Exclusive: Did someone at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco ban sales of Tony Kushner’s Wrestling with Zion?

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner spoke at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco on Sunday. Well-known San Francisco bookstore Stacey’s sold books in the lobby, including, for at least a short period of time according to one witness, several volumes of Kushner and Alisa Solomon’s Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Although several years old, the volume and some of its contributors were recently singled out for attack in the American Jewish Committee’s now infamous essay charging progressive Jews who critique Israel with promoting anti-Semitism, “Progressive’ Thought and the New Anti-Semitism.

(As we reported earlier, poet Adrienne Rich spoke out from the JCCSF stage at a Hanukkah event about the JCCSF’s earlier decision to politically rewrite their rental policy to ban Jewish Voice for Peace and other groups like it from renting facilities there.)

Here is an exchange of emails between one of the attendees at the Kushner event, Barbara Brenner, and the JCCSF. According to Ms. Brenner, a Stacey’s employee told her that they were told “by JCCSF personnel not to sell [Wrestling with Zion]. This person also indicated to me that the decision about not selling the books was one that not all JCC staff agreed with.”

The emails are in chronological order and should be read to the end. Brenner is waiting for a final response.
Subject: Attention Sandee Blechman — regarding Tony Kushner and the JCC
Date: Tue, 20 Mar:57:32 +0000

> 

>Dear Ms. Blechman,
>
> I was one of many people who had the pleasure of attending the Tony
> Kushner presentation at the JCC on Sunday night, March 18. I’m still
> reflecting on many of the things Mr. Kushner said on Sunday during his
> very interesting conversation with Peter Stein.
>
> Among the most interesting things that Mr. Kushner spoke about –
> particularly for the JCC audience — were his views of the
> Israeli-Palestinian conflict and of the need for an open dialogue within
> the Jewish community about that situation that so troubles all of us.
>
> Following the talk, I approached the folks from Stacey’s book store who
> were in the JCC lobby in hopes of acquiring the collection of essays
> entitled Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to
> the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. I was told that the that book was not
> available on Sunday evening.
>
> Because I have the good fortune of working around the corner from
> Stacey’s Book Store, I went there at lunch time today to see if I could
> find a copy of the book. The information clerk was very helpful, but
> puzzled because, while the records of the store showed that there were 5
> copies in stock, none was on the shelves. When a Stacey’s representative
> tracked the books down, it turned out that they were not on the shelves
> because they had been transported to the JCC the previous evening for
> sale following Mr. Kushner’s talk. Thus did I learn that Stacey’s had
> been instructed not to sell this book at the JCC.
>
> I’m sure that there are many views among the JCC leadership (and
> membership) of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that feelings are
> strongly held. But I simply cannot understand why you would invite Mr.
> Kushner to the the JCC, encourage him to express his viewpoint, and then
> prohibit his printed work on the same subject from being sold, when
> other books written by Mr. Kushner were readily available.
>
> I am addressing this message to you, but I imagine that the decision
> that was made here was made by the the board of directors. I will look
> forward to hearing from anyone at the JCC who can explain what to me
> seems to be unconscionable censorship.
>
> Sincerely,
> Barbara A. Brenner

The JCC response:

Dear Barbara,
>>
>>Thanks for your message. Our staff at the JCCSF has looked into this.
>>All we can determine is that Stacey’s had a limited number of Mr.
>>Kushner’s essays for sale on Sunday evening and sold out before the
>>evening ended.
>>
>>I’m sorry for the furstration you experienced and hope it did not
>>detract from the overall value of Sunday’s program. Please let me know
>>other questions about this or future programs.
>>
>>Thank you,
>>
>>
>>Aaron Rosenthal
>>Communications Manager
>>JCCSF

Brenner’s response:

> Dear Aaron,
> While I appreciate your response, I frankly believe that the concerns I

> raised require a response from the highest level of JCC leadership, and
> let me explain why.
>
> My experience at Stacey’s on Monday is not at all consistent with your
> determination that “Stacey’s had a limited number of Mr.Kushner’s essays
> for sale on Sunday evening and sold out before the evening ended.”
>
> When I inquired at the store about the book on Monday at noon, the
> information clerk checked the computer to see whether the store carried
> the book. He told me that they had 5 copies, and directed me to the
> shelf where he expected them to be. When we saw that the books were not
> on the shelves, the clerk checked the computer record again, and noted
> that there was no record of any of the books having been sold. At this
> point, the clerk inquired of another Stacey’s employee what might
> explain the missing books, and that employee went in search of them.
> When the searching employee returned to the information area, he said
> that the books (all 5 of them) had been transported to an event with
> Tony Kushner, but had been returned unsold, and someone would bring me a
> copy. When the copy arrived, the person who brought to me told me that
> the books had been on hand at the JCC, but that the Stacey’s
> representatives had been told by JCC personnel not to sell them. This
> person also indicated to me that the decision about not selling the
> books was one that not all JCC staff agreed with.
>
> So, did you call Stacey’s to make your determination? Or are you
> assuming the books sold out?
>
> I look forward to hearing from Ms. Blechman.
>
> Barbara Brenner