Fight intensifies over what can, can’t be said about Israel in the U.S.

Events are being cancelled and Jews are being ‘blacklisted’ at a troubling rate, even by pluralistic and non-denominational organizations.

By David Harris-Gershon

Israeli and American flags (
Israeli and American flags (

Several months ago, American journalist Sharon Jacobs received a message from the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center that her ticket to my book event had been curiously refunded.

The JCC had invited me to speak about my memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?, which recounts my reconciliation with the family of the man who perpetrated the 2002 Hebrew University bombing, an attack which injured my wife and killed two of her friends. The JCC explicitly invited me due to the book’s focus on the power of dialogue to bridge difficult gaps.

But when the organizers learned of my view that Palestinians’ use of economic sanctions is a legitimate form of nonviolent opposition to Israel, suddenly they no longer seemed interested in championing the power of dialogue. It turned out the JCC had quietly canceled the event because of this political opinion.

As a Jewish studies teacher and progressive Zionist who has dedicated his professional life to the Jewish community, I was naturally disappointed. But soon afterwards, Sharon Jacobs wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post critiquing the JCC’s decision. My inbox filled with messages of support from people and organizations, and some of the most moving notes were from people with political views much different than my own. The MLK Jr. Memorial Library, J Street and Peace Now got together to hold a book event of their own later that month so that I could tell my story of reconciliation in the District.


This public reaction to the JCC’s decision underscores the growing divide between Jewish institutions in America, often influenced by right-wing donors and ‘pro-Israel’ interests, and the larger, liberal Jewish community. It underscores a crisis plaguing the American Jewish community, in which institutional leaders are deciding who should and should not be allowed within the communal tent based upon political views about Israel.

Events are being cancelled and Jews are being ‘blacklisted’ at a troubling rate, even by pluralistic and non-denominational organizations.

A bombastic example occurred in February when John Judis, a senior editor at The New Republic, had his book event cancelled by the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Judis’ book, Genesis: Truman, American Jews, and the Origins of the Arab/Israeli Conflict, is a deeply-researched historical work which examines how President Harry Truman quietly preferred a federated Palestine to two, separate states.

Judis suffered right-wing attacks. The Museum of Jewish Heritage, afraid of the repercussions, bowed to those claiming that his book was not an academic work, but an attempt to delegitimize Israel. The move triggered such a firestorm within the New York and American Jewish communities that the event was reinstated; its director admitted that the museum reversed course to avoid “the ugly specter of succumbing to pressure and giving in to outside influence.”

However, other organizations don’t seem concerned about the ugly specter. Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines effectively bar over 600 student centers around the world from officially allowing a discussion on BDS or hosting those who have ever “delegitimized” Israel or some of its policies. The guidelines also reject anyone who has ever applied a “double standard” to Israel – an amorphous guideline which could apply to anyone who has ever critiqued the state.

Hillel claims to be a non-denominational organization that champions “political pluralism,” yet these guidelines come from ‘pro-Israel’ donors and right-wing interestsincluding AIPAC – that do not represent the views of most college-age Jews or the wider Jewish community. Indeed, the guidelines have sparked the growing Open Hillel movement.

The D.C. JCC, which cancelled my event, has repeatedly succumbed to such pressure. It scaled back the production run of Theater J’s celebrated show “The Admission” after a right-wing, ‘pro-Israel’ group (which was created specifically to railroad that show) successfully pressured the local federation that funds the JCC. It pulled the young musical group “Shondes” from its festival lineup for one member’s views on Israel.


These moves and postures are fracturing the American Jewish community, something supported by some of America’s top Jewish institutional leaders. William Daroff, Director of the Washington office of The Jewish Federations of North America, wrote that progressives such as myself should be cast outside the communal tent for my political views.

Just weeks ago, unapologetically pro-Israel J Street was denied entry to the Conference of Presidents due to its criticism of the State’s policies and support for the two-state solution.

How many hundreds of thousands of liberal Jews will similarly be cast aside by Jewish community for views that its institutional leaders determine to be unacceptable? Historian Gershom Gorenberg recently wrote that, “the American fight about what you can’t say about Israel, and where you can’t say it, will always sound to an Israeli as if Lewis Carroll scripted it.”

This would all be funny if it weren’t so important on a political level. The American Jewish community has a significant influence on U.S. foreign policy with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we are unable to honestly discuss and debate matters of critical importance which hurt both sides – the ongoing occupation, the settlement enterprise, the continued suppression of Palestinian human rights – we will be unable to help solve them.

Judis thinks the conversation is widening in America. If he is correct, it is not due to our institutional Jewish leaders.

David Harris-Gershon is a blogger for Tikkun Magazine, a Jewish day school teacher in the U.S. and author of the memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?

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Book review: ‘What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?’