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Jewish Library Letter

Jewish Library Letter

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Published by Rae Abileah
This is an open letter about the cancellation and censorship of a Jewish social justice panel event at the Jewish Library of San Francisco. The letter was sent to the Library on March 28, 2012 and copies were sent to David Waksberg, CEO, Bureau of Jewish Education, Rabbi Douglas Kahn, Executive Director, Jewish Community Relations Council and Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO, Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

This is an open letter about the cancellation and censorship of a Jewish social justice panel event at the Jewish Library of San Francisco. The letter was sent to the Library on March 28, 2012 and copies were sent to David Waksberg, CEO, Bureau of Jewish Education, Rabbi Douglas Kahn, Executive Director, Jewish Community Relations Council and Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO, Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund.

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Published by: Rae Abileah on Mar 30, 2012
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06/23/2012

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March 28, 2012 Howard Freedman, Director BJE Jewish Community Library 1835 Ellis Street San Francisco, California

94115 Dear Howard Freedman and Library Staff: We are writing to express our deep dismay at the recent cancellation of our panel event, “Reclaiming Jewish Activism: Re-discovering Voices of Our Ancestors,” organized by members of Workmen’s Circle and Progressive Jewish Alliance and originally scheduled to be held at the Jewish Community Library on May 24th. While we have, in fact, succeeded in rescheduling this event at a more welcoming Jewish venue in San Francisco, we find it particularly troubling that an act of censorship has occurred at the Library -- an institution that is supposed to be a symbol of open thought and learning in the Jewish community. Our goal for the event has remained the same -- from our early discussions with the Library last year, through the cancellation in late February, to the present: to discuss work of earlier Jewish activists who continue to inspire the social justice activism of our three women panelists. Julie Gilgoff, author of A Granddaughter’s Rite of Passage: Tales from the McCarthy Era, will discuss Red Diaper babies and their experience of their parents’ persecution during the McCarthy era; she’ll pay tribute to her grandfather, Max Gilgoff, who organized to stop police violence against African Americans in his community, and died of a heart attack while being interrogated for his political activism. Elaine Elinson, co-author of Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California (winner of a 2010 Gold Medal California Book Award), will elaborate on the book’s profile of Jewish suffragist Selina Solomons, who organized working women in San Francisco in 1911, and how Solomons inspired Elaine’s own advocacy for voting rights and other civil liberties issues today. Rae Abileah, contributing author to several books including Beyond Tribal Loyalties: Personal Stories of Jewish Peace Activists, will speak about her great uncle, Joseph Abileah, a Haifa musician who became a pacifist during the formation of the State of Israel. His life’s mission -- reconciliation between Arabs and Jews – is documented in a Jewish Community Library holding, Israeli Pacifist: The Life of Joseph Abileah.

When originally scheduled, this event was considered a good fit for the Library, with its three short presentations anchored in writings that connect progressive voices from the past with a contemporary generation of Jewish activists. Your cancellation of our panel had a special sting this month as we just received your Spring-Summer 2012 brochure in the mail, where our panel was supposed to be listed. At one point, you must have felt that we would have added to your vibrant, provocative lineup of programs from exploring the lives of Jews in Cuba to a tribute to the late Yiddish vocal music performer and cultural activist, Adrienne Cooper. We are now at a loss to understand why you have canceled us based on narrow-minded, divisive guidelines from the Federation. From our discussions, we understand that the event was cancelled by the Jewish Community Library, in consultation with its parent organization, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), and with the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), consultantadvisor to the local Jewish Community Federation Endowment. Federation funds support many BJE programs. The Federation’s 2010 revised funding guidelines, which prohibit grant recipients from associating with organizations and individuals who oppose its strong support for Israel, apparently triggered the cancellation. Of specific concern was panelist Rae Abileah’s work with an organization that opposes occupation profiteering and supports the boycott of products made in illegal Israeli settlements. Ms. Abileah is not officially representing her organization but speaking about the work of her great-uncle, a spiritual Zionist nominated by fellow musician Yehudi Menuhin for numerous peace awards. Six decades after McCarthyism’s assault on progressives and their values, we reassert that censorship by association is dangerous and unconscionable: that it subverts truth, unity, and democracy. Need we point out the chilling effect of the Federation’s exclusionary funding guidelines -adopted in response to criticism of its support for the 2010 Jewish Film Festival, after screening of a documentary about Rachel Corrie -- on dialogue about Israel within our community? The intent and ambiguity of these guidelines, and the threat of arbitrary enforcement, brings predictable – even if unintentional -- consequences. Attempting to block civil public discourse on Israeli militarism in Federation-funded venues here occurs at a time when the issue is foremost in world consciousness; excluding dialogue that might promote healing within our community feeds polarization by demonizing those whose dovish political opinions support ethical Jewish values different from the Federation's. The Federation’s threat to decrease funding support – which one observer noted would ban all major Israeli writers from such Jewish venues – also interferes with our Jewish institutions’ responsibility to engage all segments of a widely diverse community.

These guidelines would prohibit us, as Jews, from hearing, debating, and engaging with opinions perceived as “too dovish.” We join with the large local and national group of Jewish leaders opposing the exclusionary guidelines — including 72 Bay Area rabbis, intellectuals, artists and other leaders — and reiterate their warning (“Open Letter” in The Forward, 4/10/10): “In the interest of human rights and civil liberties for all people, we strongly advocate for unfettered freedom of speech, open-minded public education, respectful discussion, and willingness to engage in that time-honored Jewish tradition of fruitful debate and meaningful dialogue. The Jewish community is riven by a fateful debate over the future of Israeli democracy and the occupation of Palestinian lands. Attempting to curtail that debate will only drive it into the shadows, where it will become ever more extreme. The remedy for controversial speech is not silencing. The remedy is more speech.” The cancellation by the Library of our event -- an inter-generational forum on enduring Jewish activist values -- confirms that Federation funding guidelines do not unite but rather divide us; by attempting to silence dissent and dialogue related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they make that conflict the litmus test for any Jewish discussion. We decry this censorship, and we feel compelled to expose it within the Bay Area Jewish community and nationally. We hope you understand that our critique primarily targets the destructive policies of the San Francisco’s Jewish Federation, instigated at the insistence of several of its larger contributors, rather than the Jewish Community Library itself, or the Bureau of Jewish Education. We seek to make clear that Federation policies, designed to foster the appearance of Jewish solidarity by shutting down the vital exchange of ideas in the Jewish community, are divisive and intolerable. They are also ultimately ineffective in suppressing dissent, and, paradoxically, undermine the values and mission of some of our most cherished Jewish institutions. Sincerely, Rae Abileah, Panelist Elaine Elinson, Panelist Julie Gilgoff, Panelist Diana Scott, Event Organizer and Member, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring of No. CA* *for identification purposes only To contact organizers and panelists, e-mail: <dmscott01@yahoo.com> cc: David Waksberg, CEO, Bureau of Jewish Education Rabbi Douglas Kahn, Executive Director, Jewish Community Relations Council Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO, Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund

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