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Jewish Historical Society channels Joe McCarthy, and cancels JVP event on Balfour

on 13 Comments

More tragic news of the reactionary Jewish establishment. The American Jewish Historical Society in New York was set to host a discussion later this month of the Balfour Declaration by civil rights lawyer Robert Herbst, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace, and Palestinian lawyer Jonathan Kuttab.

Then the event came under attack from far-right Israel supporters. David Horowitz’s organization billed the panel as “THE AMERICAN JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY HOSTS DESTROY ISRAEL EVENT,” citing the sponsorship of JVP, which supports boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, and Kuttab’s endorsement of a single democratic state between the river and the sea.

So much for open inquiry. Today the AJHS, whose parent executive has already come under pressure for his non-Zionist views, folded. It posted an opaque statement on its website, cancelling the discussion as well as a reading of a play that deals with the Jewish relationship to Israel.

After further consideration, the American Jewish Historical Society is cancelling the Balfour Program scheduled for October 26th and the dramatic reading of “Rubble, Rubble,” scheduled for December 14th. While the programs themselves may have merit, they do not align with the mission of the AJHS.

AJHS claims to be a scholarly organization. It says: “AJHS illuminates American Jewish history through our many archival treasures, scholarship, exhibitions, and public programs..”

The decision is coming in for scorn on Facebook. Lan Apovitz writes:

Big mistake. Cancelling this event shows how out of touch moneyed interests are with growing numbers of Jews, especially young Jews, who want our institutions to reflect our concerns, values, and politics. I have been an admirer of Dan Fishback‘s work since seeing his play “The Material World” in 2012 (where his knowledge about and love for Jewish history was first made apparent) and have had “Rubble, Rubble” on my calendar for many months. This is hugely disappointing. Luckily, we are in New York City, which has many venues and resourceful, courageous people who actually value critical thinking, debate, and creativity. The Balfour Program also looked great. What a shame.

Yonit Friedman:

Shame on you for caving to right-wing pressure and censoring this thoughtful, nuanced piece of art. As a non-Zionist, proudly Jewish theater artist, I’ll eagerly see Dan Fishback’s work at the next possible opportunity, but I’m going to seriously reconsider any involvement with AJHS.

Shira Milowsky:

I’m deeply concerned about this censorship, the timing of it, as well as the lack of detail in your announcement. Could you tell us more about your decision? It seems to me a play about Zionism and Israel is EXACTLY what we need right now. Even if many people disagree with it! It seems to me we need more conversation, not less. How else do we progress? Please tell us more about this decision.

Dan Fishback, playwright

The Forward‘s Josh Nathan-Kazis broke the story earlier today. The Forward story is aptly titled “Caving To Pressure, Jewish Group Cancels Play By Critic Of Israel.” So many Jews are upset by the censorship.

Fishback is said to be a member of JVP, too. He described his play to the Forward:

The play deals with a Jewish family split over Israel and Zionism. “It’s not a didactic play at all,” Fishback said. “It’s a complicated portrait of a family that’s trying to make sense of its legacy.”

AJHS is a constituent body of the Center for Jewish History on West 16th St. in New York, whose new CEO, David Myers, a scholar of Jewish history, has been attacked by Israel supporters for his endorsement of IfNotNow and the New Israel Fund.

Kuttab is completely impressive. I saw Herbst and him speak at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, appealing to Jews to work with him to bring democracy to Israel and Palestine.

We cannot find a way to live together if we [Palestinians and Jews] continue to hang on to the two ideologies that we started with. We must find a new idea that is worth working towards, and change our ideologies in such a way that acknowledges the other as part of us, as who we want to be… It’s a tall order, I know. But you really must move away from what I call the false view of democracy, which says that if I have 51 percent of the population, I can totally destroy negate crush delegitimize disenfranchise the other.

Shutting out Kuttab and Fishback is another reflection of the primitive state of discussion of the Palestinian experience, of ethnic cleansing and apartheid, that exists inside the official Jewish community. The smartest people in the world are now the stupidest people in the world.

It never ends. A year ago the Public Theater canceled the Siege; ten years ago the Rachel Corrie play was shut down at the New York Theatre Workshop; the other day Greta Gerwig ran away from her criticism of Israel to preserve her Oscar hopes. Apovitz mentions “moneyed interests.” That’s the dead hand of the past inside the Jewish community. But it’s not going away anytime soon.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is Founder and Co-Editor of

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13 Responses

  1. Citizen on October 11, 2017, 1:48 am

    . “It’s a complicated portrait of a family that’s trying to make sense of its legacy.”

    SNL skit by Sheldon Adelson? No? Harvey Weinstein? ………Trump?

  2. JLewisDickerson on October 11, 2017, 5:17 am

    RE: Apovitz mentions “moneyed interests.” That’s the dead hand of the past inside the Jewish community. But it’s not going away anytime soon. ~ Weiss

    MY COMMENT: These “moneyed interests” were considerably empowered by Reagan’s “Morning in America” changes to the tax code back in the 80s. Now the Republicans are planning on doing more of the same under Trump.

