We Jews often pride ourselves on our devotion to memory. It’s a trait that unites Jewish communities everywhere. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, Jews are haunted these days by memories of a film screened there this past summer about a 23-year-old American woman who was killed in Gaza in 2003. Some members of the community just can’t get the images out of their minds, and they’re doing their best to make sure that no one else can either.
The documentary, “Rachel: An American Conscience,” looks at the life and death of Rachel Corrie, a Palestinian-rights activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting a house demolition.
What’s gotten our brethren by the Bay riled up is the fact that the film, though highly unflattering to Israel, was shown at the federation-funded San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, a high point on the local Jewish calendar. What’s more, the screening was co-sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace, a group that calls for suspending American military aid until Israel “ends the occupation.”
The “Rachel” screening was part of a three-week, 71-film festival. The Talmud says that a substance wrongly introduced where it doesn’t belong — a bit of yogurt spilled in the brisket, for example — may be dismissed as insignificant if it’s less than one part in 60, or batel be-shishim. I don’t remember the Talmud making exceptions for movies, but maybe I missed class that day.
After weeks of protests, the board of the San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation voted November 19 on a resolution submitted by a group of individuals angered by the film screening. The measure sought to bar any future cooperation or partnership with groups that “defame Israel.” The text was overwhelmingly rejected. Instead, the board approved a milder text adopted recently by the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. The approved resolution calls for an “effective response” and “proactive strategies” to halt the alarming spread of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or, as I like to call it, BDSM.
The federation’s logic isn’t complicated. Nobody in the organized Jewish mainstream is sympathetic to boycotting Israel. But setting out vague, catch-all rules to limit whom mainstream Jewish organizations can and can’t talk to is treading on dangerous ground. Jewish Voice for Peace evidently crossed a red line by urging Washington to use military aid as a weapon against Israel. No surprise there. But what about Peace Now’s criticisms of Israeli activities in the territories? Is that defamation, too? What about Reform and Conservative accusations of Israeli religious intolerance? For that matter, what about those settlers who call the Israeli government “Nazi” every time another illegal settlement outpost is dismantled? If that’s not defamation, what is?
Well, you can just about guess what happened next. Like so many others who have defied the pro-Israel right, the San Francisco federation is under attack, accused of abandoning Israel. But the backlash has an unexpected twist this time. Instead of the usual accusation that the offending organization has failed in its duty to represent American Jewry’s unified support for Israel, the San Francisco federation is under attack for being all too representative of American Jews, who are allegedly abandoning the cause of Israel en masse.
Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick, Israel’s answer to Ann Coulter, penned a withering blunderbuss attack on American Jewry on the day of the federation vote. The charges: voting Democratic, disliking Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck and generally following their own flighty whims rather than the interests of the Jewish people. In addition to the San Francisco federation and film festival, she names Hillel at NYU and Berkeley, the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, the New Israel Fund and even the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL is singled out for publishing a new report on the rise of right-wing fear-mongering since President Obama’s inauguration, preferring “tribal loyalty to the Left” over the organization’s true interests.
In an unintentionally revelatory slip, Glick writes that it is “no longer strange to see Hillels on American university campuses behaving in a manner that is not in line with what might be considered the interests of either the American Jewish community or the Jewish people as a whole.” Good phrase, that: “Might be considered.” No, Ms. Glick, they don’t follow what you “might consider” Jewish interests. Shockingly, they pursue what they might consider their best interests. That’s Glick’s real complaint: American Jews don’t listen to her.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, famed chronicler of the intifada and now vice president of the right-wing, Sheldon Adelson-funded Shalem Center, reaches much the same conclusions as Glick, but more in sorrow than anger. American Jews, he writes, are trapped in a cycle of Americanization and losing their Jewish instincts. “In today’s individualistic America, the drama of the rebirth of the Jewish people creates no goose bumps and evokes no sense of duty or obligation,” he wrote in October, as the San Francisco fight was heating up.
“A gaping chasm threatens the American-Israeli relationship, and we’re basically doing nothing,” Gordis concludes. “Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help.
“Can you name even one? Neither can I.”
Hmmm. Let’s see: Birthright. Summer camps. Day schools. Service programs in the underdeveloped world. That’s four.
You want to help? For starters, stop haranguing us and try listening.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at Goldberg@forward.com and follow his blog at blogs.forward.com/jj-goldberg
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).