Category Archives: JCRC

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) and the American Jewish Community

By Donna Nevel

Many American Jewish organizations claim to be staunch supporters of civil and human rights as well as academic freedom. But when it comes to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, they make an exception. In their relentless opposition to BDS, they leave even core principles behind.

jvp-sodastreamThe Palestinian-led call for BDS, which began in 2005 in response to ongoing Israeli government violations of basic principles of international law and human rights of the Palestinian people, is a call of conscience. It has strengthened markedly over the last few years among artists, students, unions, church groups, dockworkers, and others. Media coverage of endorsers of the boycott has gone mainstream and viral. Recent examples include Stephen Hawking’s refusal to go to Jerusalem for the Presidential Conference, the successful campaign surrounding Scarlett Johansson’s support for Soda Stream and its settlement operation, and the American Studies Association (ASA) resolution that endorsed boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Alongside BDS’s increasing strength have come increasingly virulent attacks on, and campaigns against it. These attacks tend to employ similar language and tactics – as if the groups are all cribbing from the same talking points – including tarring BDS supporters as “anti-Semitic” and “delegitimizers.”

These attacks simply don’t address or grapple with the core aspirations or realities of BDS. As described by Hanan Ashrawi, executive committee member of the PLO, in a recent letter in the New York Times, BDS “does not target Jews, individually or collectively, and rejects all forms of bigotry and discrimination, including anti-Semitism.” She goes on to explain that “B.D.S. is, in fact, a legal, moral and inclusive movement struggling against the discriminatory policies of a country that defines itself in religiously exclusive terms, and that seeks to deny Palestinians the most basic rights simply because we are not Jewish.”

The use of name-calling like “anti-Semites” and “delegtimizers” is problematic for a number of reasons, not only because its claims are untrue, but also because it takes the focus off the real issue at hand – whether and how Israel is, in fact, violating international law and basic human rights principles – and, instead, recklessly impugns the characters of those advocating for Israel to be held accountable.

Criticisms, even extremely harsh ones, of the Israeli state or calls to make a state democratic and adhere to equal rights for all its citizens are not anti-Semitic. Rather, anti-Semitism is about hatred of, and discrimination against the Jewish people, which is not anywhere to be found in the call for BDS, and these kinds of accusations also serve to trivialize the long and ugly history of anti-Semitism.

Most recently, the anti-BDS effort has moved to the legislative front. A bill, introduced in the New York State Assembly last month, would have trampled academic freedom and the right to support BDS in its quest to punish the ASA and deter any who might dare to emulate its endorsement of the academic boycott. Those supporting the bill were opposed by a broad coalition of education, civil rights, legal, academic, and Palestine solidarity organizations, as well as Jewish social justice groups. The bill was withdrawn, but a revised version has been introduced that is designed, like the original, to punish colleges that use public funds for activities related to groups that support boycotts of Israel, including mere attendance at their meetings.

The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) worked closely with the sponsors of the New York bill.

Like the JCRC, rather than engaging in substantive debate about the issues raised in relation to BDS, the Israeli government and many Jewish communal organizations choose, instead, to try to discredit and derail the efforts of those supporting BDS.

For example, as recently reported by Ha’aretz, the Israeli Knesset is debating how to continue to counter BDS efforts across the globe, that is, “whether to launch an aggressive public campaign or operate through quieter, diplomatic channels.” It is also considering what the role of AIPAC might be in introducing anti-boycott legislation and how to best bolster military surveillance–which has significant funding behind it–against supporters of BDS.

American Jewish communal organizations have also expended massive resources and energy in their campaigns to demonize endorsers of BDS. The Israel Action Network (IAN)–which describes itself as “a strategic initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America, in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), created to counter assaults made on Israel’s legitimacy”–has funded the anti-BDS effort to the tune of at least six million dollars over a three-year period.

The IAN website characterizes supporters of BDS as “delegitimizers”and says that, in order to gain support from “vulnerable targets,” which include “college campuses, churches, labor unions, and human rights organizations,” delegitimizers utilize Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) tactics, “the same tools used to isolate and vilify apartheid South Africa, Iran, or Nazi Germany. BDS activists, IAN continues, “present distortions, fabrications and misrepresentations of international law in an attempt to paint Israel with the same brush.”

In another example of name-calling without any substance, the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL’s) July 2013 report attacked Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), featuring ad hominem accusations (JVP “intentionally exploits Jewish culture”), rather than discussing JVP’s actual positions. (A JVP report on the ADL points out that the ADL not only targets JVP but is well-known for its long history of spying on Arabs and supporters of the Palestinian movement.)

