Friday, August 7, 2009

A question for those circling the wagons

Generally the members of the local Jewish bureaucracy cover for each other when one of their tribe comes under attack. Most recently, we saw this in the case of the outrageous goings-on at UC Berkeley Hillel, where "community" organizations united to smear pro-Israel student activists and stick up for a clearly incompetent and wrong-headed Hillel leadership.

The reaction of the Jewish nomenklatura at 121 Steuart Street this time around is no different. They're sticking up for the SFJFF, with at most a head shaken sadly at the "mistake" of not better paving the way for communal acceptance of Israel-bashing at the Film Festival.

Here's an open letter from a pro-Israel activist calling out the head of the local JCRC, the self-styled experts in "community relations," on their egregious failure of leadership with regard to the SFJFF.  It will be interesting to see how he responds.

Dear Doug,

As someone who has been quite vocal about her opposition to the “Rachel” event and the failure of Jewish communal leadership to properly address it, I would like to respond to your recent report (forwarded below) documenting the JCRC’s role in handling the event. Then, I would like to ask you a couple of questions.

Although the JCRC was not “a sponsor, endorser, funder or co-presenter of the Festival,” the organization you direct does play an important leadership role in the community. As you have noted in your report, JCRC is respected for the guidance it gives other Jewish agencies regarding controversial community issues. Therefore, having recognized early on that the “Rachel” event was an egregiously inappropriate SFJFF program that could do tremendous harm to the Jewish community, in your respected advisory capacity, I believe you should have advised Peter Stein to do the right and honorable thing, and cancel the event. Of course Mr. Stein did not have to take your advice, but for you not to have offered this advice and urged Stein to accept it, is, from the perspective of many of us in the Jewish community, a major failure of leadership.

In justifying your decision to not press the Festival leadership for the cancellation of the event, you offered a few reasons, chief among them the idea that canceling the film would backfire and lead to accusations of censorship. It seems to me this is an extremely disingenuous claim. For had the SFJFF wanted to show a Holocaust denial movie produced by an “Israeli” follower of Neturei Karta, invited David Irving to speak after the film and partnered with “Jewish Friends of Ahmadinejad” for the event’s promotion, I am certain you would have acted swiftly and decisively to have the event canceled, cries of “censorship” notwithstanding. Such an event would clearly have “crossed the line of Jewish legitimacy,” and been extremely destructive to our community.

So, too, if you thought the virulently anti-Israel “Rachel” event and the participation of organizations that vilify and demonize the Jewish State had “crossed the line of Jewish legitimacy” and would bring harm to our Jewish community, you would have ignored the accusation of censorship and pressed for the cancellation of the event. That you did not, suggests that, as distasteful as you found the “Rachel” event and its co-presenters, you still considered them to be acceptable within the “big tent” of our Jewish community.

And therein lies the heart of the problem: I believe the vast majority of Jews in our community understand that this event and the organizations which promoted it indeed “crossed the line of Jewish legitimacy.” Furthermore, they see your unwillingness to articulate this truth as another major failure of Jewish leadership, one which has certainly backfired, bestowing legitimacy to an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic program, and the groups who promoted it.

I for one feel that if the virulently anti-Israel “Rachel” event is considered a legitimate form of expression in our community, and if organizations which demonize Israel and her supporters, such as the Jewish Voice for Peace (see below for the latest example of JVP’s disgraceful behavior), are considered legitimate in our community, then it is a Jewish community that I neither want to be part of, nor support. Moreover, you would be seriously mistaken if you were to think that my position represents a right-wing, pro-Israel fringe in our community; I truly believe that most Bay Area Jews feel as I do.

This recent controversy has demonstrated to many of us the need for a clearly articulated statement from our Jewish communal leaders about what constitutes legitimacy within our Jewish community. In this regard, I would like to ask you, as director of the JCRC, the following 2 questions, which I would be most grateful if you could answer:

1) Do you believe the “Rachel” event constituted a legitimate form of artistic expression within our Jewish community?

2) Do you believe the Jewish Voice for Peace is a legitimate organization within our Jewish community?

I and the hundreds of blind-copied individuals on this email, as well as the thousands of people to hom this email will be forwarded or who will read it on the internet, look forward to hearing your answers to these questions.

Thank you and Shabbat shalom.

Tammi Benjamin

August 3, 2009



A candid frequent briefing by Rabbi Doug Kahn,
JCRC Executive Director,
for Jewish Community Leadership



One of JCRC’s core functions is developing consensus within the organized Jewish community on issues of vital concern, and then representing those consensus views to the broader community. In carrying out this function, JCRC works closely with Jewish agencies and synagogues to assist them on sensitive community relations issues. JCRC’s expertise is called on regularly and routinely– by our Federations, JCCs, Hillels, cultural institutions, day schools, summer camps, synagogues and other valued institutions.

We are proud that agencies know that they can count on us for guidance at difficult times, and that they can trust that our goal is not publicity but achieving results – most often behind-the-scenes. Agencies also know that we respect the boundaries of decision-making – that the organizations we work with ultimately make and are responsible for their own decisions.

The “Rachel” film and event at this year’s Jewish Film Festival exposed a significant rift within our community and resulted in several hundred emails opposed to and in support of the JFF’s program. Several emails raised questions or made suggestions about the JCRC’s role in responding to the controversy. Because of the unprecedented community reaction to the Jewish Film Festival’s “Rachel” film and program, we thought it would be helpful to share with key community leadership this report on JCRC’s response to the controversy.

