Concerned that an annual film festival at the JCC in Manhattan is lending credibility to organizations that are hostile to Israel, a JCC member is calling on the board to impose guidelines against such affiliations.
Richard Allen wants the JCC and other Jewish institutions to formally reject any cooperation with organizations that want to hurt Israel economically, academically or culturally as a means to affect the peace process.
He says the Upper West Side JCC is providing such cooperation through the website of its Other Israel Film Festival, which links to two non-governmental Palestinian advocacy organizations. The Other Israel Film Festival is intended to show the diversity of Israel by highlighting work by and about minorities, particularly Arab Israelis.
“I have nothing against the film festival,” Allen said in an interview Monday. “I am not making judgments against the films but against the fact that they are linking to, giving free advertising to and calling partners, groups that support BDS.”
BDS is the widely used acronym for the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions targeting Israel. None of the Palestinian groups Allen cited are listed as “Partners” on the film festival’s site; they are instead listed under “news and resources.”
The Other Israel Film Festival, founded in 2007, has itself been targeted by BDS groups, with the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel saying that the festival “endorsed the oxymoronic notion of a democratic Jewish state.” It does not take an official position on Israeli policies.
Allen, who joined the JCC last year, said he did not attend the November film festival but was upset to see that J Street, the left-wing pro-peace process lobby group, had a table at the event to give out its literature. (J Street opposes the BDS movement.) He soon learned that J Street’s Education Fund, the Israeli human rights advocacy group B’Tselem and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival were listed by the JCC as partners, but pay no fees to the JCC for their participation. In Allen’s view this represents a “heksher,” or endorsement by the JCC of these groups. Human Rights Watch has likened Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to South Africa’s apartheid.
“That prompted me to take a closer look,” he said.
Among the groups linked to the film festival’s site are the Mossawa Center, an advocacy center for Arab Israelis and the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. Adalah is not affiliated with Adalah New York, an organization that works to promote the boycott of Israeli products in the United States.
The NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem-based site run by Professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University that focuses on the role of humanitarian groups in the Arab-IsraeI conflict, notes that the Mossawa Center was one of 18 co-signers of a letter to the Norwegian Government Pension Fund’s Council on Ethics urging the fund to liquidate investments in “all corporations that support and maintain the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territory.” That letter is posted on the website of the Coalition of Women for Peace.
Unlike the Mossawa Center, Adalah does not appear on NGO Monitor’s list of organizations involved in the BDS movement. A grantee of the New Israel Fund, the organization is cited by NGO Monitor as an active participant in the Durban 2001 Conference, widely considered by Israel supporters as biased against the Jewish state, where boycotts of Israel were strongly advocated. The site also said Adalah often conflates Palestinian issues with the status of Israeli Arab citizens.
Allen sent a detailed letter to the JCC’s board members last month expressing his concerns.
The co-presidents of the JCC, Marti Meyerson and Alice Gottesman, sent Allen a Jan. 10 letter acknowledging his concerns, saying they “will be studying the matter thoroughly and will be in touch when our board has had a chance to understand the issue that you have raised.”
In a phone interview Tuesday the JCC’s director, Rabbi Joy Levitt, said, “We don’t support BDS or any organizations that support BDS.
“The JCCs by definition work with hundreds, if not thousands of people and groups in our community. We bring people in, we engage with them, we do all kinds of arrangements. Every JCC does that. Anyone who says the JCC is not a strong supporter of Israel is misrepresenting us and our programs.”
She noted that the JCC will soon implement a program to engage alumni of Birthright Israel and integrate them into Jewish life and that board members have made 11 recent missions to Israel.
The controversy comes on the heels of efforts late last year by two donors to the Foundation for Jewish Culture to adopt a resolution by a board member that the foundation will not award funds to anyone who participates in academic or cultural boycotts of Israel. David Eisner and his wife, board member Karen Lehmann Eisner, were upset that some of the films the foundation helped produce were critical of Israel, and wanted to see the board impose some minimal standards.
The foundation’s board declined to do so, with members saying it should avoid political statements and others fearful that it would send a wrong message of censorship to artists and potential grantees, The Jewish Week reported in December.
Elise Bernhardt, the FJC’s director and CEO, said on Tuesday that while letters condemning the board’s stance continue to pour into her office, the foundation’s position remains firm.
“The idea that there are many points of view is a Jewish virtue,” said Bernhardt. “We should be able to see and discuss all of them. This will continue to be difficult because some people believe that circling the wagons and stifling discussion is protective. I don’t think so.”
Allen, 59, says he’ll keep up the pressure, spending his own money on the campaign.
He has purchased the address “JCCWatch.org,” but he has yet to post anything on the website.
“All action endeavors to educate the public will be on the table: website, print ads, transit ads, demonstrations, leafleting and public picketing,” he said in a letter to a supporter, which he forwarded to The Jewish Week. “The JCC in Manhattan board will have only themselves to blame if they do not act and pass guidelines to stop their partnerships and links to BDS groups.”
Hank Sheinkopf, the outspoken Democratic political consultant, said he supported Allen’s campaign and, as a former JCC member, would not patronize any programs until it canceled the Other Israel Film Festival and severed what he called its ties to BDS organizations.
“They won’t stop unless they are punished financially,” said Sheinkopf. “At this time when Israel’s very life may be at stake it’s especially important not to patronize anyone who doesn’t stand with the State of Israel. … Stop claiming you are a Jewish community center, because there is no place there for centrist people.”
The JCC houses an extensive Israel Film Center with a large archive available to members. The IFC’s stated goal is to be “a leading resource for Israeli film, with the goal of expanding Israel’s emerging film industry and promoting Israeli culture in America.” But Sheinkopf says the JCC shouldn’t show films that are critical of Israel.
“Do you know of any group that shows films that criticize them besides Jews?”
Allen provided the JCC and The Jewish Week with bylaws of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation stating that it will not fund organizations that “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure, independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, in whole or in part.” He said the JCC should consider similar guidelines.
The BDS campaign initiated by Palestinian NGOs dates back to 2005, a year after the International Court of Justice condemned Israel’s construction of the West Bank barrier. There are active campaigns targeting Israel’s academics, culture and economy in the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Canada. n