Feud Over Israel Erupts at Jewish Institutions

Museums and Schools Scrap Speeches by Perceived Critics

3 Battles: Rashid Khalidi, Judith Butler and John Judis hold divergent views on Israel. But their perceived criticism led all three to be shunned by major Jewish institutions.
3 Battles: Rashid Khalidi, Judith Butler and John Judis hold divergent views on Israel. But their perceived criticism led all three to be shunned by major Jewish institutions.

By Hody Nemes

Published February 26, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
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The Jewish Museum’s decision to scrap Butler’s speaking engagement is unique insofar as Butler was invited to speak on a topic completely unrelated to Israel. Butler pulled out of the event under pressure from Israel supporters. Claudia Gould, the museum’s director, said Butler’s “political views were not a factor in her participation in the Franz Kafka program. However, the debates about her politics became distracting and disruptive, making it impossible to present the conversation about Kafka as intended.”

Wieseltier was appalled by the decision. “I despise Judith Butler, but her misguided views [on Israel] should not disqualify her from speaking on Kafka,” he said.

In Wieseltier’s view, this is not a matter of censorship; Jewish institutions, like other private institutions, have every right to define the parameters for speakers and events under their own roofs, he said. “But it’s not just a matter of rights,” Wieseltier explained. “It’s a matter of wisdom. It’s always a sign of intellectual weakness or fear to insulate oneself from arguments that are relevant to one’s views. People should know how to respond to views that they think are erroneous.”

When Alixandra Kriegsman arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, that was precisely one of the skills she lacked. After many years of attending Jewish day schools and participating in class discussions about Israel, she had never even heard people refer to Israel’s rule over the West Bank as an “occupation,” she said.

“I felt extremely undereducated and misinformed when I started taking classes on the subject [of Israel] in college,” said Kriegsman, who is making a documentary about the lack of nuance in Jewish schools’ Israel curricula. She said many students tell her their day school education left them ill-prepared for discussions of Israel in college. “Going to college basically taught them that they really weren’t educated. They were taught to advocate.”

Paul Shaviv, the Head of School at Ramaz, does not see his school as engaging in such avoidance. Nevertheless, he is not moved, so far, by the protest petition from some of his students and their parents to allow Columbia Professor Rashid Khalidi, the prominent scholar of Palestinian history, to speak at his school.

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