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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