How are we to respond when Jewish cultural institutions are accused of hurting Israel’s cause by presenting exhibits, films or performances critical of particular aspects of the Jewish state’s policies?
These complaints have been heard of late from a small but vocal number of critics of the JCC in Manhattan and the Foundation for Jewish Culture, two institutions with a proud record of supporting Israel and Jewish artists, nurturing their work and helping to create and strengthen Jewish identity, culture and community.
The critics are calling on these and other Jewish institutions to formally distance themselves from any groups supportive of the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement. The leaders of the institutions insist that it is anathema for organizations championing artists and free expression to pre-censure such work, and assert that their long and proud record of support for Israel, in a myriad of educational and programmatic ways, should be proof enough of their noble goals and mission.
What’s more, diverting attention away from those who seek to delegitimize Israel — a key concern — is counterproductive.
The controversy underscores the deep division in the American Jewish community regarding Israel today, between left and right, between hawks and doves, when each side seems convinced that the other’s approach could prove fatal to Jerusalem.
There are no easy answers here, and we believe in vigorous debate on such important issues. But when Jews accuse other Jews of traitorous motives, in the name of protecting Israel, we have all lost.
A new report unveiled this week at the North American Jewish Day School Conference in Los Angeles offers some insight into how to approach controversy over Israel. A study by the Melton Centre for Jewish Education at Hebrew University explored whether day schools are doing an effective job of teaching about modern Israel, and suggested that offering students a wide variety of viewpoints may bolster rather than diminish loyalty to the Zionist cause.
That dovetails with the Jewish cultural institutions’ argument that young people don’t want to feel they are being given one-sided information; they want to decide for themselves what is authentic.
Finally, it might be constructive for our community to review and reflect on a set of guidelines painstakingly prepared by the San Francisco Jewish community after a conflict over the showing of a controversial, critical film about Israel at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 2009 caused a deep split in the community.
The guidelines call for diverse opinions to be expressed but draw the line at promoting “bigotry, violence or extremist views.” It also opposes those who seek to undermine “the legitimacy of Israel as a secure, independent, democratic Jewish State, including participating in the BDS movement, in whole or in part.”
While some Jewish officials here may resist the idea of guidelines as too restrictive, leaders in San Francisco say the policy has helped coalesce the community around commonly held “core values” about Israel.
That doesn’t mean disagreements have ended, but they are framed within the context of a policy arrived at by a wide range of community leaders. Such an approach, reflecting our own community’s parameters, might be helpful in avoiding future internal battles that only weaken us all.