One rabbi refused to host the event, saying he expected it would lead to talk about the anti-Israel Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment movement, while another rabbi welcomed the panel discussion, lamenting what she considers the lack of robust debate over Israel in the Jewish community.
In the end, though, none of the panelists raised the subject of BDS, which many in the community consider anathema. But the subject at hand was still a charged one that other Jewish institutions might consider beyond the pale: Can a Jewish state be a democratic one and, more to the point, is Israel a democracy? — questions that aren’t asked about any of the world’s other ethnocracies.
The discussion took place last Thursday at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the city’s gay and lesbian synagogue, only a few weeks after another synagogue, Congregation Ansche Chesed, agreed to host the panel and then reversed itself.
Of the 150 people who attended, most seemed to be associated not with CBST but with two controversial organizations led by Donna Nevel, an organizer of the event, and Rebecca Vilkomerson, one of the panelists: Jews Say No and Jewish Voice for Peace, respectively.
Coached by the moderator to save their cheers or applause for the end of the event, members of the audience heard a litany of charges against Israel from Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, and Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark, co-host of WBAI Radio’s “Beyond the Pale,” the two panelists opposed to a Jewish state. Those on the panel defending Israel were J.J. Goldberg, editor-at-large of the Jewish Daily Forward, and Kathleen Peratis, an attorney, human-rights activist and board member of Americans for Peace Now.
Vilkomerson, whose husband and children are Israeli, said she loves many aspects of Israel, including the atmosphere in Jerusalem as Shabbat approaches. But there’s no question in her mind that there’s “Jewish supremacy” over others in Israel, she continued, adding that she couldn’t accept that. Later, Vilkomerson enumerated many of the areas in which she believes that non-Jews are second-class citizens, including the educational system and the political arena.
Neimark told the audience that she never thought about Israel or Zionism until the first intifada, when she began paying attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and what she called “the inordinate role” in the conflict played by the United States. Like Vilkomerson, she questioned whether a country could be called a democracy while “occupying another people’s land.”
On the other side of the debate, Peratis challenged the idea that Israel’s Arab citizens don’t have the same political rights as the country’s Jewish citizens. The reason their political voice isn’t a strong one is because few of Israel’s Arab citizens vote, she said. If they voted in equal numbers to the state’s other citizens, their voice would be that much stronger.
Goldberg, who grew up in a Labor Zionist family, said that just as he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong about the United States giving a legal day off for Christmas, but not Yom Kippur, he doesn’t see anything wrong with Jewish holidays being the official ones in Israel. He also noted that the world has plenty of countries, like Italy, France and Sweden, in which one ethnic group is dominant but all citizens enjoy equal rights.