Friday, May 14, 2010

Engaging with Israel: A Free Speech issue in San Francisco?

I wanted to share the following with you, not so much to offer my own opinion on the matter, but because I think it is interesting, important, and raises questions that are worthy of considered discussion.  Click the link to read a full article in Tablet Magazine that provides background to the story and current details.  

In summary, there was a very critical response by some in the San Fransisco Jewish community to the showing of a documentary last year at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival about Rachel Corrie.  Rachel was a peace protester who was tragically killed in 2003 while blocking the way of a bulldozer being operated by a soldier of the Israeli Defense Forces who were carrying out duties to demolish a Palestinian home.  The exact circumstances are still debated.  Rachel's mother, now an activist for Palestinian rights, came and spoke at the Film Festival when the documentary was screened.  In response to the voices that protested the showing of the documentary, the San Francisco Federation, after months of deliberating, issued guidelines that would dictate its funding, indicating that they would not provide financial support to 'programs with groups that do support divestment or that otherwise “undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” Within this boundary, though, the guidelines are fairly open-ended. Acceptable, for instance, are “presentations by organizations or individuals that are critical of particular Israeli government policies but are supportive of Israel’s right to exist as a secure independent Jewish democratic state."'

So, what is the story here?  It does not seem entirely unreasonable for a Jewish Federation to withhold funding from programs that seek to boycott Israel or who deny Israel's right to exist.  Or, in fact, for an appointed board of any Federation to create its own policies that determine how it spreads its grant money - surely they have a right to do that?  Of course, a Federation looks to the entire Jewish community to donate to a common pool out of which many organizations and programs are funded.  So they do have some responsibility to represent the entirety of that Jewish community if they wish to continue to receive their support.  

One concern  is that the guidelines will stifle free speech and openness to express opinion within the Jewish community on certain matters.  For example, if an organization wants to present a lecture that focuses on sharing Jerusalem in a final peace settlement, some might believe that to propose such an option is 'to undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.'  Likewise, if a Jewish group or speaker talks about 'the occupied territories', rather than 'Judea and Samaria', might this also be interpreted by some as 'undermining the legitimacy of the State of Israel'?  This, after all, is a matter where Israel and the United Nations do not see eye-to-eye.  Is a plurality of opinion on this topic permissible among Jews who would like to run programs about Israel? (Clearly the answer is 'yes'.  The question is whether the lack of available funding to some voices from within the community from the Federation is a matter of concern.)

The community most upset by these guidelines is the Academic community in San Francisco (the fuller article in Tablet, linked above, helps to explain why).  They have expressed their concerns in an advert taken out in the Forward - you can read it below.

So... what do you think?  Is the San Francisco Federation acting responsibly?  Is it squeezing out legitimate Jewish voices who want to see Israel safe and successful but have a care and concern for Palestinian human rights too?  Does a pronouncement about funding have a silencing effect, leading to Jewish groups self-censoring what they will discuss in public forums?  Or are we treading precariously at a time when Israel doesn't need the American Jewish community adding fuel to fires?
Forward Ad: Prominent Bay Area Jews Warn About SF Jewish Federation Guidelines 4/10I said that I was more interested in raising the questions and hearing responses from others (either via the comments on this blog, or via facebook, or in person at the congregation), but I will offer one thought.  I believe that this is not just a black and white issue where the Federation is either right or wrong.  Perhaps the Federation realized that too and thought they were trying to find a compromise position.  I'm not sure they got it quite right, but I think the complexities of this story are such that knee-jerk responses are not particularly helpful.  There is much to pause and consider here.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

1 comment:

  1. My view--as an outsider, to be sure--is that they have a right to limit funding. Whether to do so is a good idea should be handled in the context of a larger debate, which seems in fact to be taking place. In what I have reviewed about this issue, only a few people seem to be questioning the motives of people on other sides of the issue. That, I think, is good.