What a controversial panel says about the nature of Jewish discourse about Israel in the Bay Area today
The next year was declared by some Jewish leaders to be the Year of Civil Discourse. The Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the self-described "central public affairs arm of the organized Bay Area Jewish Community," organized a year of programming and discussion, with an aim to "elevate the level of discourse in the Jewish community when discussing Israel." The J Weekly, the magazine of the Jewish Bay Area, reported that "[organizers] agree that the Year of Civil Discourse was a success," though these organizers acknowledged their work was far from over.
Indeed, the controversies rage on. Two months before the Year of Civil Discourse officially ended Dec. 13, the Museum of Children's Art in Oakland canceled an exhibit, "A Child's View from Gaza", that would have showcased drawings by Palestinian children, after pressure from Jewish organizations.
The director of the JCRC, Doug Kahn, became a spokesperson against the exhibit, butting up against groups like the Middle East Children's Alliance and Bend the Arc (formerly Progressive Jewish Alliance). In March, an event that would have featured author and journalist Peter Beinart lost support after the JCC of the East Bay learned that one of the event's moderators was on the board of Bend the Arc. Add this panel to the mix, and the six months since the Year of Civil Discourse ended have proven how taboo topics like BDS and Israeli violence in Palestine remain volatile.
BDS in particular has emerged as an untouchable issue. The campaign is a result of a 2005 Palestinian call for boycott and divestment from Israeli companies, and economic sanctions on Israel. BDSmovement.net, which provides news and background information regarding BDS efforts, lists three goals to the protest: "Ending [Israel's] occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall; recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194."
The campaign has seen effects worldwide. Abileah has organized to promote BDS, in particular working to get Bay Area stores to stop carrying Ahava, skin-care products made in what she calls an illegal Israeli settlement in Palestine.
The BDS campaign is "a tried and true nonviolent tactic to get the Israeli government to uphold international law," Abileah told me. "We decided to be in solidarity."
But some Jewish leaders feel BDS goes too far.
"The term delegitimizing Israel refers to the intent to eliminate the Jewish and democratic State of Israel by portraying it as an illegitimate nation," Kahn wrote in an email. "The boycott/divestment/sanctions movement's leadership has made clear that this is their ultimate agenda and one of the movement's explicit objectives would achieve that aim resulting in a dire threat to nearly half of the world's Jewish population that lives in Israel."
BDS is mentioned several times in the Federation funding guidelines, and stands out as the only specific example of what it means to "undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel."
ISOLATE THE EXTREMISTS
But organizations like the Federation and the JCRC aren't the only ones interested in the path that Israel-Palestine discourse among Bay Area Jews takes. The Reut Institute, a think tank based in Tel Aviv, "has been committed to responding to the assault on Israel's legitimacy since 2008," according to the introduction to its 2011 report: "San Francisco as a Delegitimization Hub."