Chilling Jewish Debate: official threats in San Francisco

By Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman in The Forward, April 14, 2010

[Kaufman and Snitow were, respectively, the founding director of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and its founding board president. They are currently working on a documentary film about American Jewish identity.]

When San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation made public its first-ever “Guidelines on Potentially Controversial Israel-Related Programming” earlier this year, it did so with the stated purpose of furthering its commitments to “a secure Jewish community here and abroad, to the strong democratic Jewish State of Israel, and to mutual respect and diversity within Jewish life.”

But instead of furthering these values, these guidelines, and their threatening language, have already begun to have a chilling effect on the San Francisco Bay Area’s Jewish community.
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The new federation policy, issued in February, prohibits organizations that receive federation funding from mounting programs that are deemed to endorse or promote “positions that undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” The policy also explicitly prohibits co-sponsoring or co-presenting public programs on the Middle East with groups that “undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” An organization could find itself in violation of the federation’s guidelines not because of its own positions on Israel but as a result of the views of a speaker, panelist or co-sponsor for one of its programs.

Ominously, these vague guidelines specify that grantees “are strongly encouraged to consult the Jewish Community Relations Council in advance of potentially controversial programs.” (Emphasis added.) The policy thereby sets up the JCRC — a consensus-oriented body not known for pushing the envelope when it comes to public statements about Israeli policies — as the designated a priori communal policeman of what is legitimate public discourse and what is not.

Of course, an organization doesn’t need to listen to the JCRC, but ignoring its recommendations will hardly be an option for many local Jewish groups. Organizations found to have violated the federation’s guidelines may be subject to having their federation funding withdrawn and along with it the support of funders who rely on the federation for its kosher seal.

As Jewish community activists and founders of an organization that has long been a federation beneficiary, we’re disturbed by the insidious effect these guidelines will have not just on grantees, but also on our entire community. Indeed, when we were leaders of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, we too were guilty of associating with those deemed beyond the pale.

In 1988, we screened a film about Israeli-Palestinian dialogue called “Talking With the Enemy” and invited as our guest speaker Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian activist in the West Bank who advocated nonviolent resistance to the occupation. This was during the first Palestinian intifada, and there were no written federation guidelines back then. But there was an unwritten Jewish community boycott of public contacts with the Palestine Liberation Organization and Palestinian leaders. We believed it was the responsibility of the festival to ignore such boycotts in favor of open dialogue before a broad audience, including the young Jews who were regularly preached to about continuity, but who were told to shut up when they asked tough questions about Israel.

Our decision was indeed controversial, drawing intense fire from the federation, and a number of funders pulled their support. The festival, however, was not deterred, and the program was a monumental success, garnering the festival respect and international recognition.

It was in part a more recent program of the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival that prompted the controversy leading to the federation’s adoption of its new guidelines. In July 2009, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival presented Israeli director Simone Bitton’s film “Rachel,” about the death of young American Rachel Corrie, who was crushed while confronting an Israeli bulldozer in Gaza. Corrie’s mother was invited for an onstage conversation after the screening, which was co-presented by the American Friends Service Committee and Jewish Voice for Peace, two groups critical of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

The response this time was far worse than what we experienced two decades ago. The Internet facilitated an international mobilization of hate e-mail similar in rhetoric to the worst of last summer’s Tea Party bullying. The festival’s current director, Peter Stein, was the object of constant attacks that continue to this day, including charges he is anti-Israel, antisemitic and a Hamas supporter. Bullying e-mails and blog posts drew imagined links between the festival, the Goldstone Report, J Street, President Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Major philanthropists on the right blew a fuse, and the festival’s supporters — including the federation itself — came under fierce attack. Adding a right-wing speaker to the program and multiple public apologies by the festival did little to cool tempers.

It was against this backdrop that the federation eventually decided to adopt guidelines that would institutionalize limitations on community debate and forbid discussion of anything that might “undermine the legitimacy” of Israel. The federation’s spin is that this is only about its own grant making, not about free speech. But if anyone doubts the potential chilling effect, we have already heard from Jewish community stalwarts who whisper their fears of losing funding or jobs.

A few examples we have heard firsthand: A prominent Jewish studies professor is frightened over the possibility of the wrong thing being said about Israel at an academic conference. A Jewish social justice group worries about repercussions if potential fair-trade coalition partners decide to support limited boycotts of goods made in the West Bank. Film curators are reticent to show films that criticize Israel. Community programmers are reconsidering whether to host Israeli human rights activists. A librarian wonders whether books being ordered might be deemed unacceptable. A young adults group thinks twice about doing Muslim-Jewish dialogue.

This last concern may not be warranted. The federation’s guidelines cite dialogue groups as an example of the type of programming that is “generally in accord with the policy statement,” noting that dialogues are “non-public exchanges.” And so we have come full circle. Once again, “talking with the enemy” in private is okay, but in public it is beyond the pale. Except the enemy now includes many in our own community.

At a time when the future of Israeli democracy is uncertain, and American policy toward Israel is the focus of intense discussion everywhere, our federation leaders are cracking down on democracy here at home by espousing ever more concentrated authority, limited discourse, arbitrary decision-making and guilt by association. This is not the kind of Jewish community to which we should aspire.