israel Fund or those who are doing the boycotting and partnering?

Or was this your Purim spoof?

In designing a communal response to Israel's enemies, it is essential to differentiate between acts aimed at harming the Jewish State and the mere showing of a movie, which addresses an important Israeli issue. I fail to see the wisdom in obsessively scouring every nook and cranny of the Jewish world for an imaginary fifth column, when there are so many real Israel-haters for us to rally ourselves against.

Dear Sir
I read your article with the pros and cons from the Jews in America and I really cant understand their way of thought
I came to Israel in 1976 from Canada Maybe you were too young to remember what when on with the French and English in Montreal My husband was a survivor child from the holocust and was afraid it would happen again that is why we immigrated to Israel
Can you tell me what country gave back land that the accquired in war or other wise Did the USA give back to the Indians
THe settlement are land which G-d promised the Jews in the Torah If you dont believe in that I fell sorry for you because if you think that the people of America will love the Jews if Israel is lost I think they better start thinking about it
You tell me what kind of monsters kill a baby of 4 months slaughter her YOu really have to be a wonderful human being
Have any of you ever come to the Shneider Childrens hospital to see that most of it patients are Arabs One mother brought her son who was dying and the Israeli doctor operated and he survived they asked her arent you happy your son has recuperated and she answered yes now he can be a sucide bomber
You see my dear friend when you do not live in the place and see all the good things and benefits the arabs have here
You only see the bad
We Jews are a liberal people and DUMB

While JCC is certainly not anti-Israel, JCCWatch is right in the fight for the
exclusion of BDS-groups like NIF or J-Street from the pro-Israel Jewish
community. Theodore Bickel can believe that settlements are an obstacle
to peace and I'm sure that nobody in the settlements care if Bickel is
performing there or not, but his demonstrative non-performance is very close
to BDS and should not be excused. David Eisners concern that "today’s
boycotter of West Bank activities may be tomorrow’s boycotter of goings-on
in Tel Aviv" is more than fair and justified.

In today's NY Times there is a letter to the editor about all the Arabs who live in Israel running for office and getting it and that no one kills them or even thinks of it because they live in Israel. What is it about the JCC and others like it that they are Jews who are against Israel being a Jewish state where it is. Do they feel guilty that we have a state? Do they think it is a colonialist state? Oh, give us a break. It is a Jewish state and we have a history of always having been there before it was a state. Our presence has been entirely consistent there and where is the presence of Jews in Arab states where they were thrown out? Where does the ilk of those like the JCC power group criticize that these places are Judenrein?

Indeed, I am not -- and never was -- in favor of boycotting Israel. I am in favor of a peace process that includes a two-state solution. That process is seriously hindered by Israel's presence in the Territories. My opposition to the Settlements is a pro-Israel position, not the opposite.
Thank you, Gary, for acknowledging the nuance.
Theodore Bikel

An excellent, important piece that delves into how our increasingly short-attention span universe enables emotions to overflow intellect. That doesn't mean that people on the right or left are wrong; it means that how they have conversations about their issues is more than important.

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