What a controversial panel says about the nature of Jewish discourse about Israel in the Bay Area today
The programming has featured discussions on evolving relationships with Israel and questioned their nuances. But Fletcher says they haven't been able to venture into BDS territory.
"I would love it if we could get to a place where we could actually address that," Fletcher reflected. "And we would want to do it from a balanced perspective. But it's such an emotional issue."
There are practical concerns as well. According to Fletcher, the Federation gives a small amount of funding for scholarships for Sha'ar Zahav's religious school. The money that funded Fletcher's committee's programming came from Sha'ar Zahav's general fund, when there was enough of it. She says that the committee is now operating without a budget due to tight finances. Even so, if the committee's programming were to breech the Federation's funding guidelines, it might put the program in jeopardy.
"To me, that's what's so problematic about these guidelines," Fletcher said. "The guidelines are saying, if you want money from us, we have restrictions on what your organization can do. Even though our programming is not funded by the Federation, because it funds something completely unrelated, it could get cut."
Fletcher also questions that paradigm of "delegitimizing Israel."
"I think this is a term that people who defend Israel use to label people who criticize Israel in a certain way," she said. "Many of us would answer that it's Israel's own policies that are delegitimizing Israel in the eyes of the world. I don't find it a useful term."
Sha'ar Zahav will be hosting the Reclaiming Jewish Activism panel. Davey Shlasko, a member of the congregation who helped facilitate the new arrangement, thinks the concern about Abileah's associations were misplaced.
"I think it is unfortunate that the predicted objection to Rae's other work was enough of a concern to cancel an event that is actually about drawing inspiration from our ancestors," Shlasko told me via email.
But it's in looking back at history that the panel acquires so much meaning. "It is safe to say that living in the United States, Jews have never been more empowered, safe, and connected to the community they live in," mused one source, who wished to remain anonymous. "It is inevitable that with such success, the need to band together changed. The group identity changes. Sometimes it's that fight, that need to rally together, that keeps the group intact."
For Abileah, "the event will be Jewish activists talking about our ancestors." She's upset about the event's cancellation, but not surprised.
"For a lot of Jewish people it can be challenging to speak out against this issue because you don't know where your friends stand on this, or your synagogue or even your family," she said. "There are a lot of people who we say are PEP: progressive except Palestine. My family and community have been supportive, but I've gotten hate mail and threats of violence."
"It sounds like these Jewish institutions that are censoring have so much power, like they're the mainstream Jewish voice. But I think the majority of Jewish Americans want a resolution to the conflict and are opposed to the occupation," she said.
And how does she think Joseph Abileah would react to this situation? "I'd like to think that he would be shocked and hurt by it," she said. "It's sad to see so much fracture in the Jewish community over this issue."