One rabbi turns down a panel discussion, fearing that BDS could have come up, while another is glad to host it.
Promoters of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement have appeared at colleges and universities, churches and other venues throughout the country, but next month may be the first time that some will take the stage at a local synagogue.
That, in turn, has led to debate among progressives in the Jewish community on what boundaries, if any, Jewish institutions should establish on events sponsored by outside groups. Among the questions is whether synagogues and other organizations have an obligation to their members to host discussions of the most heated issues, including ones they believe would hurt Israel.
An ad-hoc group that includes supporters and opponents of BDS, as well as anti-Zionists and progressive Zionists, is organizing the event, now scheduled for Thursday, April 4, at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, informally known as the city’s gay and lesbian synagogue.
The synagogue’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, decided to host the event after another synagogue, Congregation Ansche Chesed, rented space to the organizers and then reversed course, making clear they were unwelcome.
As reported in the Open Zion section of the Daily Beast, an online publication, the congregation signed a contract with organizers of the event, but the deal unraveled after its senior cleric, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, learned about it while on sabbatical. Although the title of the event doesn’t mention BDS — the name asks whether Israel is, or can be, a democracy; whether it can, or does, offer equality; and whether a Jewish state can be a democratic one — Rabbi Kalmanofsky and others felt the discussion could turn to BDS.
The rabbi told The Jewish Week that his suspicions were raised when he discovered that “the person who contacted us” was Donna Nevel, a leader in two groups — Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace — that are considered radically anti-Israel by many in the Jewish community. Jews Say No, for instance, backed the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” three years ago, supports a global economic boycott of Israel and has protested outside at least one event held by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. JVP, while not advocating divestment from Israel, considers itself a part of the BDS movement.
Nevel is listed as one of the group’s “cosponsors” on its flyer, but others include Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Anita Altman, both of whom are Zionists and opposed to BDS. Pogrebin, a founder of Ms. Magazine, is the author of “Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America,” while Altman is an executive at UJA-Federation of New York. The panel includes a similar mix, ranging from Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, and Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, co-host of WBAI radio’s “Beyond the Pale,” to J.J. Goldberg, an editor at the Forward, and Kathleen Peratis, a lawyer, human-rights activist and board member of Americans for Peace Now.
Some of the same cosponsors, including Nevel, organized two other events in the past, as stated on the flyer for the April 4 discussion. Both events concerned BDS.
Rabbi Kalmanofsky acknowledged that the panel would include a mix of viewpoints, but said he was convinced that the “overall rubric” of the evening “would be not only critical of Israel, but hostile to Israel.”
He favors open debate, he said, “but I don’t feel everything has to happen in my house. I don’t think our particular shul should host a nice, diverse panel, some of whom believe there should be a worldwide economic assault on Israel, some of whom don’t.” He added that most of the congregants who’ve given him feedback on his decision feel the same way.
Speaking of her decision, Rabbi Kleinbaum offered a different view.
Although she, too, opposes BDS, she told The Jewish Week that she’s “very disturbed by the trend in the Jewish community to limit vigorous debate regarding Israel and Palestine. I want the Jewish community to be a place in which ideas can be debated vigorously.”
Asked if she would consider any issues beyond the pale, the rabbi said she believed the subjects that would be covered by the panel “are all legitimate issues that should be debated in a respectful manner. Isn’t it ironic,” she asked, “that you can walk into almost any synagogue in the country and say, ‘Rabbi, I don’t know if I believe in God, I don’t like God, I hate God, and the rabbi would be glad to listen to you, but you can’t do the same thing when it comes to Israel?”
Not surprisingly, Peratis and Pogrebin agree with that stance.
While calling herself a Zionist who opposes BDS, Peratis said she’s also “a dyed-in-the-wool, [American Civil Liberties Union] civil libertarian” who believes that heated issues need to be discussed.
“One purpose that might be served [by the event] is to show what a stupid idea BDS is,” she added.
Pogrebin made similar remarks, suggesting that speech should be answered by speech and that any discussion of BDS might convince people that BDS is wrong.
Others, though, believe that discussing BDS legitimizes the issue.
“By its own definition, BDS doesn’t believe in a Jewish and democratic State of Israel,” said Hindy Poupko, director of Israel and international affairs at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. “While each congregation has the right to make its own decision, we believe that BDS promoters should not be given a platform in our Jewish institutions and should not be considered part of the normative discourse.”
One progressive Zionist who’s not among the event’s organizers or panelists said the issue is a complicated one for him.
“I’ve actually appeared on panels with representatives of JVP, debated BDS and argued why it’s such a destructive proposition for peace,” said Ken Bob, national director of Ameinu, formerly called the Labor Zionist Alliance. If he had been invited to sit on the April 4 panel, he said, he would have said yes.
At the same time, Bob continued, he understands Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s position against discussing such a divisive issue in his synagogue.
“When a synagogue decides to host something, it affects the entire community,” Bob said, adding that a community “has the right to decide what it wants to host.” In some circumstances, he added, the best way to handle the BDS issue is to confront it, but he’s not going to judge a rabbi’s decision either way it goes.
Ralph Seliger, a member of Ansche Chesed and a left-wing Zionist activist who writes for a variety of Jewish publications, said he backs Rabbi Kalmanofsky, regarding the issue as acrimonious.
He believes Rabbi Kleinbaum is being “a bit too open,” he said, asking rhetorically whether she’d host a debate with a Holocaust denier or someone from the Westboro Baptist Church, an extreme, anti-gay organization.
Of the event itself, Seliger calls the very title “problematic. We don’t ask the same question of Islamic states,” he said. “This is a region chock full of Islamic states, and not a single one is democratic. What I hate is the notion that Israel is on trial here.”
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