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How the Progressive D.C. Community Helped Me Defeat the Right-Wing, ‘Pro-Israel’ Silencing Machine

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Crossposted on Tikkun Daily

By David Harris-Gershon (@David_EHG)

On February 6, my inbox was inundated with messages from people I did not know. I’m so disgusted, they read; You’re going to hear from us again, they read; We’re going to fight this, they read.

As someone who has grown accustomed to sporadic bits of hate mail for my progressive views on Israel, I was prepared for the worst.

However, these emails, largely from residents of the D.C. metro area, were messages of support, messages of defiance. They were messages from those who had just learned that the D.C. Jewish Community Center, already under pressure from right-wing organizations and influences on a number of fronts, had quietly cancelled my high-profile book event, at which I was to speak about the themes of reconciliation and dialogue contained in my memior, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

The story of how my event came to be cancelled is a story being played out repeatedly in America today, a story representing all that is wrong with American political discourse on Israel. It is also the story of how the D.C. community rallied to my side, rallied to create a new book event on April 30 at the MLK Jr. Memorial Library – not for me, but for the sake of dialogue, for the sake of combating efforts to tamp down discussion on issues we must confront in the Jewish community, issues we must confront as a nation.

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William Daroff is one of America’s most powerful Jewish institutional leaders. As Senior Vice President for Public Policy & Director of the Washington, D.C. office of The Jewish Federations of North America, a multi-billion dollar organization, his words and influence matter.

When it comes to Israel, Daroff’s views lean right-wing, much different than my own. Despite our differences, though, we have both committed our professional lives to the Jewish community. As a Jewish day school teacher myself and a progressive Zionist who champions the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I suspect we share common ground on some issues.

Which is why I was surprised when, on January 28, Daroff wrote that Jewish institutions in America should ban me from speaking, and that my views on Israel placed me outside the Jewish communal tent.

What views are those? My belief that Palestinians have a legitimate right to use economic sanctions against Israel – Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) – as a nonviolent form of opposition. My view that such nonviolent opposition is exactly the type of peaceful resistance Americans have been clamoring for Palestinians to use.

In response to this view, Daroff wrote:

“I just do not support giving communal hecsher to those who are outside the bounds of legitimate discourse … Your refusal to state your categorical opposition to the BDS movement place you outside our communal tent.”

He also suggested that I send my calendar of book events to Noah Pollak at the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) so that he could take care of things. For those who don’t know, ECI is a Bill Kristol creation, claims to be the most ‘pro-Israel’ group around, and spends untold amounts of money to smear and combat anyone who might critique Israel.

Two days later, on January 30, I received an email from Carole Zawatsky, CEO of the DCJCC, that my book event had been cancelled. She cited my political views as reason for axing a book event which was supposed to be about the importance of dialogue amongst those who have different frames of reference.

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A week after this decision, communal frustration in the District reached a cacophonous pitch when a local D.C. journalist, Sharon Jacobs, sharply critiqued the DCJCC in a Washington Post op-ed.

As her op-ed spread virally in D.C. and in the American Jewish community, and as my voicemail and inbox filled, I got a message from J Street, offering to create an alternate event. Soon, the MLK Jr. Memorial Library joined them in supporting the creation of a new book event. As did Peace Now. As did Politics & Prose, one of the most important political bookstores in the country.

In a matter of days, the progressive D.C. community had rallied together to create an alternate event that will take place on April 30.

I don’t believe that this effort, which spanned multiple progressive communities in D.C., was made for me personally. Nor do I believe I had anything to do with the communal movement which swiftly gathered momentum to combat those right-wing, ‘pro-Israel’ influences which certainly led to the cancellation of my event.

I believe that American Jews, and particularly American Jews in the District, are growing tired of conservative influences trying to dictate what can, and cannot, be discussed in relation to Israel. They are tired of such influences which do not represent the greater American Jewish community. They are tired of seeing right-wing smear campaigns force theater programs to constrict, speaking gigs by respected academics to be cancelled, musical performances to be axed.

They are tired of institutional leaders who want Americans to put their collective heads in the sand and be blind to, much less discuss, precisely those issues we must confront if we have any chance of helping to solve them: Israel’s settlements, the occupation, the denial of Palestinian human rights, the growing Palestinian and international responses to these geo-political issues.

Those of us who are tired, or some of us, at least, will gather together on April 30 in D.C. Yes, I’ll have the microphone for some of the time, but I won’t be the most important person in the room. The most important people will be those who worked to make this event happen, those who are fighting to make dialogue on Israel in America more open, more honest.

Despite canceling the DCJCC event, I invited Zawatsky to join us on April 30. She declined, citing prior obligations. I invited Daroff to join us, but never heard back. I invited ECI’s Pollak, which he took as sarcasm.

While they likely won’t show up, I have surprisingly heard from representatives who will be in attendance from organizations which disagree with my politics. They won’t be there to picket or protest, but to respectfully engage and see what I have to say.

Progress may be slow, but it’s happening. One cancelled event at a time.

David Harris-Gershon is author of the memoir What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, now out from Oneworld Publications. Follow him on Twitter @David_EHG.

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