April 2, 2010

Drawing a Chilling Line in the Bay

I must disagree with the conclusions of your March 26 editorial “Drawing a Line in the Bay” regarding the funding guidelines for Israel-related programming recently enacted by San Francisco’s Jewish Community Federation. Rather than being reasonable, these guidelines are devised to limit and chill discussion.

At a time when broad and honest discourse about Israel and Palestine is imperative, these guidelines are designed to limit that debate. Any group supported by the federation that would like to move the discussion beyond what is deemed “acceptable” (the definition of which is constantly changing) will be subject to the threat of de-funding.

Among other things, the guidelines prohibit funding for programs that endorse or promote “the BDS movement or positions that undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.” It even prohibits “Co-sponsorship or co-presentations of public programs on Middle East issues with supporters of the BDS movement or others who undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel.”

I and many others in the Bay Area Jewish community reject the notion that the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement can be equated with undermining the legitimacy of Israel. The BDS movement is a legitimate, nonviolent strategy against the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

I urge the Forward to reconsider its praise for the San Francisco federation’s effort and to instead use its influence to support principled debate among all parts of the Jewish community.

Peoplehood’s Pedigree

I was pleased to see your March 12 article (“Embattled Jewish Agency To Promote Identity Over Aliyah”) and the accompanying editorial (“The Agency’s New Agenda”) about Jewish peoplehood. Kol hakavod to Russian Jews such as Natan Sharansky for pushing the idea of Jewish peoplehood to the fore.

It’s important to note, however, that Jewish peoplehood is not a new concept. Ahad Ha’am’s notion of Cultural Judaism is recognizably the same concept as Jewish peoplehood. The idea was expressed more explicitly a few decades later in the writings of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, who refers on innumerable occasions to Jewish peoplehood as the basic component of his notion of Judaism as an evolving civilization rather than a ritualistic religion. Secular Jewish organizations, notably the Workmen’s Circle and the Forward Association (the publisher of the Forward), have presented Jewish peoplehood as the central core of their concepts of Jewishness for more than a century.

I was also distressed by the tenor of the editorial’s comments about the idea of Jewish peoplehood. The editorial, appropriately enough, described the complexity of the issue: “can the Jewish people be sustained without God, without religion? Can a lasting Jewish identity be stitched together without the binding of traditional faith?” These sentences give a fair representation of the seriousness of the question that has been roiling the Jewish community for more than a century.

But the editorial then went on to immediately answer the question dismissively in the next sentence: “It is difficult to imagine how a sense of community and belonging and responsibility alone will be compelling enough for young people for whom being Jewish is one option among many.” End of debate! This trivializes a longstanding and unsettled battle within the Jewish community. Furthermore, it seems implicitly biased in favor of a religious approach to Jewishness, which is inappropriate for a newspaper that tries to speak to and about the overall Jewish community, including its secular component.

The writer is vice president of the Forward Association.

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April 2, 2010

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