After barring anti-Islam activist, Federation reconsiders events policy

In the aftermath of its June 24 decision to bar conservative blogger and anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller from delivering a speech at its Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is crafting a new policy for non-Federation-sponsored events at the building.

In addition to considering the “procedural” question of how Federation staff will oversee the approval of such events, Chairman of the Board Richard Sandler said Federation leadership will also engage a second, more “substantive,” question about “the criteria you use to decide whether or not this is an appropriate event to go on in this particular building.”

The process will necessarily involve serious consideration of core questions about Federation’s role in serving Los Angeles’ Jews.

“I look at things from the point of view of what is our goal as a Federation?” Sandler said. “What is our mission? What is our responsibility to the community?”

The Geller event was sponsored by the Western Region of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), a tenant at the Federation building only since late 2011. Following current policies, ZOA executive director Orit Arfa reserved a board room in the building at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. for the Sunday morning event, titled “Islamic Jew-Hatred: The Root Cause of the Failure to Achieve Peace.” She did so on June 6, almost three weeks in advance of the event. ZOA also arranged for an announcement of the ZOA-sponsored event to be posted on The Federation’s official Web site.

The criticism of Geller’s scheduled appearance at Federation’s headquarters from Muslim civil rights groups that, together with other faith-based groups, issued a joint statement condemning Federation came just one day before the event was to take place. Hours before the event was to begin, Federation officials informed ZOA that Geller would not be allowed to enter the building, citing concerns about the possibility of protests and counter-protests at the building on Sunday morning right at the time when the Zimmer Children’s Museum has its greatest amount of traffic.

When the revocation of Geller’s invitation to speak was announced on Sunday morning, the approximately 30 would-be attendees protested outside the building, accusing Federation of stifling free speech. The event was later moved to The Mark on Pico Boulevard.

Although it appears to have fallen into disuse, Federation did at one time have a policy governing the kinds of speakers who would be invited to speak at its headquarters, according to Steven F. Windmueller, professor emeritus of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, who led the Los Angeles Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) from 1985 to 1995.

“We created guidelines for appropriate conversation,” Windmueller said, adding that among the factors the JCRC considered when determining whether a particular speaker would be invited to speak at Federation were “respect for other communities’ religious beliefs.”

“There were certain boundaries that we set on what were acceptable and not acceptable voices that we want to engage,” Windmueller said.

The policy was particularly valuable in minimizing the severity of disputes about Israel among Jews on the left and right, in part because it pre-empted the objections of those who disagreed with it.

“Meir Kahane was considered off-limits, and that was pretty well known,” Windmueller said, referring to the controversial founder of the Jewish Defense League, which the FBI considered to be a terrorist organization. “Whether his supporters liked that or not, they at least knew from the beginning.”

Los Angeles is not the only Federation to have had sanctions against Kahane. Rabbi Douglas Kahn, executive director of the JCRC of the Bay Area, recalled a meeting that took place between Kahane and Earl Raab, then head of the JCRC.

The Bay Area Jewish Community Federation had decided that Kahane, who had announced his plan to visit in advance, would not be allowed to enter the building, so Kahane and Raab met in a location off-site, Kahn said, “which I actually believe was Earl’s old Dodge parked very nearby, no doubt while [Earl was] smoking a cigar. And I think they spent about an hour talking in the car.”

More recently, the Bay Area JCRC helped to devise a formal set of guidelines for “potentially controversial Israel-related programming.” The guidelines, which apply to all organizations funded by the Bay Area Federation, were created in 2010 in response to an event in conjunction with the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival that roiled many in the local Jewish community.

For a screening of a documentary about the activist Rachel Corrie, who died in 2003 while protesting Israeli demolition of Palestinians’ homes in Gaza, Corrie’s mother was invited to speak. The decision, and the absence of a forum for the expression of other points of view, set off a firestorm of criticism, directed first at the festival and later at The Federation, which sponsored the event.

The guidelines, adopted in February 2010, state that the Bay Area Federation will not fund organizations that hold events or partner with organizations that “(1) endorse or promote anti-Semitism, other forms of bigotry, violence or other extremist views; (2) actively seek to proselytize Jews away from Judaism; or (3) advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.”

“I think it has had a really positive effect with respect to calming the community, clarifying general terms where reasonable boundaries lie, not stifling the broad range of opinion and helping providing guidance to those organizations that receive funding from Federation,” Kahn said.

Kahn called the controversy over the Corrie film “an educable moment,” and Sandler said Los Angeles’ Federation is aiming to respond to the Geller incident in a similar way.

“You learn from every situation,” Sandler said, “and because this happened, it is good that we will be able to put processes in place to make sure it does not happen again.”