The Anathema is now the Mainstream

In another, more tolerant world, Muzzlewatch bloggers would have had a space on the J Street panel titled Shifting the Conversation: Jewish Community Dynamics and Israel, which was really a discussion of the muzzling phenomenon in Jewish institutions. In our absence, it was instead “insiders” sharing their experience of being on the receiving end of right-wing attacks for allowing any semblance of debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This was fascinating, and led to some of the most truthful moments of the J Street conference.

The moderator Hannah Rosenthal seemed to come down firmly in favor of “multitasking” a domestic and international agenda, drawing on her experience working at the Jewish Public Affairs Council. She had the funniest muzzling anecdote: being asked to cancel her own birthday party by the Jewish Federation because it featured an introduction to J Street. Her reaction: “You’re not invited!” She then raised a question that J Street would do well to take to heart, how Jewish organizations could have better spent the hours discussing who not to invite or include to their events.

Rabbi Peter Knobel was the first speaker, a pulpit rabbi just down the road in Evanston, IL from Muzzlewatch hero Rabbi Brant Rosen. He was also past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He made the correct connections, from McCarthyism to the treatment of early peace group Breira, to clergy who lost their jobs for supporting the civil rights movement. It was so powerful to me to hear causes now beloved by liberal Jews in the same sentence as critical stands on Israel. He also uttered the title quote (the anathema is now mainstream), capturing what is exciting about the present moment, and what gives me hope for the future. Rabbi Knobel also reminded me how history can turn by pointing out that his congregation was founded by a rabbi fired for espousing Zionism, when that was a taboo belief in Jewish communities. This legacy led him to basically have tenure, indeed when he was “outed” (his word) by a congregant for going to J Street. The conservative group who discussed “what was to be done” found that indeed the answer was nothing. He concluded by reminding us that the rule on Jewish rebuke, or “tochecha” is for you to frame things in a way that they can be heard.

Daniel Sokatch lamented not being able to cancel people’s birthdays now that he was no longer a Federation president. He quoted the slogan “Think Yiddish, Dress British” as a lesson for clothing one’s authentic thoughts in acceptable garb. His first experience with muzzling came as founder of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, when he wrote an Op-Ed for the Los Angeles Times calling for recognition of the Armenian genocide, contrary to the lobbying position of the Jewish community leaders seeking to curry favor with Israel’s ally Turkey. He was told by the leader of one such organization “We are the foreign ministry of the Jewish people.” Sokatch’s response: “I didn’t vote for you.” Sokatch then added that the Jewish community is even less hospitable to dissent now, attributing this to the economic collapse and Madoff, as well as the strains placed on the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israelis because of their differing takes on Obama. He pointed out a split in Israeli politics as well, with Ambassador Oren only sending an observer to J Street, while Israel’s president and opposition leader send approving letters. These tensions have allowed a “terrified minority” of conservatives to dominate a moderate majority. He retold a meeting with a group of rabbis who all felt powerless to speak about Israel’s actions because of this minority, whom Sokatch appropriately compared to people who believe Saddam caused 9/11. He listed other examples of muzzling, Kesher Enoshi students at UC Berkeley and the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, though he didn’t mention the cause of that. He concluded with his own invitation to J Street, when he still headed the San Franicisco Jewish Federation. Apparently he was the only federation head to accept. It seemed commonsense to him; he had attended AIPAC dinners even though it was not his cup of tea, why wouldn’t he come to J Street? He lost a million-dollar donor, though two million-dollar donors threatened to withdraw funds if he didn’t go! He finally heard from another federation head who was willing to write a supportive op-ed, but not to attend J Street with him, and then as he put it, the New Israel Fund — his current employer — called. It is interesting that Sokatch chose to highlight the reaction over his decision to go to J Street over the intense backlash around the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which many months after the last film was shown still has the Jewish Bay Area community reeling. Then again, the panel seemed to emphasized stories with a happy ending, where muzzling was overcome: Sokatch and Knobel did come to J STreet.

A more conservative speaker, Shula Bahat, concluded the program by mostly using her time to give her opinions about how no one should put pressure on Israel because look what happened when the US made them allow Hamas take part in elections. She didn’t seem to have any actual experiences of muzzling, and was probably just included for added credibility as a former American Jewish Committee Executive Director. Oddly enough, she did say she allowed young people in her organization freedom to say whatever they wanted, regardless of messaging guidelines. Was this a reaction to the Jerusalem Post article claiming that J Street University had dropped the pro-Israel slogan? The point was later clarified by J Street:

The student groups don’t need to say they are explicitly pro-Israel so long as their programming and outreach operate from the premise that the Jewish state has a right to exist as a Jewish state,” says Jessica Rosenblum, a J Street spokesperson.

While the examples of muzzling were extremely illuminating and candid, it was left to friend of JVP, rabbinical student Alana Alpert to call the speakers out on the implications of their statements. She asked why when J Street was trying to encourage open discussion, they insisted that everyone preface their statements with: “My grandfather planted orange groves, I speak fluent Hebrew, etc.” She could play that game, but why should she have to? In a sign of how much her question exposed the contradictions of the conference, the moderator could only respond that “you have to choose your battles.” Apparently encouraging real debate is not a battle worth fighting. But I am optimistic that Alana Alpert represents the real future of the movement, whether or not J Street is able to “shift” in response.

– Jesse Bacon

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