Open Letter to Rabbi Doug Kahn by Omar Barghouti, a leader of the international movement to boycott Israel
Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council
It has recently come to my attention that pending the advice of a working group of which you were a member, the Jewish Community Federation has chosen to itself boycott groups advocating a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) program targeting Israel. As one of the founding members of the global BDS campaign, I cannot but note the irony of your use of boycott as a tool to suppress views that support the boycott against Israel. I can only conclude that you do approve of the efficacy and appropriateness of boycotts, as a non-violent form of activism and a catalyst for change, but condemn them when the change they set out to achieve is related to ending Israel’s occupation as well as its grave violations of international law and Palestinian rights.
For years, Palestinian civil society has been advocating the tool of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, as a means of challenging Israel’s impunity and redressing the wrongs done to the Palestinian people by the violent and oppressive Israeli policies and actions. Wouldn’t you agree, given you in-principle embrace of boycotts, that this effective, non-violent form of struggle is far superior, morally speaking, to the “tactics” of white phosphorous, Walls, siege, forced displacement and apartheid?
However, while we may agree on the methods, I think there we hold sharply conflicting views about who the targets of a boycott should be and what violations of human rights would necessitate such methods. The Jewish Community Federation has chosen to flex its boycotting muscle to intimidate and muzzle dissenters and to suppress free speech by cutting off funds to (and negate the acceptability of) progressive Jewish activists and intellectuals who dare to believe that the Jewish community in the US is not a monolithic herd, and who put their commitment to human rights and their moral consistency obligations ahead of any perceived “tribal” allegiances. Through its sweeping threats, the JCF is in fact attempting to stifle the richly diverse views of Jewish Americans that seek to challenge, via BDS-related tactics, the legitimacy of Israel’s occupation and its egregious infringements of international law and human rights.
Is there any reasonable argument that can justify your position in support of a boycott against a documentary about a brave young human rights activist called Rachel, who was crushed to death by a bulldozer demolishing a Palestinian home? Isn’t it more appropriate, ethically speaking, to call for divestment from the company that manufactures this bulldozer knowing well its use in violations of international law? Isn’t the state that uses such bulldozers, among other means, on a regular basis to demolish thousands of Palestinian homes and impose other egregious forms of collective punishment against millions of Palestinian civilians a more worthy target for boycott?
Those such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu, and many leading international cultural figures, academics, trade unions, NGOs and social movement actors who endorse the Palestinian civil society advocated BDS campaign believe that boycotts ought to be used not to suppress those who reveal the truth and stand up to injustice and oppression but, on the contrary, to end oppression and impunity. Boycotts ought to be used to bring about just peace, security and equal rights for all human beings irrespective of their identities.
Perhaps we can discuss the merits of our respective positions by engaging in a public debate, another hallmark of civil society. Though friends and colleagues in the Bay Area have searched long and hard, they have had such difficulty finding someone willing to debate whether boycotting Israel is justified or not. I turn to you because I see that you at least in principle agree on the appropriateness of boycott as a tactic. A debate, by definition, will allow both sides to be equally expressed without any a priori bias towards one position or the other. One possible title for this debate can be: BDS is counterproductive to the pursuit of just peace in the Middle East. Obviously, your side would defend the motion, while I would oppose it.
There is a room reserved at UC Berkeley’s Law School this Wednesday night, March 3rd at 6:30 If you agree, this will be a good chance to have a civil, mutually-respectful debate before the public. If you cannot make it, I hope that you can suggest a colleague of yours who can participate in such a debate to explain your Federation’s position.
If this is agreeable to you, colleagues in the Bay Area can get in touch with you or those you suggest to iron out the details.
The lengthy campaign paid off
The SF Jewish Federation finally adopts a policy that can prevent it from funding events that demonize Israel and/or organizations that collaborate with groups that try to harm Israel.
Its enforcement remains crucial, yet ambiguous.
The pro-Israel community in the San Francisco Bay Area deserves much credit. After seven months of an intense campaign, its efforts bore fruit: the San Francisco Jewish Federation finally adopted a policy that should prevent Federation grantees from demonizing and defaming Israel and/or collaborating with groups that try to delegitimize Israel, and harm it via mechanisms such as boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS).
Federation grantees that collaborate with groups that try to vilify and harm Israel, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and the extremist hate-group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), will have to choose between receiving financial support from the Federation and continuing to work with and continue to collaborate with anti-Israel groups. If the Federation enforces its new policy, it will no longer fund groups that organize fiascoes such as the Rachel Corrie event (see the two part video expose http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6c-GYSO12pQ&feature=PlayList&p=ED54232C7994EB7C), which tear at the fabric of the Jewish community. The efforts of the insidious anti-Israel groups that try to penetrate the mainstream Jewish community and proselytize impressionable, young, and uninformed Jews will be curtailed.