“Rachel” and the JCRC Response

This memo documents our efforts – largely in coordination with the Jewish Community Federation – to address the concerns around “Rachel.” It should be noted that JCRC was not a sponsor, endorser, funder or co-presenter of the Festival. It should also be noted that the Film Festival is no stranger to strong criticism over some of its selections in years past, including from JCRC, but this year the criticisms clearly reached a new decibel level.

1) Shortly after learning about this program, JCRC’s Executive Director Doug Kahn called Peter Stein, Executive Director of the Jewish Film Festival, to convey strong concerns about the program and to alert the Festival leadership that there would surely be significant criticism.

2) Extensive conversations with Peter Stein and Shana Penn (who subsequently resigned as President of the Board of the Film Festival) ensued. JCRC had significant concerns about the film itself. At the same time, because 1) we had not reviewed the film;2) it was clear that the Film Festival planned to proceed with the film; 3) efforts to press the Festival to cancel the film would backfire and lead to a major battle over claims of “censorship;” and 4) we believed that it was not the film in isolation but the film combined with the invitation to Cindy Corrie to speak that shifted the program into a more highly politicized event, we focused on the overall “Rachel” program. In the first J Weekly story on the controversy, Doug Kahn was quoted as saying that he had not seen the film but that he believed that inviting Cindy Corrie was a serious mistake. Throughout this period, JCRC worked closely with the Jewish Community Federation and the JCF of the Greater East Bay.

3) Conversations with the Festival confirmed the wisdom of focusing on the overall program. The Festival is an independent organization that is immersed in both the Jewish and the cultural arts community. It has prided itself on presenting a broad range of films that touch on the many aspects of Jewish life in Israel and throughout the world, sometimes critically and pro-actively. Based on our assessment of our community’s general openness to a big tent approach, including through the medium of film and artistic expression, and of what actions might be achievable, we proposed three specific steps to the Festival leadership. We believed that these proposed steps, consistent with our community’s longstanding support of responsible free expression, would help demonstrate that the Festival acknowledged and heard the legitimate criticism with respect to the construction of the “Rachel” program:

a. To offer an alternative viewpoint – one that would convey the extent of concern about the role of groups such as the International Solidarity Movement of which Rachel Corrie was a part;

b. To apologize for not fully appreciating how polarizing the program would be;

c. To acknowledge that lessons had been learned from this experience and that controversial programs would be addressed with much better care in the future.

4) To their credit, the Festival responded positively to all three suggestions, issuing a statement that explicitly addressed these points, and extending an invitation to Dr. Mike Harris, co-founder of San Francisco Voice for Israel, to speak before the film. Mike agreed to do so.

5) For the sharpest of critics, this action was deemed too little too late. We believe, however, that these steps were significant.

· Mike Harris made a forceful statement about the role of Palestinian terrorism and ISM in the conflict. Though some in the audience were offensive in their taunts and boos, Peter Stein made a strong call for civil discourse and returned to the microphone several times so that Dr. Harris could continue his statement.

· The Festival acknowledged that it had learned important lessons. The biggest question is how the Film Festival will address controversial subjects in the future. In that regard, we are pleased that the Festival has asked JCRC along with the Federation to help convene meetings with key leaders to talk through the difficult issues that came to the surface this year and next steps.

6) JCRC played a critical role in persuading the JFF to respond to the criticism of “Rachel.” We could not have played that role effectively had we engaged in a public campaign aimed at forcing the Festival to do something that it was not about to do – cancel the film – or at encouraging community members to boycott the Festival. We are a fellow Jewish communal institution and we want the Film Festival to solicit our advice – as do dozens of other organizations in the community – on key community relations issues. And we want to and will work actively with the the Festival leadership to address programs on controversial issues with much greater care in the future – something that they have already committed to doing.

7) As an organization that promotes civil discourse in our community, we are concerned that too many communications on the subject of the Festival went way beyond the boundaries of civil discourse. As lines are sharply drawn and polarization increases, such communications not only detract from otherwise legitimate criticisms but make it harder to really accomplish the changes that we seek. JCRC is committed to every reasonable effort to protect civil discourse – including vigorous but respectful disagreement. The Festival is an important institution within our community. It does remarkable outreach work and has earned an international reputation as a serious film festival. At the same time, it can do much better in being sensitive to and responsive to our community. And we can elevate the level of civil discourse in our community -- even on issues about which we are so passionate.

8) This entire chapter in our community’s life demonstrates something that JCRC has been observing for some time – that we are in a period of increased polarization and heated passionate debate. From booing by individuals during Mike Harris’s comments, to calls to withhold funds from the Federation even though Federation is not and cannot be responsible for JFF’s individual programming decisions, passions exploded. As we move beyond this year’s Festival, the hard work ahead remains. Our community relations work – including our efforts to expand civil discourse and our broad-based Israel advocacy efforts – has never been more important.

Rabbi Doug Kahn
Executive Director, JCRC
121 Steuart Street, Suite 301
San Francisco, CA 94105

JCRC: Pursuing a Just Society and Secure Jewish Future

The JVP fundraising email that Tammi refers to may be found here.

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