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An eye toward Zion

On the repression of anti-Zionist (and anti-Israeli) voices in the Jewish community

Correction appended January 20, 2014

When Aaron Lakoff and Sarah Woolf were banned from appearing at Le Mood –“the festival of unexpected Jewish learning, arts, and culture” – they were pretty sure they knew why. Both had been up-front about being anti-Zionist Jews and Palestine solidarity activists, and thought that the festival had pulled their panel because of their beliefs, although an organizer at Le Mood cited “internal tensions” as the cause.

Their fears were unfortunately confirmed when Federation CJA, the organization behind Le Mood, drafted a press release stating that “as broad and inclusive as the tent is at Le Mood, Federation CJA has exercised our right, as any organization would be expected to do, to draw the line at funding and providing a platform […] to those who deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish State […] This is not censorship […] no organization is under the obligation to provide an outlet for the expression of views that are entirely antithetical to its mission.” (Woolf and Lakoff drafted their own press release in response.)

Its mission? To “build and sustain the [Montreal Jewish community] by providing principled leadership, by raising and distributing funds, and by facilitating, incubating and overseeing the delivery of services and programs [for every Jew] […] irrespective of ideology.”

“I was pretty skeptical about the conference, because even though [Le Mood] was trying to portray itself as kind of an alternative, hip conference that speaks to Jewish youth who might be alienated by the mainstream Jewish community, it’s still clear that it was the mainstream Jewish community that’s very institutional and conservative that was pulling the strings,” said Lakoff.

Woolf admitted that “The issue is less about any particular instance of censorship, and more about the general, institutionalized, and utterly pervasive climate of political Zionism has become the status quo within Jewish communities.”

They ended up holding the panel outside the building where Le Mood was happening, where, according to Lakoff, they got double the attendance because of the “stink” their controversy created around censorship.

“The discussion was very rich. Different generations of Jewish activists were sharing their own experiences about censorship within the community,” he said. “In a way it was just a clear example of censorship backfiring, which it always does right?”

* * *

The mainstream media generally looks kindly on Zionism, and unkindly on almost all alternate points of view. For proof, look no further than the coverage of the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last week. Canadian mainstream news outlets across the board reported on all his achievements for his country, how he was honoured at his burial, and how he fought for his life for eight years. Prime Minister Stephen Harper even went so far as to eulogize Sharon in saying that he was one of Israel’s “staunchest defenders.”

“The furthest people will go in criticizing him is saying that he was controversial,” said Lakoff. “Massacres are not controversial, displacing thousands upon thousands of people is not controversial, nor is destroying people’s homes.” Criticism has been scattered, an article by Robert Fisk here, Noam Chomsky speaking out there, but nothing substantial.

Scott Weinstein is a member of the Montreal Steering Committee at Independent Jewish Voices (IJV), a growing progressive pan-Canadian Jewish organization that deals mostly with Palestinian and Israeli issues. “We understand that money doesn’t talk, it swears,” he told The Daily in an e-mail.

“Ideological Zionists control a lot of wealth and hold sway in the mainstream media. […] When the Zionist Asper family owned CanWest media, which owned most of Canada’s daily newspapers, a [Montreal] Gazette journalist told me, ‘We can write critically about anything, except Israel and Palestine.’ Since the Aspers sold CanWest, the media is a little more open to the issue, but we have a long way to go.”

There seems to be a pattern of hegemony which rules mainstream Jewish thought with regards to Zionism, especially within Canada. It’s a hegemony that we can see playing out in Federation CJA’s mandate (an example of an “unelected Jewish elite,” as Lakoff calls them. One simply has to read between the lines of their About Us page). In that vein, is this hegemony responsible for censoring countless Jews who are anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, or sometimes a combination of the three?

In Lakoff and Woolf’s case, there’s no question. But was theirs a one-off?

Weinstein would say that it was not. IJV is one of many Jewish anti-Zionist pro-Palestine grassroots movements that is dedicated to fighting censorship within the Jewish community. “We are in a conflict with the ideological Zionist movement that hijacked our Jewish culture for their political ends. […] We recognize and even highlight the growing division among Jews (which is based solely on our position on Israel).”

