This week the Jewish world is discussing two incidents in which large community institutions were forced to account for invitations to prominent writers who are virulent foes of Israel. In one case New York’s Jewish Museum was under fire for inviting academic Judith Butler. In another, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, also in New York, canceled an appearance by New Republic editor John Judis. What both these figures had in common was their bitter opposition to Israel. In Butler’s case, she is a prominent supporter of the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement that seeks to wage economic war on the State of Israel. Judis is the author of a book that questions the legitimacy of Israel’s creation in a revisionist history of President Harry Truman’s role in the creation of the Jewish state, as historian Ron Radosh pointed out in the Jerusalem Post.
Taken together, along with other incidents in the last year involving other BDS supporters being invited to Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, the decision by the two museums to let outraged members and donors derail the events is seen as a sign of a wave of repression in the American Jewish community. Sounding a theme that has become a constant refrain on the left, supporters of Israel are being accused of cracking down on dissent. But the issue here isn’t free speech or even whether Israel’s policies should be debated. It’s whether an extremist anti-Zionist minority will be able to hijack Jewish institutions.
The accusation about free speech is a canard. Butler, Judis, and other BDS supporters, such as rocker Roger Waters and writer Alice Walker (who were both invited to the 92nd Street Y last year), do not lack forums to promote their anti-Israel views. Judis admitted as much in an article in the Forward about the controversy. He noted that far from being repressed, Israel’s critics were finding it easier than ever to find forums where they are heard. As is the case with Hillel branches at college campuses around the country that are declaring their willingness to host BDS backers or sponsor programs with anti-Israel groups, anti-Zionists aren’t being silenced. Moreover, the talk about suppression of dissent against Israel rarely takes into account the fact that the mainstream liberal media gives these anti-Zionists equal time on their op-ed pages as well as occasional puffy features where they are portrayed as valiant dissenters even as they are being lionized by newspapers like the New York Times.
The Times can publish what it likes, but institutions that are supported and funded by a broad consensus of the Jewish community are accountable to their donors and the Jewish public. The notion that they should give platforms to individuals who are part of a campaign to delegitimize Zionism and the State of Israel is one that strikes most of those donors as indefensible. They believe their funds should not be used to subsidize programs or promote individuals or produce plays whose purpose is to lend weight to the voices seeking Israel’s destruction.
Those who claim that BDS and anti-Zionism are just another legitimate point of view that deserves a public airing and debate are hypocrites. The BDS cause is one based in a prejudiced view that holds that the Jews are the one people on the planet that are neither entitled to their own homeland or to defend it. Such bias if applied to other groups would be seen as racist. In the case of Jews, the term for such behavior is called anti-Semitism. When combined, as it is by anti-Zionists, with conspiratorial theories about Jewish manipulation of the media or Congress (the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” canard), there is little doubt about the prejudicial nature of the effort.
Judith Butler, John Judis, Roger Waters, and Alice Walker can say whatever they want about Israel in a thousand other, often more prominent, forums than those in the Jewish community. But they are not entitled to have Jewish institutions honor or fund their anti-Israel hate. Upholding that principle isn’t repression. It’s just common sense.