On Monday, I had to cut short my conversation with the CEO of the Washington, D.C. Jewish Community Center, Carole Zawatsky. Why? My fourth grade students were about to enter my classroom, a space adorned with Stars of David and Hebrew posters, for a lesson on Moses' leadership during the Ten Plagues.
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Zawatsky and I were speaking about why my scheduled book event at the DCJCC had been cancelled due to my political views. During this conversation, she made clear that she wanted you – members of the DCJCC community and beyond – to know that I am a mensch.
She also wanted you to know that my political views are so untenable that the DCJCC could no longer host my "Authors Out Loud" book event, at which I was to talk about the power of reconciliation and dialogue embedded in my memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?
The event was cancelled because, apparently, I had crossed a red line for Zawatsky. Now, this line wasn't crossed when I wrote that, as a progressive Zionist, I long for Israel to thrive as a Jewish, democratic state. Nor was it crossed when I wrote about my desire for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be resolved via a two-state solution. However, I crossed a red line upon writing that I view economic sanctions as a legitimate form of nonviolent protest for Palestinians to use, despite my opposition to some tactics used by the BDS movement and its implicit goal of a binational state.
It's a view I hold with regard to the United States and its sanctions against Iran, a view I hold in general to be unimpeachable: the legitimacy and preference of nonviolent forms of opposition, such as sanctions, over war and violence.
Apparently, it's also a view which will prohibit me from speaking before the DCJCC community – a community I have long respected both for its intellectual depth and the compassionate way in which my wife and I were embraced after the 2002 Hebrew University bombing, which is at the heart of my book. So how could such an intellectually honest and compassionate community view me, a Jewish studies teacher and progressive Zionist, as someone who should stand outside the community? Zawatsky's stated rationale is that the DCJCC will not "provide a platform for discussion of boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel."
But this rationale doesn't stand up to scrutiny. My memoir, about which I was invited to speak, chronicles my reconciliation with a Palestinian family, and not any such political issues. Additionally, not once in any of my appearances at Hillels, JCCs and synagogues around the country have I mentioned BDS, nor have any of my appearances become a "platform" for such issues. Why? They're not relevant to the topic of my narrative.
Clearly, something else is at play here, and that something is a broader crisis currently plaguing the American Jewish community, wherein Jewish institutions are attempting to constrict dialogue by deciding who can, and cannot, speak about Israel based upon narrow and self-defeating "pro-Israel" guidelines. It's a problem at Hillel International, and now – as much as it pains me to say it – a problem in one of the most dynamic Jewish communities that exists in the States.
Recently, William Daroff, the director of the Jewish Federation's D.C. office, wrote that I, and others like me, should be placed outside the Jewish communal tent for political views that stand "outside the bounds of legitimate discourse." Inexplicably, the DCJCC is now concluding similarly by disinviting me to speak.
If someone like me should be placed outside the Jewish communal tent, consider the hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of liberal or progressive Jews who would similarly be exiled, since they too would be standing "outside the bounds of legitimate discourse."
I want to be clear: This is not an issue of free speech. The DCJCC has a right to host whomever it likes. The issue is the communal damage being done by Jewish institutions that, out of misplaced or irrational fear, are refusing to engage with some of our most difficult and pressing issues, content to cast valuable members from the communal tent rather than expand that tent.
My professional life has been devoted to the Jewish people. I love the State of Israel. Unfortunately, I am also now forbidden from sharing that love, and my message of reconciliation, with the DCJCC community as part of a sanctioned event. If you live in D.C., and would like to dialogue, my door is always open. I wish the same could be said for the leaders of your Jewish institutions.
David Harris-Gershon is a blogger for Tikkun Magazine and a day school teacher. He is the author of What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, recently published by Oneworld Publications.