IJV’s work centres around exposing what they call the “racially discriminatory” Jewish National Fund (JNF) charity that uses Canadian money to take over Palestinian land for Jewish-only possession. They work to support free speech in public spaces and on campuses, and against the Israel lobby’s censorship of, and threats to, those who stand for Palestinian human rights and the right to criticize Israel.

Their work is not without its consequences. Weinstein said that IJV has been a victim of censorship and discrimination before. “The principal tactic of the Israel lobby to oppose Palestinian rights activists and Jews like us is to censor, ban and slander the activists and our message. […] It is ironic that we Jews used to be known as ‘the people of the book’ – Jews used to be the comics, dissidents, radicals, and scientists fighting censorship – but now the Jewish establishment is trying to suppress dissent.”

Weinstein also claims that Jonathan Kay of the National Post insulted IJV in columns (such as in the article “Jonathan Kay on Jennifer Peto and the new breed of self-hating Jews”), while neatly sidestepping any discussion of the issues that IJV deals with. To top it off, “The federal [government] and some provincial governments have spared IJV directly, while going after our Palestinian allies and coalitions we are part of.”

One instance of censorship in Montreal is when Federation CJA banned IJV from hosting Israeli political activist Jeff Halper at the Gelber Centre, Montreal’s “unofficial Jewish community centre,” according to Weinstein. Halper is the co-founder of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, an anti-settlement peace group based in Israel.

* * *

“It’s bullshit, it’s a cop-out. You know, unintellectual. It’s fearmongering, it’s childish,” Lakoff fired off when asked how he responds to those who call anti-Zionists anti-Semitic. And Weinstein claimed that today’s Zionists are the principal agents fueling anti-Semitism.

“People everywhere can see the Jewish state’s cluster bombs spill the blood of Palestinian babies, Jewish settlers humiliate Palestinian families, Jewish soldiers destroy Palestinian homes, the Jewish National Fund supports Jewish settlements in Palestine, and the Jewish government enacts dozens of discriminatory laws favoring Jews over Palestinians,” all of which could, according to Weinstein, could be responsible for another wave of anti-Semitic attacks if nothing changes.

“I think that whenever ideas start to gain traction, of course they cause fear within the establishment, which has a lot to benefit from those oppressive ideas. And they’ll just come out with whatever kind of fearmongering they can,” Lakoff adds.

Interestingly, some anti-Zionist, anti-Israeli, and pro-Palestinian supporters are actually members of the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. I interviewed Rabbi Yisroel Dovid Weiss, spokesperson for Jews United Against Zionism (some people might know them by another name, Neturei Karta), who wants to make the distinction between Judaism and Zionism clear.

Neturei Karta is one of the most outspoken anti-Zionist grassroots organizations in the world, but not a terribly well-known one due to a lack of coverage in the mainstream media (see Sarah Marusek’s article “Not every Jew is a Zionist but their voices are being silenced,” in which she describes an Ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionist protest of around 30,000 that few heard about because of the glaring lack of mainstream media coverage, and see a video of the protest here). Weiss explained to me that, from a religious point of view, “The mere existence of the State of Israel is contradictory to our Torah.” He goes on to explain that after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon 2,000 years ago “We were forbidden, expressively put under oath by God not to form any type of Jewish sovereignty.”

“While I believe that having difficult conversations about Israel and Palestine with my Jewish family, friends, and colleagues is essential, I also believe that Jewish voices (such as my own) have been given far too much space in the movement for justice and freedom in Palestine”

Neturei Karta’s opposition does not stop there. As Weiss explained, it’s also “the fact that they are displacing [Palestinians], oppressing [Palestinians], stealing and killing. [The Jewish religion states] that we’re not allowed to steal, we’re not allowed to kill, we’re not allowed to oppress people. More than that, our Arab neighbours, our Muslim neighbours, were always a home, a safe haven for Jews throughout history when they suffered in Europe, and the Torah requires of us to always show our gratitude and repay with good, to never forget the good that has been done to us.”

