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 students’ invitation to Khalidi began seemingly straightforwardly. “We decided to invite Professor Khalidi in order to promote open dialogue at Ramaz and to give the student body the opportunity to hear an outside perspective,” said the school’s Politics Society in an email to the Forward. Khalidi, a Columbia University professor of Modern Arab Studies, would have discussed the prospects for a two-state solution to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians — a solution Khalidi supports, though he believes Israel’s policies make it impossible.

As was first reported in Mondoweiss, an anti-Zionist blog, Shaviv canceled the invitation. The students’ petition asking Shaviv to change his mind has garnered over 250 signatures since it was posted online last week.

Shaviv said his decision was influenced by fear that Khalidi would be an unfair dialogue partner and by concern about the controversy that would accompany his visit.

“Rashid Khalidi is an academic and politician of immense knowledge and expertise who is not a dialogue partner for Jewish high school kids,” he said. “It would be like saying to the captain of our high school tennis team, ‘You’re going to play a match against Andre Agassi.’”

Shaviv emphasized that Ramaz approaches speech differently because it is a high school and not a JCC or a university. “There are common sense parameters here,” he said.

Wieseltier snorted at this. “It may come as news to the administration, but when their kids go to college they’re going to run into views like Khalidi’s,” he said. “The bubble strategy never works. As soon as the kid leaves the bubble, you’ve got a problem.”

Meanwhile, at around the same time, the Museum of Jewish Heritage invited John Judis, The New Republic senior editor, to speak about his new book on President Harry Truman’s Middle East policies. In the book, Judis portrayed Truman as deeply wary of Zionism and argued that Truman only supported the new state under pressure from a Jewish lobby. The book has garnered praise from some prominent historians — but also, some savage reviews from writers who see it as unsympathetic, at best, towards Jews struggling to find a means of survival and reconstitution in the wake of the Holocaust.

On February 18 — the same day as the Vassar Jewish Union’s action — the museum decided Judis’ book was too controversial and disinvited him. But on February 23, the Museum’s director, David Marwell, announced Judis would be coming after all. Marwell said he was unimpressed by Judis’s scholarship and saw the book’s slant as biased. He had earlier told his staff not to invite Judis, but “I later learned that my staff then rescinded an invitation to Mr. Judis, which they had, unfortunately, already extended without my knowledge,” he wrote in a blog post.

“Rescinding an invitation…naturally raises the ugly specter of succumbing to pressure and giving in to outside influence,” he wrote. “I am particularly concerned that the Museum should be accused of censorship or of being allergic to controversy.”

Marwell plans now to moderate the discussion with Judis himself when he appears at the museum this spring.

Cohen believes that Jewish institutions are now simply being forced to clarify boundaries that existed all along. “They’re drawing the same boundaries that they’ve always had and now they’re forced to articulate them,” he said.

“I think it’s good for Zionism to have the full range of Jewish opinion and those of our adversaries represented,” Cohen said.

Cohen stressed that he favors bringing not just critics of Israel on the left to speak at mainstream Jewish intellectual venues, but also figures from the far-right such as the so-called Hilltop Youth settlers who stake out unauthorized outposts in the Israel-occupied West Bank in defiance of the government.

But there are dangers in hosting anti-Zionist speakers, according to Jonathan Tobin, online editor of Commentary. “Ultimately if it ever became uncontroversial for Jewish institutions to sponsor anti-Zionist speakers or events, that would say something very significant about where the Jewish community is,” he said. “We don’t debate whether racism is good or bad. We don’t host [white supremacist] David Duke. I think much of the community believes that anti-Zionism ought to fall in the same category.”

Contact Hody Nemes on Twitter @hodifly

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