We recently had an opportunity to see how Jewish establishment groups in St. Louis exercise power in an attempt to control public discussions on Palestine/Israel. It was quite informative and is worth looking at in detail.
In March, the Missouri History Museum canceled a planned presentation with fewer than two days’ notice. The presentation, entitled “From Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine: Solidarity and Collaborative Action,” was organized by the Washington University student group AltaVoz. Although the program had been scheduled for over six weeks, and advertised for nearly two weeks on the official museum website, Museum Director Frances Levine personally made the decision to stop the event as planned. Articles in the St. Louis Jewish Light and email records given to St. Louis Jewish Voice for Peace in response to a Sunshine (FOIA) request to the public institution help illuminate the details of what happened.
Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) Executive Director Batya Abramson-Goldstein wrote to Levine shortly before she canceled the event, expressing concern about the inclusion of Palestinian voices on the panel. Abramson-Goldstein claimed to be worried about how to answer to people who were writing to her and what to tell both the Jewish Federation and the Board of the JCRC, which was meeting that day. During the course of the day, both Levine and History Museum Managing Director of Community Education and Events Melanie Adams communicated multiple times about the situation with Abramson-Goldstein as well as Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Regional Director Karen Aroesty.
The Museum put out a statement claiming that “the issue was never with talking about Palestine. The issue was with adding a third topic to the discussion.” This statement was a lie. The museum did not tell the students that one of the three issues must be removed. Talking about Palestine was the problem, as revealed by this email from Adams to Abramson-Goldstein:
“am still waiting to hear back from the student. At this point I have given them two options. Remove the Palestine group from the program or find another location. Based on their initial response I think they are going to find another location. I will let you know when I hear from him.”
Levine states in the Jewish Light interview that the JCRC Director never directly asked her to do anything, but that she decided on her own to take action once Abramson-Goldstein brought the issue to her attention. This statement ignores the power dynamics at play given the extensive links between the History Museum, the Jewish Federation and Frances Levine.
At least five members of the Missouri History Museum’s Board of Trustees either have served on the Board of Directors or have been major donors of the Jewish Federation, which funds JCRC. The Jewish Federation and the JCRC have close ties with the State of Israel and they openly see one of their core missions as defending Israel from criticism.
The Jewish Federation also funds the Jewish Light, which has published no fewer than four glowing pieces by or about Levine — who is herself Jewish — in the one year that she has lived in St. Louis. The most recent piece gave her space to present her views on the recent controversy with the panel, where she explained her decision this way:
“By the time I saw it on March 17, my concerns were: Have we lost that first message? Have we lost that message of community policing in Ferguson? And the student protests over Ayotzinapa. Those are two terrible tragedies. And, could we bring it back to that?”
Levine is able to recognize the predatory and racially biased criminal justice system of Ferguson as a tragedy. She is able to see the massacre of students in Mexico as a tragedy. But somehow when Palestinians deal for sixty-seven years with the theft of their land and water, house demolitions, military detention of children with no due process, extrajudicial assassinations, military checkpoints, the uprooting of their crops, the degradation of their culture, and the turning of their cities into walled ghettos, this does not also count as a tragedy.
She then says, “I could understand the timeliness of Ayotzinapa, but I felt like the Palestinian voices needed their own [forum, with a] plurality of voices.”
On the exact same day that Levine demanded the removal of Palestinian voices from the panel, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was reelected after a high-profile campaign in which he promised never to accept a Palestinian state while appealing to the racism of Jewish Israelis by explicitly portraying the phenomenon of Palestinians inside Israel using their right to vote as an existential threat. This is the context in which Levine claimed that the issue wasn’t timely enough.
And what does Levine mean when she says that a forum on Palestine needs a “plurality of voices”? We get a good sense of this by looking at the emails obtained from the Sunshine request and by comparing and contrasting the museum’s handling of the solidarity panel with their protocol for other programs.
Very shortly after canceling the students’ program, Adams writes to Aroesty of the ADL (which in 2011 paid for then St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch to go to Israel to learn about “counter-terrorism” from Israeli police and military):
“In light of the current situation, we would like to plan a program that looks at the history of Palestine and Israel. We would like to work with the ADL and the JCRC to put something together in connection with State of Deception (a program related to the Holocaust and Nazism). Is this something you are open to doing? If so I will try to set up a meeting next week.”
Levine then decides that she and Adams need to have lunch or coffee with the JCRC and the ADL, from whom she seeks guidance on which Palestinians will be part of their new program. Adams writes to Levine:
“This is a discussion with Batya (from the JCRC) and Karen (from the ADL) to help shape the program. Karen said she has some suggestions from the Palestinian side. I am happy to get the suggestions and invite them as well. I do see this probably taking more than one meeting.”
To sum up: the History Museum decided that it is unacceptable for Palestinians to choose the context in which they speak about their struggle for justice. Instead, the leaders of two groups with close ties to the State of Israel are to meet with the leadership of the History Museum to plan the details of a new panel where a Palestinian may speak. Any Palestinian who is to speak will first needed to be vetted by the leadership of these pro-Israel organizations.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s pretend the museum had a Palestinian president and multiple Palestinian donors and board members who defended violence against Jewish Israelis. Let’s pretend the president of this publicly funded museum refused to allow a Jewish Israeli to speak about her experience on a planned panel because it was not tragic or timely enough. How do you think the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League would react? Would they be asking for a new director?
This scenario could never happen. There are no Palestinian groups with this kind of access to power within public institutions, let alone Palestinian groups with explicit ties to illegal activities in the way that the Jewish Federation, JCRC, and ADL are openly tied to Israel’s illegal policies of colonization and ethnic cleansing (in the words of Israeli historians).
This impossible scenario is the exact mirror image of what actually happened, and what happens all the time to Palestinians around the world, including in St. Louis. Many of us at Jewish Voice for Peace were surprised by the museum’s actions, but local Palestinians were not surprised at all. For the Jewish Federation, JCRC, ADL, and institutions and individuals aligned with them — public and private, progressive and conservative — silencing Palestinian voices is business as usual. And when Palestinian voices cannot be silenced, they are paired with Israelis to give the illusion of balance, reinforcing the idea that Palestinian narratives cannot be trusted, that they are incomplete and unworthy without an Israeli to balance them out, to legitimize them.
When the History Museum brought Michelle Alexander to speak about The New Jim Crow, did they invite Rush Limbaugh to ensure a “plurality of voices”? When the museum does forums on women’s rights and feminism, do they make sure no woman speaks without a man next to her to keep things proper? When the museum planned the upcoming State of Deception Holocaust program, did they look for an SS perspective to balance it out? When Levine’s staff approved the panel with speakers from Ayotzinapa, did they insist on getting representatives of the Mexican government and drug lords?
It is only with Palestinians that such “plurality of voices” is required. We must recognize that this insistence on coupling Palestinian narratives with Jewish ones — no matter what the Jewish perspective –is rooted in racism. We must recognize that denying Palestinians agency over telling their own stories — rather than have them told by a person chosen by their oppressor — is a form of violence. We must recognize the behavior of the JCRC — expressing displeasure in a top-down manner about a student program and seeking reassurance from the director that it was being taken care of — as firmly rooted in white privilege. It is this same racism, violence, and white privilege that we all need to resist – from Ferguson to Ayotzinapa to Palestine.