POINT: Caveat Conlator: Funder beware

The entire Jewish community should applaud the recently announced plan by The Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and several major Jewish federations to invest millions of dollars over the next few years to fight the delegitimization and demonization of Israel. These groups understand that if academic and cultural boycotts are legitimate when aimed at Jews in the West Bank today, they will soon become legitimate when aimed at Jews in Tel Aviv tomorrow; and, you can be sure that after that, the boycotters will set their sites on Jews in New York, Los Angeles, Peoria … and everywhere else that Jews live.

Unfortunately, on the ground, anti-delegitimization efforts are being undermined by some of the very organizations that the mainstream Jewish community actually finances. The JCC of Manhattan recently invited boycotter Tony Kushner to speak at the opening night of its “Other Israel Film Festival.” American Friends of Hebrew University bestowed their prestigious Scopus Award on boycotter Frank Gehry. The JCC of San Francisco made boycotter Stephen Sondheim a keynote speaker at their Ideas Programs. And, the executive committee of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, an organization with a proud history of support for Jewish scholarship and art — though also with a recent history of funding several highly controversial projects that many critics consider anti-Israel propaganda — recently overwhelmingly rejected a simple resolution to condemn “academic or cultural boycott of Jews or Israel, their academics and artists, or their academic and cultural institutions.”

This vote was disturbing for many reasons. First, the mission of the foundation is to “nurture a vibrant and enduring Jewish identity, culture, and community.” What could be less nurturing to Jewish culture than cultural boycotts? Second, the foundation had a special obligation to distance itself from boycotters; a number of artists and academics whom it has honored, funded or placed on grant panels during the past decade are some of our people’s most prominent boycotters — Kushner, Theodore Bikel (a board member of the foundation), Sheldon Harnick, to name a few.  In recent years, the foundation has funded some of the most anti-Israel propaganda, on the principle that artists and academics were entitled to “freedom of expression.” In rejecting the above resolution, the Foundation apparently concluded that some Jewish and Israeli artists and academics’ rights were not as important as others.

Most troubling of all, however, is that the Foundation for Jewish Culture is funded by many Jewish federations, foundations and philanthropists. Ironically, at just the time that so many of these major funding entities are investing millions in efforts to combat delegitimization and demonization from one pocket, they are actually (unwittingly) supporting delegitimization and demonization from the other pocket. 

I would maintain that Jewish communal money should never be used to provide artists or academics with a platform (i.e., funding, honor or visibility) for their art, scholarship or political views, if such a platform would be denied to another Jew or Israeli — anywhere in the world. Therefore, I propose that every Jewish federation, foundation and philanthropist that opposes academic and cultural boycotts — and every Jewish organization that receives community funds — enact a simple board resolution or grant policy (and require that each of its beneficiaries do the same), as follows:

BE IT RESOLVED that [name of federation or organization] condemns any attempt or implementation of any academic or cultural boycott of Jews or Israel, or Jewish or Israeli academic and cultural institutions, and will take any and all future action that it deems appropriate to publicize its position on the above, to distance itself from those who participate in such boycotts, and to ensure that it in no way aids or abets such boycotts through its funding programs.

Some boycotters may believe that by participating in international boycotts, they are merely protesting a policy of the Israeli government, when, in fact, they are fueling what the Reut Institute has called the Delegitimization Network, a loosely aligned group of radical leftist organizations and individuals who seek to “negate Israel’s right to exist.” Reut continues that the “effectiveness of Israel’s delegitimizers … stems from their ability to engage and mobilize others by blurring the lines with Israel’s critics.” Unfortunately, as Hannah Rosenthal, U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, recently told a conference on combating anti-Semitism: “Opposition to a policy [of] the State of Israel morphs into anti-Semitism easily and often.”

A resolution such as this would, first and foremost, ensure that these funders — who are avowedly anti-boycott — not unwittingly fund organizations that do not share their values. Second, Jewish organizations have an opportunity to educate and inform the general public, as well as well-meaning, non-enemies of Israel, of the unintended destructiveness of boycotts in fueling the Delegitimization Network. 

A resolution, such as the one proposed, would not be unprecedented for federations or foundations. Today, many impose upon their grantees various obligations, which range from practicing and promoting ethical business practices to maintaining an open and diverse workplace. Some go further and require grantees to commit to principles of pluralism, and some even fund only organizations that express a positive attitude toward the State of Israel.

What can individual Jews do? First, you should inquire of the federations and organizations that you support what they are doing to combat delegitimization and demonization of Israel, and suggest that they institute an anti-boycott measure, such as the one outlined above. Second, individuals who patronize the arts and culture should educate themselves about artists and institutions that support international boycotts.

