Can Israel be Jewish and democratic? Ansche Chesed cancels forum contract.

Exciting times indeed.

A surprising, even thrilling mix of prominent New York Jews wants to have a discussion about what until recently has been the ultimate unaskable question: can Israel be both a democracy and a Jewish state? And they want to have that discussion in a prominent shul.

The Upper West Side synagogue Ansche Chesed agrees to the forum, until the senior rabbi gets wind of the event and decides to cancel the contract, he says, based on the concern that the topic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) may, possibly, might, perhaps, could potentially…come up in the conversation. (Read the whole breaking story here.)

But the goal-posts for acceptable discourse are shifting rapidly and the tale has a great ending. Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), unafraid of a good debate on an issue people are dying to discuss, has stepped up and will host the April 4 event. (Download flyer here.)

Read below the letter by the ideologically diverse, influential supporters of the forum on Israel and democracy- people like Kathleen Peratis, MJ Rosenberg, Rebecca Vilkomerson (Jewish Voice for Peace), Letty Cottin Pogrebin, James Schamus, Donna Nevel, Michael Ratner (Center for Constitutional Rights), Melanie Kaye-Kantrowitz, Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark and more.

While all’s well that ends well, this repeated public playing out of our communal Jewish dysfunction (Brooklyn College etc..) and moral confusion is still a tad heart-breaking to watch. Though it is nothing like the heart-break of torn flesh and crushed homes that is the (still unacknowledged-in-the-Jewish-community) Nakba, which so many Palestinians are doomed to live again and again each day, like a nightmarish Ground Hog Day. Three cheers for those who have won the battle of putting every moral issue on the table, but the war is far from over.

@CecilieSurasky on Twitter

Open Letter to the Jewish Community: A Synagogue Tried to Shut Us Down

We are a group of progressive Jews deeply involved in Israel/Palestine and immersed in issues of democracy and justice. We are writing to advise you of a blatant attempt last week by leaders of a prominent New York synagogue to shut down a panel discussion on the subject “Israel-Equality-Democracy.”

We are cosponsors and panelists of this event; we approached Ansche Chesed some weeks ago, provided them with all of our information, including the subject of the discussion and the names of the proposed panelists, and asked to rent space from them. They agreed and signed a written contract stating that they would provide a venue. We also agreed they would not be listed as sponsors. We began to publicize the panel to enthusiastic response. We made plans to videotape it for distribution to a larger audience.

Suddenly, on the evening of March 5th, a representative of Ansche Chesed notified us by email that Ansche Chesed was canceling the contract and returning our rental payment. No explanation was offered.

We responded by saying that the synagogue had entered into an enforceable contract and that we would pursue available legal remedies. The next day, we received a letter from the shul’s senior rabbi (though he is on sabbatical), advising us that Ansche Chesed would honor its contractual commitment only upon our agreement to new and onerous conditions and, in addition, that they preferred we hold the event elsewhere.

We believe we reflect the views of large numbers of Jews who believe in the importance of open and honest discussions about Israel and Palestine, equality and democracy, and strategies for achieving a just solution. We must hold our institutions accountable to foster—not silence or censor—open debate about Israel and Palestine within the American Jewish community. And to this story, at least, there is a happy ending: another synagogue has opened its space to us, and the panel will be heard!

The rabbi’s stated reason for preferring that we go elsewhere was the flyer’s description of the panel “as a continuation or product of last year’s panels on BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions].” He added: “Our institution is not interested in entertaining the merits of that position or fostering discussion of such a policy.” However, we had provided the flyer to Ansche Chesed before all parties entered into the contract [see original flyer below]. The rabbi told us that, should we nevertheless insist on the Ansche Chesed venue, we were “forbidden” from stating that the location of the event was Ansche Chesed (that is, we were to use the street address only) and that Ansche Chesed would hold us responsible for “reputational harm” resulting from any violation of this new condition. Clearly, the Ansche Chesed leadership, disregarding the many-faceted conversations that are actually going on in the Jewish community, did not want actual BDS supporters in their shul!

A word about the panel and the program: It was created to give the community an opportunity to hear four Jewish panelists—all highly regarded within the Jewish community and more broadly—exploring, from their different perspectives, important issues about Israel and democracy, with time for panelists to question and challenge each other and for audience members to ask questions. We know this discussion is controversial within parts of the Jewish community. Sponsorship is by individuals who hold a range of views so as to ensure a rich, vibrant, discussion. (Though not the topic of this panel, two of the panelists are BDS supporters and two are not.)

Ansche Chesed has behaved in a manner that is inconsistent with the traditional Jewish commitment to elu v’elu, hearing different views and allowing space for spirited argument about issues—on the street corner, at the dinner or Seder table, and in the meeting rooms of Jewish institutions. This must include wrestling with the very hardest questions about Israel/Palestine, the questions that perhaps make some members of the community most uncomfortable.

Sadly, Ansche Chesed’s attempt to shut down the conversation is not an isolated incident; it happens all too frequently in Jewish venues. Jewish institutions cancel speakers or writers or panelists out of fear that the discussion alone will lead to harm. We should not give in to such no-nothingism or to bullying, intimidation, or fear of being “othered.”

Anita Altman
Adam Horowitz
Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz
Alice Kessler-Harris
Hannah Mermelstein
Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark
Donna Nevel
Alicia Ostriker
Kathleen Peratis
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Lizzy Ratner
Michael Ratner
MJ Rosenberg
James Schamus
Rebecca Vilkomerson
Dorothy Zellner