Opinion // Bans, Blacklists and Flyers, Oh My!
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
As usual, the thought police are trying to silence diversity of opinion about Israel.
I’m not usually prone to hysteria or hyperbole, but lately there’s a strong whiff of Jewish McCarthyism in the air—by which I mean attempts by powerful members of our community to scare, silence, ruin or excommunicate anyone who disagrees with them on Israel. Three examples:
1. Recently, a stranger came up to me at a meeting and accused me of “destroying the Jewish people” because I had signed an open letter to New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio faulting him for secretly meeting with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and virtually declaring himself its lackey.
In fact, I was one of 58 Jewish New Yorkers—among them such notable destroyers of the Jewish people as playwright Eve Ensler, pianist Emanuel Ax and Ruth J. Abram, founder of the Tenement Museum—who felt moved to protest what the mayor said at that meeting: “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC. When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call, and I’ll answer it happily ’cause that’s my job.”
It seemed obvious to us that declaring himself at the beck and call of AIPAC sets a dangerous precedent. No elected official, much less the mayor of New York City, should be in the pocket of any group. Furthermore, AIPAC represents not the people of Israel or “the Jews,” but by its own definition, the Israeli government, whose current policies—on such matters as West Bank settlements, treatment of Palestinians and the privileging of the ultra-Orthodox—are deeply troubling to millions of us who likewise consider ourselves “pro-Israel.”
The mayor never responded to our letter. But the Jewish attack dogs came out in force. Several of the letter’s signatories (I will not compound their distress by identifying them) were reprimanded by wealthy donors and board members who made clear that criticism of AIPAC will not be tolerated. There were lightly veiled intimations that they might find themselves without a platform or their institutions suddenly starved of funds.
An anonymous flyer distributed at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun accused two of its rabbis, who had signed the letter, of making “false and defamatory statements” about AIPAC and committing the sins of lashon hara [evil gossip] and hotzaat shem ra [libel].” A group of conservatives, including Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a former aide to leading New York Republicans, took out an ad in New York-area Jewish media comparing the 58 signers to Jews who, in 1943, urged FDR not to meet with European rabbis pleading with him to save European Jews. Such public vilification is meant to force Jewish leaders to either censor their beliefs or risk being labeled treif and kicked out of the tent altogether.
2. One group that many Jews want to keep out is J Street, the oft-defamed pro-peace, pro-Israel lobby founded six years ago as an alternative to AIPAC. The latest kick below the belt is a film, The J Street Challenge, produced by the right-wing group Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT). The film suggests that J Street hoodwinks gullible naifs, sells peace like Kool-Aid and, through its “seduction” of the innocents, imperils Israeli security. Though it promises to show “both sides,” its clear intent is to demonize J Street.
The film features well-known J Street detractors whose views on Israel range roughly from A to B: for instance, Harvard professors Alan Dershowitz and Ruth Wisse, Rabbi Daniel Gordis and Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens. It characterizes J Street supporters as narcissistic lefties who “can avoid the pain of feeling disloyal to their own people [emphasis added] and at the same time can enjoy the benefits of their progressive bona fides.” APT’s president, Charles Jacobs, says J Street “undermines” real pro-Israel groups.
Partisan documentaries are nothing new, and APT has every right to produce one. What’s new is the mainstream venue in which this film was presented on March 27—at an educational event co-sponsored by the Philadelphia Jewish Federation and the local Hillel. Larry Gellman, a lifelong Federation and Hillel activist/donor, wrote in The Jewish Daily Forward that the Philadelphia Federation “reportedly decided to sponsor the film at the behest of a few wealthy donors, bypassing its own Israel Advocacy Committee and jettisoning the guidelines for Israel programming that the committee had spent two years writing.”
3. New York’s Celebrate Israel parade routinely attracts about 30,000 participants and hundreds of thousands of spectators. To march in the 50th annual parade on June 1, groups had to sign a statement that they “identify with Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and will not carry banners that are “political, divisive, or inflammatory.” For some critics, this wasn’t enough.
The Zionist Organization of America, Americans for a Safe Israel, JCC Watch, American Friends of Likud and Rabbi Elie Abadie of Manhattan’s Safra Synagogue accused the parade’s sponsors—UJA-Federation of New York and the New York Jewish Community Relations Council—of permitting the participation of groups that support BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel). JCC Watch circulated a flyer equating certain Jewish groups with Nazi storm troopers; one rabbi likened the sponsors to appeasers of the Nazis. Rabbi Abadie, ostensibly representing his shul and three other Sephardi groups, threatened that his contingent will pull its people and financial support unless the sponsors “disqualify” certain “enemies of the state of Israel” from marching.
Who are these “enemies?”: The New Israel Fund, which funds Israeli democracy projects; B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group; and Partners for Progressive Israel, which supports Meretz, an Israeli political party that currently holds six Knesset seats.
There’s a big difference between passionate advocacy, which both right and left should be free to practice, and the toxic effect of bans, blacklists and financial coercion. One can only wish for a 21st-century moral giant to say to these rabid Jews what Joseph Welch, chief counsel for the Army, said to curb the red-baiting Senator McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is at work on her eleventh book, SJM Seeking Soulmate, a novel.