Leftist Jewish groups are calling on a Long Island synagogue to cancel a speech by an outspoken Jewish blogger known for her outspoken anti-Muslim views — raising questions about a double standard on free expression.
New York activist groups Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and Jews Say No! announced their opposition to a speech set for April 14 by Pamela Geller, an activist known for her extreme anti-Muslim rhetoric, at the Modern Orthodox Great Neck Synagogue.
In an email sent to JVP activists on April 3, the organization called on members to contact the Great Neck Synagogue and ask it to cancel the event. Rebecca Vilkomerson, JVP’s executive director, told the Forward on April 4 that at least 50 people had contacted Great Neck Synagogue at the group’s behest.
“Our hope is that the synagogue will cancel her appearance,” Vilkomerson said. “The kind of venom that she spews against Islam is completely inappropriate for a synagogue.”
Geller, in response to the campaign against her event, criticized the leftist groups as insufficiently Jewish.
“Jewish history is plagued with these quislings, who are willing tools serving as the public face for supremacists and annihilationists,” she wrote in an email to the Forward. “The left uses these Jews to defame and destroy a Jew who is truly standing up for Israel and for the principles of freedom and human rights that the Jewish State represents. It’s inexcusable.”
The campaign comes weeks after some of the same leftist Jewish groups organized against efforts to cancel a panel on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement at Brooklyn College. One of the groups also opposed a decision by the LGBT Community Center in New York to block an appearance by a pro-BDS scholar.
One gay community activist, who opposed the BDS ban at the LGBT Community Center, slammed the leftist Jewish groups for their apparent free expression flip-flop.
“I’m startled [the leftist Jewish groups] didn’t learn any lessons from the controversies of two months ago at the Gay Center and at Brooklyn College,” said Bill Dobbs, a longtime gay activist. “They’ve lost the moral high ground.”
Vilkomerson said that JVP’s call for the cancellation of the event was not evidence of a double standard.
“We’re not the ACLU,” Vilkomerson said. “Our job is not to be absolute civil libertarians. We do believe in free speech, but we also believe there are limits to that… Our mission statement says we will always take a strong stand against racism and bigotry in all of its forms, and that’s part of this.”
JVP was a co-sponsor of a February 7 panel at Brooklyn College on the BDS movement featuring U.C. Berkeley professor Judith Butler and Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti. The event drew condemnation, including from some elected officials. One group of legislators went so far as to threaten the funding of Brooklyn College, a publicly-funded institution.
All three of the sponsors of the campaign against Geller’s Great Neck Synagogue speech made statements in defense of the Brooklyn College event.
“A group of City Council members has even threatened to cut college funding if the event is not cancelled, or the political science department does not withdraw its sponsorship. This abuse of power evokes the purges and repressions of the McCarthy era,” wrote JFREJ, one of the three activist groups, in a February statement. “We as JFREJ position ourselves as watchdogs for justice here in New York City and we feel mandated to speak out against this attempt to silence political viewpoints.”
Speaking on April 4, JFREJ executive director Marjorie Dove Kent said that the elected officials’ effort to block the Brooklyn College event was different than the activist groups’ efforts to block Geller’s speech. “Free speech is a first amendment right. So it’s a right that only the government can violate,” Dove Kent said. “It’s one thing to open one’s synagogue for a dialogue reflecting different political viewpoints, it’s another to invite in someone who spews racist hatred.”
A local news website in Great Neck reported that one local official had asked a local interfaith organization to oppose Geller’s talk. Dove-Kent said that her organization had not determined whether or not to cooperate with that effort.
JVP, for its part, was actively critical of the LGBT Center’s decision to bar a talk by Sarah Schulman, a College of Staten Island professor who backs the BDS movement. The LGBT Center later reversed its decision.
Members of JVP and Jews Say No! were also involved in a recent dispute over a panel indirectly about the BDS movement that was retroactively canceled by the rabbi of the synagogue where it was supposed to take place. The event was eventually rescheduled, and is set to take place at a different synagogue this week.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.