On the charge of anti-Semitism, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, in its call to fight the BDS movement, urges it supporters to “learn the facts behind this hypocritical and anti-Semitic campaign,” and the ADL’s Abe Foxman echoed those same sentiments: “The BDS movement at its very core is anti-Semitic.” And most recently, in his speech to AIPAC, Prime Minister Netanyahu, after shamelessly drawing upon classic anti-Semitic imagery of Jews to speak of supporters of BDS, says: “So you see, attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti- Semitism.”

The demonization of BDS is not only the domain of the Israeli government and the mainstream Jewish community. The self-declared liberal J-Street, in its seemingly relentless quest to stay under the Jewish “tent,” has also jumped on the anti-BDS bandwagon, sometimes in partnership with the IAN, which (precisely because J Street is positioned as a peace group) proudly documents its relationship with J Street in fighting BDS. Discussing how J Street is gaining acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community, JCPA’s CEO Rabbi Steve Gutow points to “its role in pushing back against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement…

Further, the refusal of both liberal land mainstream Jewish groups to discuss substantive issues around Israel’s actions or BDS also reveals itself in language that admonishes BDS as being “beyond the pale.” Recently, for example, as reported by the director of JVP in an op-ed in the Forward, the director of the JCRC of Greater Boston, who has a history of involvement in liberal organizations, explained that “any organization that supports BDS…doesn’t belong at the communal table. In fact, he was referring specifically to Jewish Voice for Peace. He even argued that opening the public conversation to BDS is roughly akin to welcoming the Ku Klux Klan.”

This attempted silencing of those simply discussing BDS plays out even in seemingly minor local skirmishes. For example, last year, the liberal rabbi of a large New York City synagogue cancelled the synagogue’s facilities-usage contract with a group of Jews who, he feared, might, on his premises, discuss BDS. That, he said, would be “beyond the pale.”

These attacks against BDS appear to be an almost desperate reaction to the increasing successes of BDS, not only in the world at large, but also within the broader Jewish community itself. Respected members of the liberal Jewish community as well as a few liberal Zionist groups that were vehemently anti-BDS are now calling for boycotts against products made in the settlements and are engaging with the issue publicly. Further, the mission and vision of groups like Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace – “a diverse and democratic community of activists inspired by Jewish tradition to work together for peace, social justice, and human rights” – are resonating with increasing numbers of Jews who support BDS as a natural outgrowth of their commitments. And that movement is growing in partnership with the broader Palestinian-led movement for justice.

How should the rest of the Jewish community respond? Ad hominem attacks on BDS just will not do. It is time for BDS opponents to take a deep breath. Consider this: BDS is a principled response to Israel’s actions and behavior as an occupier. It is a profound call by Palestinians – and supporters world-wide–for justice. It is not BDS that should be opposed, but, rather, the very policies and practices that have made BDS necessary.

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a long-time organizer for peace and justice in Israel/Palestine. She was a co-coordinator of the 1989 landmark Road to Peace Conference that brought PLO officials and Knesset members together to the US for the first time. More recently, she was a founding member of Jews Say No!, is a member of the board of Jewish Voice for Peace, and is on the coordinating committee of the Nakba Education Project, U.S.

Originally published on the Tikkun Daily Blog

San Francisco bus ads condemn Israeli apartheid: backlash begins

American Muslims for Palestine launched an ad campaign this week on San Francisco buses condemning Israeli apartheid. (See below.) Predictably, local branches of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, as well as the Jewish Community Relations Council, immediately issued a statement in effect calling the ad hate speech for using the word ‘apartheid’. They have called on “all civic, ethnic and religious leaders who oppose bigoted lies and demonization to exercise their constitutional rights by condemning these inflammatory advertisements.”

Below is a line by line reading of their media statement.

First, it’s hard to know if the people who wrote this press release actually believe what they wrote. The points they make against the ad are so off the mark, and often offensive, it’s hard to believe anyone could write them sincerely. (I’m deleting the names on the release because I don’t think it’s fair to blame them. I think people at the top should be held accountable for such nonsense.) Continue reading

Jewish Community Relations Council of SF to young Jews: You can’t speak here

We said that restrictive funding guidelines written by the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) of San Francisco, and implemented by the Bay Area’s Jewish Community Federation, would be used as a form of good old fashioned banishment of those who don’t toe the line on Israel. In this letter just released today, see how the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) was pressured to cancel an entire panel, “Reclaiming Jewish Activism: Re-discovering Voices of Our Ancestors,” organized by members of Workmen’s Circle and Progressive Jewish Alliance. The Jewish Community Federation is a major funder of BJE.