Think twice before going to a performance or supporting the work of artists like Daniel Barenboim, Stephen Sondheim, Tony Kushner, Harold Prince and Julianne Moore; think twice before you patronize any number of organizations that have allowed their boycotting staff to associate their organizations’ names with the boycott movement: Playwrights Horizons theater, New York Theatre Workshop, the Public Theater and even the New York Foundation for the Arts. At a minimum, do what you can to educate these individuals and organizations — and the hundreds of others like them — about how their actions violate other artists’ rights to free expression and play so perfectly into the hands of Israel’s biggest enemies.

David Eisner is CEO of a financial data company and an active philanthropist from New York. He previously lived in Westwood.

COUNTER-POINT: Boycott the boycotters?

What a wonderful idea. Let us counteract a boycott by engaging in a boycott of our own; let us boycott the boycotters who in turn can retaliate by boycotting the boycotters of the boycott.

There are several problems with the arguments advanced in this resolution.

The opening sentence troubles me: Should we really applaud the announced plan that the Federations and Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) are about to invest millions of dollars to counteract the delegitimization and demonization of Israel. Is there any empirical evidence that this investment of funds will be effective — or any more effective than the dozens of organizations large and small that are currently fighting Israel’s delegitimization? What will they do that others have not tried to do? The Federation is dealing with it.  Perhaps the money could be better spent by feeding the hungry in Israel and at home and teaching the young.

I have been in Jewish public life for more than three decades and have seen these fads come and go; these expenditures have usually been ineffective, and once they have given the funders a sense that “we are doing something about the problem,” they are usually buried quietly, having achieved exactly nothing.

The final sentence of that opening paragraph is equally troubling, equally exaggerated: The author suggests that there will be an escalation, first boycott the West Bank, then Tel Aviv, then the Jews in New York, Los Angeles and Peoria. Get serious! We’ve been down that road and it was called Nazism, which attempted to get the Jews out of German culture; ironically, the result has been that German culture deteriorated dramatically in its world influence in music, art, literature and science. American culture was the chief beneficiary of this boycott.

The author seems to have little confidence in the quality of Jewish creativity and its integration into world culture. If the English academics were serious about boycotting Israel, they would not use their Intel chips, Windows operating systems, their Apple iPads and iPhones, their cell phones and they would refrain from inoculating their children against diseases major and minor. They are making noise, and our major mistake is to take them seriously. Challenge them to be consistent. Israel is an integrated part of world culture and of the scientific and technologically interconnected global universe. Even its enemies now make use of its products. During the oil crisis of 1973 and 1979, we thought that power in the future would lie in the control of natural resources. We live in a knowledge-based universe, and Israelis and Jews have considerable power.

The issue of delegitimization is not a public relations issue but a question of actual policy not easily counteracted even by slick PR. Republican talking point guru Frank Lutz advised Jewish leaders as to how to package the pro-Israel message. His efforts were somewhat futile.

They cannot compete with what is happening in Israel. When prominent Israeli rabbis announce that Jewish law prohibits renting apartments or homes to Arabs within Israel, we don’t need our enemies to proclaim that Zionism is racism; we have rabbinical rulings endorsing a racial policy that reminds many Jews of German policy toward the Jews in the pre-exterminationist years. Their statement was so offensive that it drew the ire of the prime minister, virtually the entire non-Israel rabbinate whether Orthodox, Charedi or Liberal, and many Israeli rabbis.

When the foreign minister addresses the United Nations and undermines the policies of his own government or when he addresses Israeli ambassadors and undercuts the policies these ambassadors are assigned to represent, what is a PR effort to achieve?

Look at who is being targeted by this resolution.

Do we really want to drive these artistic men and women out of Jewish life? They are not dependent on the community financially or creatively so our only success will be in alienating them. I have known Theodore Bikel for decades. I have marched arm in arm with him to support Soviet Jewry, to rally on behalf of the State of Israel. I have seen him act in support of Jewish causes publicly and privately. His performances in cities across the world of “Fiddler on the Roof,” his shows of Yiddish songs and the way he has comported himself as a proud, informed, passionate Jew have brought honor to the Jewish people; and now this author suggests that he not be invited to Jewish events because he insists that settlements are antithetical to the interests of the State of Israel and to the Jewish people and refuses to perform in these settlements.

I have seen the work that Frank Gehry has done to recover his Polish Jewish roots. I have reviewed his unrealized design for the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem. Do we want to circle the wagons so that Jewish life welcomes only those who endorse the right wing of Likud’s policies and that a rigorous standard of political enforcement determines who is kosher and who is not kosher to participate in Jewish life? Should we read out of the Jewish community talented and committed Jews who do not support parts of the current government policy and who see a danger that the failure to relinquish the territories will lead to the Jews being a minority in the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea? Some of us believe that a two-state solution is the only way that Israel can remain Jewish and democratic, that a two-state solution is as important to Israel’s future as it is to the Palestinian one.

I prefer a Jewish world in which Jews care enough about Israel to be impassioned enough about its policies and its future to shout and scream even while I personally prefer civility. And I prefer a Jewish community that welcomes men and women of talent and of diverse views that contribute to this conversation.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.