Chutzpa. That’s the word that described all three ancestral change-makers whose stories were told at “Reclaiming Jewish Activism,” a panel discussion held at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav last Thursday, May 24th, that brought together three Jewish activists, including me, to speak about our ancestors who inspire us to action. But while our ancestors had chutzpa – as in, they were audacious, and had the nerve to speak up for justice – the original event host’s withdrawal of its invitation to hold the panel illustrated the negative chutzpah in our own Jewish community: the audacity to silence dissent and meaningful dialogue.
Speaking to a packed audience at Sha’ar Zahav, the three of us panelists brought our ancestors into the room through presentations of anecdotes, pictures and chronological narratives. Author and Jeremiah Fellow Julie Gilgoff wove her own family history into that of Red Diaper babies who witnessed their parents’ persecution during the McCarthy era. She paid tribute to her grandfather Max Gilgoff, who died by a sudden heart attack while being interrogated for his political activism. Author Elaine Elinson brought the suffragist movement into the room through the stories of Selina Solomons, a young Jewish suffragist who, in the first decade of the 20th century, atypically organized working class women to walk precincts, and even had her own restaurant to feed these shop girls. I spoke about my great-uncle, Joseph Abileah, a talented musician and Israeli pacifist who was the first conscientious objector in Israel in 1948 and dedicated his life to efforts for reconciliation and a unity government in Israel and Palestine. Max, Selina and Joseph all had the audacity to go against the grain of their day and speak up for their values – now that’s chutzpa of the best kind!
Following our presentations we held a lively discussion with moderator Shoshana Simons of the California Institute for Integral Studies. Audience members asked questions and simultaneously shared stories of their own inspiring ancestors. Respectful questions and comments sparked dialogue on intergenerational organizing, activism and personal life balance, modern-day issues, courage, fear, and many other topics. The audience created an “ancestor tree” by writing the names of their ancestors and their inspiring qualities on post-its that were posted to the wall. Absent from the room was any kind of attack on the positions of the ancestors or the panelists. (Hear the full panel presentations in the audio recording here and see video of my presentation here.)
Are Jewish Social Justice Activists Kosher?
Discussing Jewish social justice advocates sounds harmless enough, if not inspiring and engaging, right? Wrong. Diana Scott, chair of the Bay Area Branch of Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and lead organizer of the event, received notice from the Library that it would not host the panel due to concerns about my presence. Later, a spokesman for the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Library’s parent organization told Scott and Susan Lubeck of Bend the Arc, event co-sponsor, that it was the BJE’s own decision: given my support for the boycott of settlement products and vocal opposition to human rights violations in Israel and Palestine, my presence on the panel might generate a great deal of controversy that would make for an unmanageable event. However, it is widely known that the Jewish Community Federation, under its revised 2010 guidelines, prohibits grant recipients from associating with organizations and individuals who oppose Israeli violations of human rights. And the BJE receives substantial funding for a range of programs from the Federation’s endowment fund.
The organizers and panelists faced a decision: continue the panel without me or find an alternate venue. They chose to take a stand against censorship and find another location within the SF Jewish community. And we panelists drafted a letter that we sent to Howard Freedman, Director of the Jewish Library, and to David Waksberg, CEO of the Bureau of Jewish Education, as well as to Rabbi Douglas Kahn, ED of the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), and Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund. We did not receive a written response to this letter. The irony of our panel being censored while one of the panelists was to be discussing life under the Red Scare era did not go unnoticed. In our letter we stated, “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.”
Our letter continued, “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.” Not only is excluding this dialogue a harmful tactic that stifles free speech in our community, it also seems to be a losing strategy if the goal is to silence dissent. After our letter to the Library became public, it became the source of local media attention who likely would not have covered the event had there not been a controversy surrounding it.
The J. Weekly, Northern California’s largest Jewish newspaper, published a feature article on the panel cancellation and relocation. The San Francisco Bay Guardian published two stories about the panel, the second of which was an in-depth look at what they coined as the “state of debate” in the Jewish community. The news coverage prompted discussions on censorship and certainly increased the attendance at the event. So in the end the event was held in a Jewish space with a larger audience, more press coverage, and a rousing chorus by all of the Yiddish unity song, “Ale Brider, Ale Shvester”!
What the Federation Didn’t Want You to Hear
So what was so controversial about my great-uncle Joseph Abileah anyway? Joseph had the chutzpa to believe in the power of nonviolence. He grew up in the family music shop in Haifa, Palestine in the 1920s and played music with Jews and Palestinians alike. His father, Ephriam, was a spiritual Zionist and as such he thought it was important to build a Jewish nation side by side with the indigenous Arab population. Joseph was a virtuoso on the violin but wanted to play the viola because that instrument was responsible for creating the harmony, and this desire to harmonize extended into his later peace work. His work in the 1930s with the British Mandate Survey Department and subsequent field camps afforded him the opportunity to learn colloquial Arabic, make many Palestinian friends and form a connection to the land that seemed to tap into deep biblical roots. He looked at the Jordan River not as a border, but as a vein running down the heart of a unified country.
Joseph told a story of one of his wanderings in which he was confronted by an Arab man wielding a wrench over his head, fearing that Joseph might have a bomb in his knapsack. Knowing he was in some danger yet not fearful of the man, Joseph reached into his pack and took out some chocolate and said “Please, my brother, help yourself.” Immediately the wrench was lowered when the man saw that he was not in danger to himself nor in the presence of an enemy. From this Joseph was convinced that trusting your heart can lead to good action. Time after time his life was saved from difficult situations by asserting the power of love.