  3. Xpat on October 11, 2017, 8:54 am

    “That’s the dead hand of the past inside the Jewish community. But it’s not going away anytime soon.”

    Which invites the question for those Jews who are part of the Jewish community whether to:
    a. give up on the Jewish community and start a new Jewish community drawing in young people (along with older activists)
    b. stay engaged with the Jewish community and do the hard and slow work of moving people one step at a time.
    JVP has prioritized the first option. This is important and exciting work. It makes sense to build up a new generation that is turned off by the “dead hand of the past.”
    However, at this point it’s clear that that alone is not going to be enough to bring about substantial change for the Palestinians. As Phil has reported repeatedly, the established Jewish community is not phased by BDS or any other campaign.

    • Mooser on October 11, 2017, 10:49 am

      “As Phil has reported repeatedly, the established Jewish community is not phased by BDS or any other campaign.”

      And since the “established Jewish community” has mastered the aging process, and eliminated death itself, I don’t see any change coming.

      • Citizen on October 11, 2017, 5:44 pm

        Neither did Harvey Weinstein.

      • Xpat on October 11, 2017, 10:51 pm

        You don’t argue against the premise that the Jewish establishment is critical in maintaining the status quo in I/P + you’ve given up on them changing = the Palestinians will not see justice in our lifetime.
        I disagree.
        Otherwise, what’s the point of this website?

      • Mooser on October 12, 2017, 5:47 pm

        “You don’t argue against the premise that the Jewish establishment is critical in maintaining the status quo in I/P + you’ve given up on them changing”

        Not at all. I keep hoping they will change.

  4. just on October 11, 2017, 5:13 pm

    Why are they so afraid? It makes no sense at all. It’s a crying shame that no conversation is allowed other than pro- Israel, anti- Palestine.

    In good news from Samer Badawi:

    “ACLU launches first major challenge of anti-BDS legislation

    The lawsuit offers the most stark example yet of how anti-BDS legislation threatens Americans’ First Amendment rights.

    The American Civil Liberties Union announced Wednesday that it had filed suit on behalf of a Kansas public school educator who was asked to disavow a boycott of Israel as a condition for payment. The case comes amid growing concerns that recent state-level legislation across the United States is chilling free speech among proponents of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.

    The Kansas law, which came into effect on July 1 of this year, directs the state to “require written certification from all individuals and companies with which it enters into contracts” that they are “not engaged in a boycott of Israel.”

    “The First Amendment prohibits the government from using its financial leverage to impose an ideological litmus test,” said ACLU attorney Brian Hauss. “This law is an unconstitutional attempt by the government to silence one side of a public debate by coercing people not to express their beliefs, including through participation in a political boycott.”

    A member of the Mennonite Church, Esther Koontz “decided not to buy consumer products made by Israeli companies and international companies operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories,” the ACLU said. Her decision is in line with the church’s July 2017 resolution “to avoid economic support for the military occupation of Palestinian territories.” …

    A nine-year veteran of Wichita public schools, Koontz, a math teacher, now develops school curricula and trains teachers. She had been asked to sign the anti-boycott certification as part of her engagement with the Kansas Department of Education’s Math and Science Partnerships program.

    The ACLU complaint asks the court to strike down the state law and bar the Kansas Department of Education from requiring the anti-boycott certification. Legal experts cite as precedent a 1982 Supreme Court decision that reversed a hefty financial judgement against the NAACP for its seven-year boycott of white merchants in Claiborne County, Mississippi. Writing on behalf of the court in that case, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens affirmed “the right of individuals to combine with other persons in pursuit of a common goal by lawful means,” calling that right one of “the foundations of our society.”

    According to Chicago-based Palestine Legal, 21 U.S. states have enacted anti-BDS laws. Of these, the Kansas law appears to be the most egregious for its requirement that individuals and companies certify their stance on BDS.

    Although other states’ anti-BDS laws vary in their severity, most fall into one or more of three categories, according to Palestine Legal. Some, like those introduced in New York, call for blacklists of individuals, organizations, and companies engaged in boycott. Others prohibit states from entering into contracts with these entities. And still others require state pension funds to divest from “companies that boycott Israel,” including, in some cases, “territories controlled by Israel.”

    The state-level campaign to silence BDS activists is part of a nationwide push, backed by groups like StandWithUs and the Emergency Committee for Israel, to combat growing support for the BDS movement — or activists’ right to advocate for it. The drive is supported, in part, by the Israeli government, which, among other measures, has committed millions of dollars to marketing products targeted by the boycott, including those produced on illegal settlements in the West Bank.