Additionally, our campaign has energized the pro-Israel community in the Bay Area. Many people who were not involved previously now are active and aware of the significance of their involvement. The growing pro-Israel community has realized that being pro-active produces positive results. It has become much more dynamic and influential in the process. It became evident that remaining steadfast in the pursuit of moral policies on behalf of the Jewish community and Israel produces results!
The leadership of the Federation, whom one would have expected to lead efforts to adopt the necessary policy to deal with the situation swiftly (as any other Jewish Federation would no doubt have done) did exactly the opposite. Former Federation CEO, Daniel Sokatch, (now the head of the embattled New Israel Fund, known for supporting groups within Israel that consistently demonize the Jewish State and the Israeli Defense forces whom they libel as war criminals), and for months his successor, Jennifer Gorovitz, as well as Doug Kahn, delayed and erected impediments to the adoption of effective measures. Instead, they issued pleasant - and some not-so-pleasant, empty statements. They unnecessarily prolonged the crisis for over half a year and caused a grave rift in the community.
To say that federation leaders did not act with alacrity and moral bearing during the crisis is an understatement. Lacking reasonable arguments against the commonsense resolution introduced to the Federation Board on Nov. 19, which would have prevented the funding of fiascoes such as the Festival's Rachel event, Federation leaders initially employed diverse tactics to obstruct its introduction and then its adoption. Everything was done behind closed doors leaving the community in the dark. Information regarding this controversy was guarded as a state secret that must be concealed from the Jewish community and from all the Jewish media (including the J.). Numerous coercive techniques were used to intimidate Anat Pilovsky, the Federation Board member who introduced the pro-Israel resolution well in advance of the Federation November federation Board meeting. Jennifer Gorovitz, the acting federation CEO, even brought a lawyer to that Board meeting on November 19th, who warned the participants that information regarding the resolution should not be leaked to the community. Jennifer Gorovitz falsely accused Anat Pilovsky, who introduced the pro-Israel policy that would have ensured the community that its contributions to the Federation would no longer fund events and/or organizations that collaborate with groups that harm Israel, of leaking information to the Jerusalem Post regarding the resolution.
The SF Jewish Federation leaders seemed to forget that the Jewish Federation professionals work for the community and that the federation Board is supposed to represent the Jewish community. The meetings of the Federation Board were not “Executive committee closed session meetings” in which confidential or personnel matters were discussed where confidentiality would be necessary. Rather, they were board meetings dealing with an issue of enormous interest to the community at large, and into which the community sought to have input. (The community certainly has the right to know what its representatives are doing regarding a critically important issue such as this. In fact, it is the Board members obligation to report to the community that they supposed to represent and on whose behalf they claim to act. The Federation leaders seem to forget whom they represent.
The following is just another example of the convoluted reasoning involved the efforts of community leaders to obstruct the adoption of the needed policy. They argued erroneously that given the fact that Berkeley Hillel groups organized the infamous “Breaking the Silence”, (funded by Sokatch's NIF, this Israeli fringe group libels the Israel Defense Forces as "committing war crimes" and advocates boycott and sanctions against Israel), and because of Hillel's collaboration with the SJP, the adoption of the pro-Israel policy would force the Federation to stop funding Hillel. In fact, the adoption of the policy would have contributed to reforming Berkeley Hillel so it would no longer welcome the leaders of the anti-Israel hate group, SJP, which organized this month’s "Israel Apartheid Week," aimed to villify and delegitimize Israel. One would have presumed that responsible leaders would have supported a policy to force the Berkeley Hillel to revise its misguided conduct and thus reverse the grave situation that exists at Hillel where the SJP is using Hillel and its groups to proselytize impressionable and often uninformed Jewish students and turning them into anti-Israel activists.
Anat Pilovsky--the federation Board member who submitted the resolution and attempted, in all good faith, to reach an agreement on mutually acceptable language with the Federation leadership--was intimidated, rebuffed and derided. In light of what occurred before and during the Federation Board meeting, Anat resigned from the Federation Board.
The failure of the Federation leaders to acknowledge the problem and to adopt the necessary policy sooner damaged the organization and created a huge rift in the community. After months of international media coverage citing the SF Federation's funding of the SF Jewish film festival, which collaborated with extreme anti-Israel groups such as the JVP, as a prime example of the abandonment of Israel by American Jews (see the Dr. Daniel Gordis article http://danielgordis.org/2009/10/18/the-is-have-it/#more-1360), mass community protest and the withholding of many contributions, the federation leaders created a committee to create a policy. The federation excluded from the committee all those people who were involved with the campaign for the adoption of the necessary policy.
In the new policy, any action against perceived violations will be reviewed and overseen by the federation executives who for months employed all kinds of tactics and manipulations to obstruct the adoption of an effective policy to deal with the situation, the same folks who prevaricated for months over the adoption of the needed policy. The language of the policy also leaves its enforcement ambiguous and in their hands.
The true test of the policy, and of Federation leadership, will now be the policy's implementation. The community will be watching.
This report is brought by Natan Nestel a pro-Israel community activist