Washington JCC Resolves Arts Impasse

No New Formal Guidelines, But Red Line Drawn at BDS

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 13, 2011, issue of April 22, 2011.
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Facing tensions that have erupted over community funded artistic expression relating to Israel, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is carving out a middle road that it hopes will please all sides.

Despite being urged by some community members to stop funding plays critical of Israel in the local Jewish Community Center, the federation’s board of directors decided instead to draw its red line at programs that promote boycott, divestment or sanctions against Israel (BDS.) The board decided against issuing formal guidelines for community funded programming, as was done by the Jewish federation in San Francisco last year.

The D.C. compromise could mark a new path for overcoming the dilemma already facing several communities being torn between activists and donors who feel their federation dollars should not fund voices outside the mainstream communal consensus and leaders of funded agencies who wish to maintain their artistic freedom.

“We are a diverse community, and we know that in this day and age we need to maintain this diversity,” said Susie Gelman, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, after its board adopted a resolution on the issue on April 9. “We will not go into programmatic decisions. We set one boundary that we will not cross, and that is BDS.”

The statement produced by the Washington federation was a result of lengthy discussions held by the board after being prodded by a group of local activists who formed a group called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA). Members of COPMA demanded the federation adopt clear guidelines on funding agencies that host programs critical of Israel. The group took issue with Theater J, which operates under the auspices the DC JCC, citing its hosting of “Return to Haifa,” a production of the Cameri Theatre of Tel Aviv. The play, which is based on a 1969 novella by Ghassan Kanafani and adapted by Israeli playwright Boaz Gaon, deals with the plight of Arab refugees. Kanafani was a member of a Palestinian terror organization.

Directors of the JCC and Theater J opposed COPMA’s proposal as an infringement on their freedom of expression and their mandate to promote discussion within the community.

The only funding restriction articulated in the federation’s statement related, finally, to BDS. It read: “We will not support, assist or fund any organization that encourages boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel in pursuit of goals to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish State.”

Gelman explained that the statement, as opposed to an official set of guidelines, leaves the decisions in the hands of agency leaders and does not take the responsibility for programming decisions away from grantees.

“I like the statement,” said Arna Meyer Mickelson, executive director of the DC JCC, which stood at the center of the controversy. Mickelson, who attended the board meeting as an observer, described the final statement as “thoughtful and reasonable.”

The JCC followed with its own statement that echoed the theme of the federation’s resolution and stressed the agency’s opposition to BDS. “We choose our partners and affiliations to ensure that all programming supports the DC JCC’s mission to preserve and strengthen Jewish identity, heritage, tradition and values,” the statemen read.

COPMA, the group behind the initial drive to limit funds for programs critical of Israel, cautiously endorsed the federation’s approach. “We’re in a wait-and-see mode,” said Robert Samet, the group’s chairman. He acknowledged that COPMA would have liked to see more done, saying that “ideally, we should have had guidelines like in San Francisco, but they [the federation] decided to go with a statement.”

The San Francisco guidelines, adopted in 2010 in response to a similar debate there, set binding rules for grantees seeking funding from the Jewish Community Federation (JCF). These groups and agencies are required, according to the guidelines, to produce documentation such as formal policies, guidelines and mission statements “that demonstrate consistency with the JCF’s core values.” The document lists programs consistent with these values and those that are not and therefore will not receive funding.

Washington’s statement does not include such requirements and does not articulate how agencies should act.

Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, said his theater company “will be able to live comfortably within the principles of the twin JCC/Federation statements” and will “remain as committed as before to producing thought-provoking, soul-illuminating theater.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com

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