The organization has gone much further in its activism than organizing grassroots protests with similar-minded groups. Spokespeople for Neturei Karta have spoken at the United Nations, and at universities (where they have not been banned or censored). One of the most striking things that they have accomplished is to visit prominent politicians in Iran (meeting directly with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s infamous former president) as well as to visit Hamas in Gaza and offer humanitarian aid to the people there. They’ve even met with high-ranking representatives of Hezbollah “to let the whole world know that they should not consider the Jews their enemies.”

Weiss confesses that they barely get any media attention, and that when they do their organization is ridiculed and trivialized. They can’t call them anti-Semitic, so they are labelled as self-hating Jews instead, he says. “We make demonstrations, thousands show up, we really hardly ever get published if at all. The world doesn’t get it. If the media do cover it, it’s usually with ridicule, slander.”

Eric Caplan, Chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at McGill, told me that Neturei Karta is a relatively small faction of the Ultra-Orthodox community. According to him, the Montreal community considers their anti-Zionism irrelevant. “I think the reason why they get sidelined is because their anti-Zionism is coupled with a very pro-Palestinian perspective. If it was just an ideological sense that the Jews shouldn’t have a state, I don’t think people would care one way or the other.”

“If you’ve been to one of these Israel day rallies, most people ignore the Neturei Karta when they show up – there’s only like three or four people – often not from Montreal. They often come in from New York, so there isn’t much of a major Montreal-based group in the first place.”

* * *

Charlie*, a Jewish McGill student, approached me for this piece. After telling me they consider themselves very active in Jewish life, they continued, “I support the idea and the necessity of having a Jewish state (perhaps not necessarily in the geographical location where Israel currently lies), and support the notion of a Palestinian state.”

Charlie actively goes to McGill’s Hillel (a Jewish student organization) gatherings. What troubles Charlie the most is Hillel’s stance toward Israel, described by them in these terms: “Israel is at the heart of Hillel’s work. Our goal is to inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel and to Israelis. We know that engaged and educated students can become committed Jewish adults who are passionate supporters of Israel.”

For Charlie, there are many other ways of expressing a Jewish identity, especially as a university student, that do not have anything to do with Israel. Like many of their peers, Charlie is afraid to speak their mind at Jewish student gatherings, for fear of “people looking at me like I’m crazy, because Israel is so much a part of what their Judaism is.”

“I also feel deeply conflicted because I feel like I have no idea what’s true and what’s not true, in terms of the propaganda […] I feel that in the world of Jewish education, I’m really not being given any tools to engage in this discourse without spouting the information that was taught to me, which I don’t entirely trust to be unbiased.”

Charlie claimed that the idea of anyone speaking out against Zionism or Israel, or in support of Palestine, at these types of Jewish student gatherings is absurd, and so there is no way of knowing whether someone shares the same beliefs that you do simply because everyone is too afraid to speak up. There may be others like them, but unless others confide in another person in secret, there is no way of knowing. In Charlie’s words, “The Jewish community isn’t really a safe space, at least, not the one I’m a part of.”

“The McGill administration actively collaborates with Israel and won’t support the academic boycott to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian students’ rights to live without occupation,” continued Weinstein. “The Israel lobby has a campaign to stop Palestinian advocacy on campus and has resorted to censorship, banning organizations like Students Against Israeli Apartheid, supporting student government parties that oppose Palestinian-rights candidates, threatening and firing teachers and their academic freedom if they criticize Israel, et cetera.”

* * *

Caplan asserts that discourses around Zionism are not censored in any way within the Jewish community. “I think the reason why you don’t hear that many Jewish anti-Zionists in the community is because starting with the rise of Hitler, and of course culminating with the Holocaust, the vast majority of Jews who were on the fence concerning Zionism reached the conclusion that Jews needed a state,” explains Caplan, “I don’t think that there’s very many [Jewish anti-Zionists].”

