In recent years David Eisner and Karen Lehmann Eisner, prominent funders of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, had become uncomfortable with the some of the films the organization helped produce.
The foundation has given grants to films like “Waltz With Bashir,” the Oscar-nominated Israeli film about the massacre of Palestinians in the 1982 Lebanon war, as well as a documentary the foundation funded this year about military tribunals in the Occupied Territories. Content like that, the Eisners felt, was beyond the pale of acceptable Israel criticism.
“We think some of these films are more propaganda than art,” David Eisner said, in a phone interview with his wife Karen, who sits on the foundation’s board.
So in October, David Eisner crafted a resolution, which Karen put before the board for approval. It targeted the one kind of criticism both felt all board members would agree was illegitimate: boycotts. The resolution sought to condemn all academic and cultural boycotts of Israeli institutions, and urged that the foundation not award funds to anyone who participated in them.
“Frankly, I couldn’t imagine anything that would have been less controversial than a resolution condemning cultural boycotts,” David Eisner told The Jewish Week.
He was wrong. After a month of heated e-mail exchanges, the board voted against the resolution by a margin of two to one.
Three board members who voted against the resolution told The Jewish Week that their main reason was the vagueness of its language. They also believed that a foundation that awards money to artists shouldn’t be in the business of issuing political statements or strident condemnations. Some also feared it would send the wrong message to artists — many who, if not supporters of boycotts, tend to be liberal — and didn’t want to alienate those potential grantees.
“We certainly don’t think that boycotts are good, but the statement was too vague,” said Elise Barnhardt, president and CEO of the FJC and its board of directors. “We don’t ask artists about their politics,” she added. “If we did, we probably wouldn’t support much good art.”
As a result of the resolution fight, some lingering resentment remains on the FJC’s board. “Clearly, she was annoyed with us,” said Robert Rifkind, a board member who voted against the measure, referring to Karen Lehmann Eisner, who voted for it.
Rifkind said he had seen e-mails from unnamed resolution supporters who called the board’s decision “stupid” and anti-Israel. “I took some issue with that,” he said. Rifkind pointed out that the foundation has funded other films like “Inventing Our Life: The Kibbutz Experience,” a mostly uplifting film about kibbutz settlements, and “One of Us,” about an artist whose painting was taken into space by Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
For their part, the Eisners said they were reconsidering whether they would continue to support the foundation. “As a funder, we’ll be more vigilant about funding the organization now and in the future,” David Eisner said.
The foundation’s deliberations over boycotts expose a growing rift within the Jewish community. It is only getting more difficult as calls for cultural and academic boycotts continue, and especially as newer ones targeted at specific Israeli settlements led by Israeli and Jewish artists take shape. More than 200 mostly Israeli and Jewish artists have now signed on to a boycott against performing in the newly opened theater in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, and there have been repeated attempts to boycott research projects affiliated with the nearby Ariel University Center of Samaria.
Many of the Jewish academics, artists and leaders of cultural organizations interviewed for this article tended to disapprove of the official boycott movement — known as the Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanction Movement (or BDS), which includes academic and cultural boycotts, and began in 2005. But they were hardly opposed to all boycotts of Israeli institutions, especially those in the West Bank.
Meanwhile, many critics of boycotts, especially conservative ones, endorse what amounts to a boycott itself: a public campaign to condemn boycotts and withhold funds from people who engage in them.
“This is slightly tongue in cheek, but I’d like to call for a boycott of boycotts,” said Brian Klug, a professor of philosophy at Oxford and frequent commentator on boycotts. He is author of “Being Jewish, Doing Justice,” and while he participated in boycotts of South African universities in the 1980s, he is generally skeptical of the BDS campaign today.
He said most boycotts of Israeli universities — the most recent one, rejected by the University of Johannesburg in October, was specifically aimed at Ben-Gurion University — created more division among liberals who might support it. And they diverted attention from what should be the central issue: the alleged trampling of Palestinian rights.
“Though there was some muddiness in the South African campaign, it succeeded because it was not divisive and it wasn’t diversionary,” Klug said.
The positions staked out by Theodore Bikel, 86, a renowned Jewish actor and co-founder of Tel Aviv’s Cameri theater troupe, members of which helped spearhead the Ariel boycott, embody much of the confusion surrounding the boycott issue. In an interview from his home in California, he said he is generally wary of cultural and academic boycotts on principle: like many artists and intellectuals, he thinks boycotts violate the principle of freedom of expression. He opposes the BDS campaign, too: “It’s too broad,” he said.