The problem? Not the topic. Just one of the panelists’ associations. Rae Abileah, who works with Code Pink and is a member of the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace, happens to be one of the Bay Area’s most inspiring and heartfelt young Jewish social justice activists. She was going to talk about her great uncle, the Israeli peace activist Joseph Abileah.

The great news is that socially and politically diverse SF-based Congregation Sha’ar Zahav has no such problems with the panel (or, to cut to the chase: funding) and is sponsoring the panel there on May 24.

While the JCRC/Fed will argue this is not a message to all young Jews, just to Rae and her many colleagues and friends, it’s clear that this move will resonate far and wide among young people who wonder rightly if there is a future for them inside the Jewish communal world. The letter (full version embedded below) says:

From our discussions, we understand that the event was cancelled by the Jewish Community Library, in consultation with its parent organization, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), and with the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), consultant-advisor to the local Jewish Community Federation Endowment. Federation funds support many BJE programs.

The Federation’s 2010 revised funding guidelines, which prohibit grant recipients from associating with organizations and individuals who oppose its strong support for Israel, apparently triggered the cancellation. Of specific concern was panelist Rae Abileah’s work with an organization that opposes occupation profiteering and supports the boycott of products made in illegal Israeli settlements. Ms. Abileah is not officially representing her organization but speaking about the work of her great-uncle, a spiritual Zionist nominated by fellow musician Yehudi Menuhin for numerous peace awards.

Six decades after McCarthyism’s assault on progressives and their values, we reassert that censorship by association is dangerous and unconscionable: that it subverts truth, unity, and democracy. Need we point out the chilling effect of the Federation’s exclusionary funding guidelines –adopted in response to criticism of its support for the 2010 Jewish Film Festival, after screening of a documentary about Rachel Corrie — on dialogue about Israel within our community.

Here’s the whole letter. Click on first button at bottom of image for a full screen view.  Hover over other buttons to find those that allow you to share or download. Or go here.

Inspired by the attempts to police thought here in the Bay Area, Jewish Daily Forward editorial cartoonist Eli Valley has an old cartoon that refers to the “Frisco way- toe the line or say hello to the blacklist.” h/t Richard Silverstein. Seems appropriate.

-Cecilie Surasky, Muzzlewatch

Oakland Children’s Museum Cancels Palestinian Children’s Art Exhibit Under Pressure from Local Jewish Groups

Berkeley, CA’s Middle East Children’s Alliance broke the news yesterday that the exhibit of children’s artwork from Gaza that they had worked on for months with Oakland’s Children’s Museum of Art was suddenly canceled by the board before the planned September 24 opening reception. The show featured drawings by children about Israel’s infamous Operation Cast Lead, the military assault of December 2008-January 2009 that led to the deaths of some 1,400 Palestinians, over 300 of them children.

(Check regularly at mecaforpeace.org for updates and planned actions- they won’t be taking this lying down.)

MECA said in a statement:

The Museum of Children’s Art in Oakland (MOCHA) has decided to cancel an exhibit of art by Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip. The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), which was partnering with MOCHA to present the exhibit, was informed of the decision by the Museum’s board president on Thursday, September 8, 2011. For several months, MECA and the museum had been working together on the exhibit, which is titled “A Child’s View From Gaza.”

MECA has learned that there was a concerted effort by pro-Israel organizations in the San Francisco Bay Area to pressure the museum to reverse its decision to display Palestinian children’s art.

Barbara Lubin, the Executive Director of MECA, expressed her dismay that the museum decided to censor this exhibit in contradiction of its mission “to ensure that the arts are a fundamental part of the lives of all children.”

“We understand all too well the enormous pressure that the museum came under. But who wins? The museum doesn’t win. MECA doesn’t win. The people of the Bay Area don’t win. Our basic constitutional freedom of speech loses. The children in Gaza lose,” she said.

“The only winners here are those who spend millions of dollars censoring any criticism of Israel and silencing the voices of children who live every day under military siege and occupation.”

Recognizing that the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council has an established track record of targeting Palestinian cultural expression, I wrote directly to JCRC Executive Director Doug Kahn to find out if they were involved in the board’s sudden decision to cancel the show. Indeed it seems they were, though perhaps not alone. This was his response in full:

East Bay JCRC, working closely with the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, shared with the leadership of MOCHA our concerns about the inappropriateness of this exhibit given the fact that MOCHA – an important and valued community institution – serves very young children.