Caplan wants to differentiate between anti-Zionism and anti-Israel as two disparate concepts. To him, critiques of Israel are so widespread, and are so heard, that Jewish community leaders feel that they don’t have to serve as a channel for anti-Israel criticism when it’s already happening elsewhere. “It’s not like Jews are having the wool pulled over them if the synagogue doesn’t invite an anti-Israel speaker, because everybody knows the anti-Israel positions – they’re everywhere. I think Jewish communal institutions are interested in giving space to views that only they can foster.”

There’s also an important difference between people who critique an aspect of Israeli policy – who might themselves be hardcore Zionists – and people who deny Israel’s right to exist as a whole. “I know tons of people who are supporters of Israel, and who would consider themselves Zionist, who voice criticisms of Israel, but who voice their opinions within synagogues and who are not excommunicated or sidelined because of that,” said Caplan. “But the community has a different response to somebody whose critique of the State of Israel is this massive blanket critique, that everything is bad such that the state shouldn’t exist.”

Caplan maintains that the McGill Department of Jewish Studies does offer both points of view as well as a wide array of ideologies – when dealing with issues such as Zionism in the late 1800s, and social justice, among others – through the readings and books professors assign to their students.

Caplan affirms that the professors in the department “dont seek to use the information that we have to forward a political point of view. The people who teach these courses will read the books and offer the different points of view and they will say who is making the most convincing case, and students will see from both sides.”

“I feel that in the world of Jewish education, I’m really not being given any tools to engage in this discourse without spouting the information that was taught to me, which I don’t entirely trust to be unbiased”

He is an advocate of nurturing vibrant and productive discourse around Israel, stating that there is nothing wrong in believing a country can make mistakes, “We can criticize Canadian policy, like I can say that Canadian policy to the Aboriginals [sic] is historically a tremendous problem and requires a response. That doesn’t mean I’m anti-Canadian. That also applies to Israel.” Caplan wants people to see the whole picture. According to him, it is problematic when people only focus and criticize the negative aspects of Israeli policy without considering all the positive parts. “If you see the whole picture, I think it’s a healthy thing.”

“[People] fail to understand the real challenges that Israel faces when it comes to the Arab world. If Canada had on its borders a variety of countries in which there were strong radical elements that seek its destruction, it would respond to these countries in a way that is probably not all that different – you know in basic thrust – as what Israel does,” is one of Caplan’s responses when asked what critiques of Israel he doesn’t particularly enjoy.

He later admits that people have “an unusual fascination” with Israel and everything that it does, adding that “There are so many places in the world [where] the actions of governments are so much more reprehensible than what Israel is doing, and we don’t talk about it […] so yes I would like to see some balance. If not, I think its a distortion of reality.”

* * *

Being a native Lebanese citizen myself, I thought that Caplan’s argument bordered on apologist, and that censorship within the community is a concrete issue that has yet to be dealt with. Lakoff has some advice for journalists who, like me, want to try to combat some of this censorship.

“[Journalists should be] giving voice to the voiceless […] trying to shed light on what Ariel Sharon actually did, or what the Israeli administration continues to do on a daily basis.” Lakoff later added that “The biggest thing is not buying into the myth of objectivity; there is no unbiased media, and I think that what we really need is media that is going to challenge the status quo, and actually be a counterbalance to power.”

“While I believe that having difficult conversations about Israel and Palestine with my Jewish family, friends, and colleagues is essential, I also believe that Jewish voices (such as my own) have been given far too much space in the movement for justice and freedom in Palestine,” Woolf said.

“Censorship of anti-Zionist Jewish voices is undoubtedly a major problem within this community, and I am more than willing to call it out; however, I firmly believe that the struggles anti-Zionist Jews face within our community are a related but ultimately secondary issue compared to the very central issue of the pursuit of justice and freedom for Palestinians.”

“The only polite response to injustice is to resist and to speak the truth,” Weinstein wrote to me. “The civil rights, feminist, and gay movements taught us that silence is a form of violence, and that resistance needs to be creative, flexible, playful, and beautiful.”

*name has been changed

In an earlier version of the article, The Daily referred to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as President Sharon. The Daily regrets the error.