But this fall he wrote a letter in the Israeli daily Haaretz supporting the Israeli-led boycott of the Ariel theater — a boycott that is unaffiliated with the BDS movement. “Each case has to be judged on its own merits,” said Bikel. “As I said, as a general rule I’m against cultural boycotts, but this is a very, very special case.”
The Ariel theater boycott has become a cause célèbre among many liberal Jewish artists, including Frank Gehry and Daniel Barenboim. And many say it accomplishes what the BDS boycotts do not: it specifically targets the occupation in the West Bank.
But it also reflects the widespread confusion over boycotts and Israel generally.
Many conservative critics conflate the Ariel boycotts with ones initiated or supported by the BDS campaign. And academics who might in theory support academic boycotts aimed at certain Israeli universities say none of those supported by the BDS movements have so far met their own criteria.
Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, recently co-wrote an essay for The New Republic’s website against the proposed University of Johannesburg boycott targeting Ben-Gurion University. The boycott argued that Ben-Gurion had helped do research for the Israeli military, which is true. But Gitlin argues that “so do most research universities with the military establishments of their respective countries.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Gitlin added that most BDS-aligned academic boycotts use the same shoddy justification. “The question is, ‘Does a state have a right to pursue military activity?’” he asked rhetorically. “States do.”
The majority of BDS-affiliated boycotts are led by grass-roots organizations in communities around the world. And even the BDS campaign itself finds itself struggling to determine which ones its supports. “If we were to boycott everything we’d need full-time employees,” said Hannah Mermelstein, a member of Adalah-NY, a local group aligned with the BDS campaign. “We’re volunteers.”
She said that the campaign’s main goal was to advocate for the equal rights of Arab Israeli citizens and Palestinians in the occupied territories, and not to “delegitimize” Israel — a word used by conservative Israel defenders, whose opponents say is merely meant to stifle any legitimate criticism.
But many would-be boycott supporters, especially within the Jewish community, have been turned off by BDS’s exceedingly wide mandate.
For instance, the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), the arm of the BDS movement that issues its criteria for cultural boycotts, issued a statement on its website last month supporting boycotts of Manhattan’s Other Israel Film Festival.
PACBI said that the festival, which showcases films about Arab Israelis and Palestinians, was not a high priority, however, and made it clear that PACBI did not initiate them.
“We believe they’re boycotting it because it’s a Jewish festival, an Israeli festival,” said Carole Zabar, the film festival’s director.
On its website last month, PACBI said that independent calls for a boycott would meet its criteria, though, on the grounds that the festival “endorsed the oxymoronic notion of a ‘democratic Jewish state,’” and because it took no official stance on the Israeli government’s treatment of Arabs and Palestinians. “Avoiding taking a position,” PACBI’s website states, “is a form of whitewashing Israel’s colonial and apartheid reality.”
Isaac Zablocki, the film festival’s director, said that after PACBI e-mailed Arab filmmakers whose films were included in the festival, at least one pulled his film. And another, Sander Copti — director of the Oscar-nominated filmed “Ajami,” which was screened at the festival — turned down an invitation to participate in a panel because of PACBI’s stance.
Zablocki and Zabar said that the irony was that both the Israeli Consulate in New York and UJA-Federation of New York have both turned down requests to sponsor their festival, too. On the Israeli Consulate’s decision not to sponsor the event, Zablocki said, “They were turned off by the word ‘other.’”
The Jewish Federations of North American, or JFNA, the umbrella organization for all federations in the United States and Canada, has aggressively taken on cultural boycotts on in recent months, too. Along with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, JFNA has created the Israel Action Network, which officially kicks off next month, and whose main goal is to combat the “delegitimization” campaign. It will have a staff of seven employees and initial funding of up to $6 million over three years.
The network was created directly in response to another attempted cultural boycott, this one of the Toronto International Film Festival in the fall of 2009, in which a director removed his film because the festival created a mini-series to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv. After dozens of artists, like Jane Fonda and David Byrne, signed a statement in support of the director’s boycott, it snowballed into an international cause.
The Jewish federations in Los Angeles and Toronto organized a counter statement signed by artists like Natalie Portman and Lenny Kravitz in support of the festival, but the media firestorm struck a worrisome chord within many mainstream Jewish organizations. That led to the announcement in October of the creation of the Israel Action Network, whose primary goal will be to advise Jewish groups on how to handle future boycotts.
“The delegitimization and BDS movement is nationally coordinated, and it requires a national response,” William Daroff, JFNA’s vice president for public policy told the Forward when the initial Israel Action Network idea was hatched in March. “We need to move forward as a community to counter this cancerous growth.”