(MOCHA has only stated that they received complaints “from Jewish groups as well as others in the community.”)

However, it doesn’t seem likely that this is about concerns for children’s sensitivities to war imagery. As the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out in its coverage of the incident today, MOCHA has a significant track record of showing the artwork of children living under war, including WWII, without incident. These images apparently aren’t substantively different.

This is, however, about giving voice to Palestinians-in this case children- who endured a simply extraordinary attack on an illegally captive population of 1.5 million people otherwise known as Operation Cast Lead.

The Israel government and its proxies pulled out all of the stops to undermine criticism of the Operation which drew nearly universal condemnation and triggered massive protest marches around the world. An unprecedented smear campaign was launched against a respected Jewish South African jurist named Richard Goldstone who led a UN task force examining Israeli and Hamas war crimes.

The canceling of the art show should be seen in the context of the Goldstone smear campaign, as well as previous successful efforts by a handful of Bay Area Jewish communal organizations to determine what Palestinians can and cannot say. (In contrast, exhibit organizer, the Middle East Children’s Alliance, enjoys significant Jewish support, and the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace is one of many exhibit co-sponsors.)

In 2007, the JCRC pressured San Francisco State University to change the content of a mural dedicated to the late great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. It’s worth looking at the mural and then reading the JCRC’s critique to understand the depth of their fear of imagery that is so essential to Palestinian memory of fleeing or being expelled from their homes to make way for the then new state. It is odd, to put it mildly, to read Jewish communal professionals so closely aligned with the Israeli Consulate offering in depth art critiques of Palestinian symbolism in a policy-making capacity.

The JCRC was also involved in a deeply messy battle, along with the Anti-Defamation League, over the content of a San Francisco mural painted by young members of the nonprofit H.O.M.E.Y. which works with at-risk kids in San Francisco’s mission district. Not surprisingly, the groups’ insistence that they represented the vast majority of Jews in the Bay Area-an area known for its commitment to independent thought and open artistic expression– triggered significant Jewish opposition. And of course the JCRC is behind the highly controversial restrictive funding guidelines that essentially bar (or should I say threaten to bar) critics of Israel , including BDS proponents, from speaking prominently on panels of institutions funded in some way by San Francisco’s Jewish Federation.

But something tells me that this cancellation of Gazan children’s art, some of which you see here, may well cross a line for a lot of fence-sitters. While I reject the argument of parity that only applies to Palestinian stories, it certainly would have been wiser to lobby the MOCHA board to either work with MECA on adapting the exhibit or to hold an exhibit-like the Israeli government and others have – of artwork by the children of the Israeli city of Sderot rather than cancel the Gazan exhibit.  And to be fair, perhaps they were lobbied to do that but the board chose to wash their hands of the entire issue. We don’t know. I myself would have attended exhibits of children’s art from Gaza or Sderot, and brought my young son. But instead, we have what amounts to yet more erasure. The Israeli government has in essence locked the over 60% of Gazans who are children behind a wall and thrown away the key and forgotten entirely about them. Now the rest of us are supposed to forget about them too.

In the meantime, this must feel like deja vu all over again for MECA. Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported about this incident in late 2005:

MECA had teamed up with the Berkeley Art Center and Alliance Graphics to present an exhibit last November and December called “Justice Matters: Artists Consider Palestine.” In their works 14 Palestinian and American artists addressed Israel’s occupation and colonization of Palestine.

The artists, MECA and the Berkeley Art Center were attacked by the Anti-Defamation League, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and other people who claimed to represent the mainstream Jewish community. According to Jos Sances, curator of “Justice Matters,” “there was even an effort to close the show down and have the city withdraw its annual support for the Berkeley Art Center.”

Fourteen rabbis (one for each artist?) visited Berkeley’s mayor to condemn the exhibit. The artists were charged with glorifying violence and terrorism, perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes and even lying about their own history.

On the other hand, there was support from the community and e-mails to the Berkeley Art Center included comments like: “A powerful, scathing experience. Thank you for it” and “It was very thought provoking to see the other side.” Even an Israeli offered ”my admiration for your courage in showing this important protest art.”

MECA’s Barbara Lubin says the mayor of Berkeley stood up to pressure and the show went on. The level of denial about Israeli human rights violations has dropped so dramatically in many Jewish communities in recent years—synagogues everywhere across the country are split — that I wonder if 6 years later most of those rabbis would have the same response to challenging art. I suppose we’re about to find out.