    Despite these counter-measures, the BDS movement, which grew out of a 2005 call from Palestinian civil society organizations, has continued to gain steam. The LA Times editorial board last year called boycotts of Israel “a protected form of free speech,” and Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters last month penned an op-ed for the New York Times voicing his opposition to a draft federal bill that would punish BDS supporters with up to 20 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

    The ACLU and other groups have also been at the front lines of combating the federal bill, known as the “Israel Anti-Boycott Act.” Although its proponents have argued that it simply “updates” a 1979 law that prohibited participation in the so-called Arab boycott, Palestinian activists and their supporters have successfully framed the legislation as a threat to free speech. (The US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, for example, offers talking points and further links here.) …”

    A Change Gonna Come…

  5. wdr on October 11, 2017, 6:50 pm

    The AJHS was absolutely correct in cancelling these speakers, who should never have been allowed to speak there. This body exists to facilitate research on American Jewish history- period. It would have been perfectly proper for it to host talks on supporters of the Balfour Declaration among American Jews, or opponents of it- it is hard to believe that they haven’t had talks on these subjects. What they were proposing was to host two extremist, one-sided propagandists, one of whom (according to websites) is an overt anti-semite, to denounce the legitimacy of Israel. This is a totally inappropriate use of the AJHS’s facilities and venue. If the new head of this body, a critic of Israel, is responsible for this, he ought to be fired on the spot. I hope that donors to the AJHS will make this crystal clear.

    • Misterioso on October 11, 2017, 10:33 pm

      Jewish Center Faces Backlash After Canceling Play Criticized as Anti-Israel
      OCT. 11, 2017

      The American Jewish Historical Society is facing a backlash over its decision to cancel two events, after a campaign by right-wing activists who had criticized them as anti-Israel.

      The society, which is based at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan, announced on Tuesday that it was canceling a reading of “Rubble Rubble,” a play by Dan Fishback, and a panel about the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which was co-sponsored by the group Jewish Voice for Peace. Mr. Fishback is also a member of the group, which is part of the broader movement calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, known as BDS.

      The two events, planned months ago, came under criticism from right-wing activists in recent days, as the latest salvo in a wider campaign against the new executive director of the Center for Jewish History, David Myers, over his involvement in groups like New Israel Fund, which promotes human rights and social justice.

      And on Monday night, the board of the historical society voted to cancel them.

      “While the programs themselves may have merit, they do not align with the mission of the A.J.H.S.,” the board said in a statement posted online.

      The decision drew strong criticism from some in the arts, including the theater director Rachel Chavkin, who described it on Twitter as “right-wing censorship.” And on Wednesday morning, Ofri Cnaani, an Israeli-American artist, removed an installation exploring the life of Emma Goldman that she had created in the lobby of the group’s building.

      Ms. Cnaani, in a telephone interview, said while she was not a supporter of BDS, the cancellation of the events demanded a response, especially given that her installation, “For Her Own Good,” explores Goldman’s defense of freedom of speech.

      “When I heard about it, I was shocked,” Ms. Cnaani said. “I immediately thought that to not do anything would amount to supporting this decision.”

      Mr. Fishback’s play, which was to get its first full public reading at the historical society on Dec. 14, tells the dual stories of a settler family in modern-day Israel and a Jewish family caught up in revolutionary politics in early-20th-century Russia. While it explores “how Jewish families are broken over the politics of Israel-Palestine,” he said in an interview, the cancellation was not about the play’s substance.

      “The people who made this decision had no access to my script,” he said. “This was about my beliefs.”

      The American Jewish Historical Society, which holds about 40 million archival items, including the original manuscript of Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” is one of five scholarly organizations housed at the Center for Jewish History. While they share a space, each operates with significant autonomy.

      While the center has strongly supported Mr. Myers, formerly a professor of Jewish history at the University of California, Los Angeles, against his critics, the cancellation suggests disagreement over how to respond to those who have campaigned against him.

      Rachel Lithgow, the historical society’s executive director, who programmed the two events, emphasized that the cancellation was the board’s decision, which she disagreed with but accepted.

      “I don’t like this decision, nor have I liked other decisions that have been made,” she said in an interview. But, she added, “I answer to a board I respect.”

      Asked about the board’s description of the events as out of step with the society’s mission, Ms. Lithgow, who said she had received numerous threatening emails in recent days, said simply, “Our mission hasn’t changed.” (Bernard J. Michael, the board’s president, declined to elaborate on the statement or otherwise comment.)

      Mr. Fishback, the playwright, said he hoped to stage the reading elsewhere, and by Wednesday evening had already raised nearly $5,000 in an online appeal to finance it.

      “I want to use this as an opportunity to shed light on negative effects of silencing in the Jewish community,” he said. “This play will see the light of day one way or another.”

      • JosephA on October 12, 2017, 12:54 am

        And thus, yet again, Misterioso smote the illogical beliefs of another racist (zionist) troll.

  6. Qualtrough on October 12, 2017, 12:08 am

    *The Kansas law, which came into effect on July 1 of this year, directs the state to “require written certification from all individuals and companies with which it enters into contracts” that they are “not engaged in a boycott of Israel.”*

    What in the ever loving world??

  7. James Canning on October 12, 2017, 1:28 pm

    Rather pathetic act by Jewish Historical Society. Historians should be able to comprehend BDS actually can work in Israel’s own true best interests.

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