Here is a sad story about the way the Philadelphia Jewish community is using its energy and resources: battling any criticism of Israel in the local press.
Last Thursday, Philly.com, the website for two Philadelphia newspapers, published an op-ed piece by Susan Abulhawa, the Palestinian novelist, protesting the fact that the Philadelphia Orchestra was planning a trip to Israel with patrons to celebrate the country’s 70th anniversary, even as Israel has been slaughtering unarmed protesters in Gaza.
Abulhawa said that more than 100 musicians and activists along with 35 social justice organizations had sent a letter to the orchestra urging it to cancel the trip, but the orchestra’s co-presidents, Ryan Fleur and Matthew Loden, dismissed the appeal in a short letter.
One of the things mentioned in our letters was a scheduled dinner with [Culture Minister] Miri Regev, a politician who once referred to African asylum-seekers as “a cancer” and later apologized to cancer patients for the association. She said, “Heaven forbid … I did not compare them [Africans] to human beings.”
The itinerary (open to orchestra members and patrons joining the trip) boasts multiple visits with military personnel, including a “VIP visit to an IDF [military] base.” This is the same military that has killed 40 Palestinians and wounded 5,000 more in the span of just four weeks….
Fleur and Loden claim neutrality, invoking lofty verbiage like “cultural diplomacy,” “brotherly and sisterly love,” and “peace and tolerance.”
When Abulhawa’s op-ed appeared, the Israel lobby in Philadelphia flew into action. “The Jewish Federation, our JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council], the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Philadelphia Orchestra immediately began communicating on a strategy for a strong and best possible response,” Naomi Adler, the CEO of the Jewish Federations, wrote in a letter to the Board of Rabbis in Philadelphia.
Please bear in mind that the Jewish Federations is a sponsor of the orchestra’s trip, and that its ceo, Adler, is close to David Cohen, a donor to many institutions and a top exec at the largest cable company in the world, Comcast, which owns MSNBC; and that David Cohen and his wife Rhonda have run fundraisers for the Jewish Federations, and Cohen is a former vice chair of the Federations.
Adler characterized Abulhawa’s piece as a “very disturbing and upsetting op-ed from an anti-Israel activist” and said her groups had sought an assurance from the Philadelphia Inquirer that it would not publish Abulhawa’s piece in print. They failed in that effort; the op-ed was printed in the paper last Sunday.
But “we were able to reach a compromise with the Opinion editor,” Adler said. A rebuttal piece was published alongside Abulhawa, by Nancy Baron-Baer, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. So, a lot of executives were involved in this pushback! Baron-Baer said the trip was allowing the orchestra to engage with the “complex realities” of Israel. Not demonize Israel:
Let us be clear: Anyone has a right to criticize the State of Israel for its policies, just as it is fair to criticize the policies of the United States, France, or India. However, we strongly disagree with these activists’ demonization of all things Israel, and their spurious, one-sided presentation of a complicated situation. An honest accounting reveals that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is extremely complex, challenging, and heartbreaking on all sides. To claim that Israel is the sole cause of the conflict belies this fact, and to advocate for an international boycott of the Jewish state actively undermines any productive efforts to end the conflict.
Baron-Baer also claimed that in an April 6 protest of the orchestra at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts — Sidney Kimmel is also a big supporter of the Jewish Federations — pro-Palestinian groups had voiced hate speech and bigotry. “People at the protest reported to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) that they heard phrases that the ADL would clearly classify as anti-Semitic.”
Abulhawa says there was no such thing.
Most of our speakers on April 6th were African Americans, including Rev Graylan Hagler, Dr Tony Montiero, Pam Africa, and more. Not to mention the fact that many of us were physically and verbally attacked on that day and every other day we’ve gone out to protest. One man walked through the line of protesters spitting on at least three people. Another man, former Israeli soldier, aggressively ripped a poster from my hands. Three different women tried to wrestle the microphone from our speakers, and one of them was so aggressive that a police officer threatened to arrest her if she didn’t leave.
Since that first op-ed countering Abulhawa, philly.com has run two more pieces attacking the protesters. First, there was this very high-minded article by Ryan Fleur of the Philadelphia Orchestra Association saying the trip was supported by the “private sector” in Philadelphia and that it was going to serve the peace process.
The U.S. State Department, with which the orchestra works closely, has told us our appearances help bring people together on the path to a long-term peace process… we hope to help heal by sharing our musical gifts with a part of the world that has known too much conflict.
Then Philly.com ran a column by Stu Bykofsky, saying that Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign is anti-semitic.
There are some Israeli practices that many American Jews don’t like, and some that Israelis don’t like. By holding Israel, the only majority Jewish state, to a standard it imposes on no other nation, BDS invites suspicion it is animated by anti-Semitism.
Bykofsky also said that Palestinians inside Israel have full rights (which is simply not the case), and that there are some separate roads for Palestinians and Jews in the West Bank “to thwart attacks.”
Naomi Adler indicated in her letter to the rabbis last week that she’s not done. She’s sending in a letter to the editor of the newspaper. So is Dan Segal, chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council.
In addition to all of this advocacy, we had already planned a BDS training session for members of the media for Thursday, May 3rd, and in response to this situation, we will insist that reporters and staff at the Inquirer be in attendance. We will also plan on requesting an Inquirer editorial board meeting sometime in the future.
As you know, we have dealt with anti-Israel media coverage in the past and certainly will continue to do so in the future. The Jewish Federation will always be prepared and ready to join with our partner organizations to stand in support of Israel and Jewish communities across the world.
But who is listening. It’s clear that many readers of the Philadelphia papers are appalled by Israel’s actions and want to see Americans taking action.
Philly residents are upset at their orchestra. They want @philorch to cancel its June tour in Israel, according to letters to the editor of the @PhillyInquirer #PhillyDontOrchestrateApartheid pic.twitter.com/Z4bTfJZ2nV
— Adalah-NY (@AdalahNY) May 4, 2018
But Naomi Adler surely has a lot of clout in Philadelphia. Her org is supported by Sidney Kimmel. And her friend David Cohen– who says, “Israel needs financial support from the United States” — was once the political guru of former mayor and governor Ed Rendell, a regular on MSNBC and defender of Israel. Cohen and Jonathan Lavine are co-chairs of a big charity based in Boston. Lavine joined the board of the Democratic Party’s thinktank after it hosted Benjamin Netanyahu in 2015, just weeks after Netanyahu had tried to submarine the Iran deal.
And the Israel tour by the Philadelphia Orchestra, which includes a lot of restaurants and sightseeing, is aimed at engaging “new members of the Philadelphia community” associated with the Jewish Federations.
These donors are the new Jewish establishment: civic leaders in liberal states who are also big supporters of the Democratic Party, and Israel.
Just imagine if one drop of this clout was spent urging Israel not to shoot unarmed protesters!