Over time he underwent a transition from a feeling of humanitarian interest in the plight of the Arabs to an understanding of the systemic oppression within the structure of the government. In 1948 he became the first conscientious objector in what was becoming the state of Israel. It followed naturally from his love for Jews and Arabs alike and his steadfast commitment to nonviolence that he would take such a stand. One of Joseph’s major contributions was his memorandum to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP) which recommended rejecting the partition plan and put forth a proposal for unity government between Jordan, Palestine and Israel. He was later asked to testify at the UN about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.
I think Joseph might find hope in some of the modern-day peaceful organizing happening within Palestinian society and nonviolent economic pressure campaigns internationally. For example, earlier this month we witnessed a historic victory when nearly 2,000 Palestinian political prisoners who had been on a hunger strike for over a month, and some for over 77 days, nonviolently compelled the Israeli government to meet their human rights demands: to allow family visits for prisoners from Gaza, end the policy of solitary confinement, and significantly reduce and limit the use of detention without trial, also known as administrative detention. Nonviolent action has power.
As Anthony Bing wrote in the biography of Joseph, “Many people have called Joseph the ‘Jewish Gandhi’ but in fact he was an ordinary man doing an unthinkable things… Learning about Joseph, we might better understand how we could transform our own life.” I’ve been unconsciously following in Joseph’s footsteps for much of my adult life, starting with organizing social justice projects in high school as a Diller Teen Fellow through the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, and growing to become a human rights major in college and an activist opposing US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But here’s how I really got to know Joseph: One year ago (to the day on the night of the panel), on May 24, 2011, I was in the Capital gallery witnessing Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to a joint session of Congress. Feeling the need to speak up for human rights in that key moment, I stood up and stated loudly, “Equal rights for Palestinians” and was subsequently assaulted by a member of the audience. News of my action spread quickly and my inbox was flooded with supportive messages. But in between the generic emails and texts, I was surprised to find a handful of messages from people asking, based on my last name, if I was related to Joseph Abileah.
In preparing for the panel I followed up with these people. They are Palestinians, Jews, and peace activists, and they shared with me the ways that Joseph had transformed their life forever. The consistent comment that I heard repeated over and over was that Joseph was a man of great respect and decency who lived by example, whose personality created an atmosphere of trust around him.
Here is a story to illustrate the point: Joseph is said to have failed his driver’s license test over 40 times! Every time he got to an intersection he would let everyone else go first. Since there were no stoplights in early Israel, he waited forever. And so it was that he ended up on a scooter, which he used to get from village to village, weaving communities and stories and breaking bread with strangers soon to be friends.
You could say that Joseph also failed at creating a broad based pacifist movement in Israel, but I don’t think that’s the measure of his legacy. Houses continue to be destroyed and olive trees bulldozed, though Joseph tried to stop the demolition. But perhaps the means are the ends, the process is the realization of the dream, and there is the light of Joseph’s steadfast hope and determination that we can carry forward.
Allan Salomonow, a trusted friend of Joseph’s and an organizer with the American Friends Service Committee, best summed up Joseph to me over coffee in San Francisco last week: “He was gentle, soft spoken and had a lot of chutzpa.” May all of us change makers have such attributes.
Censorship Amps Up Our Voices
The censorship of this panel by the Library is not unlike what happened last year, when the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art cancelled an exhibit of children’s art from Gaza at the 11th hour after receiving substantial pressure from the East Bay Federation and JCRC. The small exhibit, which would have been seen by mere hundreds and might not have received so much press attention, became a national story of censorship of children’s art, and when the exhibit appeared at an alternate venue it was well-attended and is now on tour to venues nationally. It sparked the publication of a book of stories about the artwork and the controversy galvanized people to get engaged in the issue who otherwise may not have taken a stand on Middle East politics.
It should be clear by now that repression of “dovish” voices in our community is not a winning strategy. As we wrote in our letter to the Library, “[Federation guidelines are] ultimately ineffective in suppressing dissent, and, paradoxically, undermine the values and mission of some of our most cherished Jewish institutions.” It is time that heavy-weight funders of Jewish institutions step back from imposing their views on our entire community, and allow us all to choose which voices we would like to hear. We must continue to push back against blacklisting in the Jewish community.
In 2010 the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council published the restrictive funding guidelines, and 72 Bay Area rabbis, intellectuals, artists and other leaders responded with an “Open Letter” in The Forward on March 10, 2010.
Here’s an excerpt: “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.”
One week before our panel discussion, New Israel Fund held “Love, Hate and the Jewish State,” an evening event in San Francisco that drew out over 100 young Jews to talk about Israel. Earlier this spring Young Jewish Proud, the youth wing of Jewish Voice for Peace, held “Go and Learn: BDS Education in Jewish Communities” an event that engaged young Jews in a discussion about the Palestinian-led nonviolent movement for justice, equality and freedom, and a critical look at the tactics of boycott and divestment throughout social movements from the past century. This past weekend at Wilderness Torah’s Shavuot on the Mountain, an all-night learning event and camp-out that I attended, there was also a lively dinnertime discussion on Israel and Palestine, from the standpoint of what paralyzes people from taking a stand, or what inspires them to action. Events such as these offer an opportunity for young Jews to engage on the issues in safe spaces, and we need to keep creating more of them.