Saturday, September 5, 2009

Open Letter to Dan Sokatch, CEO SF Jewish Community Federation

Dear Mr. Sokatch;

I am writing because I am disturbed at the direction that the Federation has taken in its support for the SFJFF, of Peter Stein, and of their programs.

I will not recount the damage done by the screening of "Rachel" and of "Defamation", the use of Cindy Corrie, the sponsorship by JVP, and the unfortunate use of language by you, as well as attempts to reframe the issue by Peter Stein. Others have gone over these issues in great depth.

To claim, as you have, that the SFJFF is independent and that you do not interfere in their programming may be technically true, but misses the point. This would be true de facto if no money from the Federation, or any other form of support, was given to them. However, as this is not the case, you are in part responsible for their actions and any harm that they do to our community. And this being America, you of course can do as you wish; you have only to accept the consequences.

It is certainly true that the SFJFF has done much good over the last 29 years, including reaching out to unaffiliated Jews. However, if they are not careful, all of the good done over 29 years will be annulled by a few bad choices. And I speak of really bad choices, not just films that are edgy or present a somewhat marginal point of view.

If the festival selects films based on the politics of their director and executive committee, they have a responsibility to display caution and due diligence. Not every film that elicits opposition is automatically provocative and deserving of a "discussion". I doubt that we would agree to screen a film that defended the practice of lynching (Birth of a Nation), or glorified Hitler (Triumph of the Will). Would Peter Stein claim that these are wonderful films, with outstanding directors (as they were considered at the time), and though controversial, should provide food for thought?. There are some things that are simply beyond the pale, no matter how many persons may want to see them. . The fact that some may like these films is irrelevant; morality is what matters.

You have received many letters from Federation donors expressing their strong feelings, and their determination to withhold support from Federation. I understand you believe that the Federation can tap the pocketbooks of "progressive" Jews who have not previously been involved, thereby expanding your base of donors. Anyone who has been involved in community work, in politics, or in non-profit fundraising, knows that ignoring your base is always a mistake. I suspect that you will lose far more than you will gain from the few, if any, progressives who decide to support Federation.

What to do?

First, you need to stop using buzz words like "diversity", or "depth of feelings and convictions", and start treating members of the community as adults.

Secondly, you need to stop taking actions to defend and promote Peter Stein. Recently, the UJC recieved a nomination for Peter Stein as a community hero; there are strong reasons to believe that the nomination came from Federation. This, along with a letter writing campaign by staffers, must stop. Federation must not take sides in such a volatile dispute, especially when the side that you take is that of persons who do not wish our commuhnity well.

These issues are too important. Your choice of hanging tough rather than recognizing this as the serious crisis that it is serves no one.

I understand that you believe that this is just another instance of a sour dissident group unhappy with Federation, who are balanced by those who support the SFJFF. Let me assure you that those who are upset with your actions are thinking persons of substance, and that this is a much larger crisis than you seem to believe. It is one which you ignore at your peril. Pandering to our enemies (I am not overstating the case) will achieve a loss of respect for you personally, and ultimately a loss of dollars for Federation.

Lawrence W. White MD

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