Montreal Jewish Festival Cancels Panels by anti-Birthright Activist

In disinviting Sarah Woolf, Le Mood organizers cite right to deny platform to those who deny Israel's right to exist as Jewish state.

Montreal’s third annual alternative festival of Jewish learning, Le Mood, has been marred by a controversy all too familiar to American Jews south of the border: the limits of free speech and the boundaries of the Jewish community’s proverbial "big tent."

Less than two weeks before Sarah Woolf was to moderate a panel called “Where Are All the Radical Jews?” at Sunday’s Le Mood, she was informed by festival director Mike Savatovsky that her appearance was canceled because of a conflict between her political views — she has publicly challenged the legitimacy of the modern state of Israel — and the spirit of the event as well as the views of its main funder, Federation CJA, the umbrella organization body of Montreal Jewry.

“I was dumbfounded,” said Woolf, 24, a writer and researcher for the Interactive Museum of Jewish Montreal. “This is cut-and-dry censorship. People can be deemed inappropriate merely because they have different options on Israel and Palestine. People are excluded from their own Judaism and their own Jewish identity because of politics.”

After more than a week of pressure from Woolf, who demanded to know why she was being barred from speaking, on October 30 Federation CJA released a public statement saying that it had “exercised our right, as any organization would be expected to do, to draw the line at funding and providing a platform, whether directly or indirectly, to those who deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state.”

Le Mood: The Festival of Unexpected Jewish Learning, now in its third year, is a day-long event inspired by the Limmud Festival that originated in England, which has now spread to more than 60 Limmud events around the world. Through presentations, musical performances, art exhibits and hands-on workshops, the event organizers hope to bring different people together to explore Jewish learning, festival director Savatovsky said.

Woolf says the topics of her canceled panels — respectively, the history of radical Jewish activism in Montreal (such as labor activism) and the city's old textile industry, showcasing the experiences of Jewish garment workers in the early 20th century — had nothing to do with her personal beliefs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Woolf, together with Aviva Stahl and Sam Elliott Bick, established Renounce Birthright. It calls for ending the free Taglit-Birthright Israel trips because of the one-sided view of the conflict they say the trip teaches American Jews.

In an opinion piece on Electronicintifada.net, they write, “We have founded Renounce Birthright because Birthright demands our complicity in two intersecting (but distinct) forms of violence: first, the occupation of Palestine and the Israeli government’s brutal regime of apartheid and second, the erasure and suppression of diverse Jewish experiences and communities across the world.”

Savatovksy, the director of Le Mood, explains the decision to cancel the panels that Woolf had been scheduled to lead. “The festival itself is very diverse. We have lots of sessions that have been critical of Israel. But no organization is under the obligation to bring speakers who are vehemently opposed to its core mandate—individuals who challenge actively and publicly the right of the state of Israel to exist,” Savatovksy said, adding, “We’ve brought people from all over the world, and it’s a massive spectrum of respectable individuals who are coming to celebrate and criticize and be Jewish but our platform is that we have a line and we don’t cross that line." He said that Woolf is welcome to attend as a participant, just not as a panelist.

This is not a case of censorship, Federation CJA board member Rabbi Reuben Poupko told The Canadian Jewish News. “It’s not our responsibility to host people who accuse Israel of apartheid or call for its boycott. That’s where we draw the line, and that’s the case in all North American Jewish communities. It’s very simple.”

But some who do not agree with Woolf’s political views say suppression is not the answer. “In my own personal life, I find that the best way for me to strengthen my character traits is through being challenged by others," said Aryeh Canter, a student who describes himself as an active member of the Montreal Jewish community. “It saddens me to see this baseless hatred, and I hope that both the Montreal and greater Jewish community can open ourselves up.”

Shirli Kirschner