The San Francisco Chill

Debate Over Israel Funding Guidelines Continues To Roil San Francisco Jews
by Sue Fishkoff

Three months after San Francisco’s Jewish federation became the first in the nation to announce formal restrictions on funding for Israel programs, this liberal, largely dovish regional slice of American Jewry remains aflame with debate and denunciations of the move as a lurch toward censorship.

In the latest development, 73 Bay Area rabbis, intellectuals and artists signed a full-page open letter in the May 7 issue of the Forward warning Jewish communities of the “dangerous precedent” being set in San Francisco.

“This is a national issue,” said Rachel Biale, former Bay Area director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and one of the letter’s organizers. “The Bay Area is a pilot community. If it flies here, others may follow suit and adopt even stricter guidelines.”

But in interviews with the Forward, a half-dozen federation grantees say that for them, nothing much has changed in the midst of the “Sturm und Drang.”

“The guidelines will almost certainly have no impact on academic programs at Stanford or, for that matter, at any of the other major universities,” said Steven Zipperstein, professor of Jewish culture and history at Stanford University. Zipperstein’s Taube Center for Jewish Studies received $130,000 this fiscal year for graduate student scholarships. Zipperstein, who signed the open letter, said: “Pressure will, no doubt, be exerted from time to time. This has happened in the past, too.”

So where’s the rub?

To a large extent, the debate goes to a larger debate over the fundamental role of a Jewish federation.

Critics of the new policy tend to describe the federation as an umbrella for the entire Jewish community. Leaving anyone outside would be a betrayal, a hen rejecting one of her chicks.

The federation, however, sees itself quite clearly as an advocate of Jewish and Zionist causes. You can say whatever you want, its leaders declare, but if we don’t like it, we don’t have to fund it.

“Our mission is to fund programs in Israel that help improve the lives of Israelis, and to educate and build identification with Israel among American Jews,” federation CEO Jennifer Gorovitz said. “We seek to advance that mission through grant making. That’s why we’re in business.”

The controversial policy, passed by the federation’s board Feb.18, states, in part, that the organization will not fund groups that “advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel… including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” nor will it support programming that is co-sponsored or co-presented by such organizations.

The new policy followed a fracas at last summer’s San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which twice screened “Rachel,” an Israeli-made film about Rachel Corrie, a young American activist who died, in disputed circumstances, under the wheels of an Israeli bulldozer during a Gaza protest. The festival sponsors invited Corrie’s mother to speak at one of the showings. Michael Harris of the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs spoke, as well, but he was heckled and booed while the elder Corrie was applauded.

Angry letters poured into San Francisco’s Jewish weekly newspaper j. for months. Five members of the film festival board resigned. Right-wing Israel advocates called for the heads of federation leaders, whom they said should never have permitted communal funds to be used this way.

In passing its guidelines, the federation, which funds programs throughout the Bay Area, became the first to codify new anti-BDS funding guidelines proposed by the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America on a national level last November.

Doug Kahn, executive director of the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Council, presented the new policy as the federation’s attempt to restore civility to the communal discourse on Israel.

“The policy and guidelines provide important direction for how to navigate in the current period and beyond,” he said. “It makes clear the distinction between criticism of Israeli government policy, which is clearly within the bounds of the policy, and advocating for undermining Israel’s legitimacy as a nation and as a Jewish and democratic state.”

Critics say they accept an organization’s right to set boundaries, but they don’t like the federation setting itself up as the arbiter of an issue under such hot debate.

“Who’s to say what’s in Israel’s best interest?” Zipperstein asked. “With regard to Israel, there is vast disagreement among Jews. Once such guidelines are imposed, we’re playing with fire that is potentially uncontainable.”

A lot is at stake. The San Francisco federation gave away $150 million this fiscal year to an impressive range of Jewish and non-Jewish agencies in the Bay Area and Israel

Some point to Chicago’s Spertus Museum, which in June 2008 shut down a provocative exhibition by Palestinian and Israeli women artists after some Jewish community members protested what they felt was the show’s critical view of Israeli politics. What if that were to happen in San Francisco?

Yet the grantees interviewed by the Forward say that so far, no sign of such a change is in the offing – in part, perhaps, because the regulations leave few of them beyond the rules’ red lines to begin with, and because many applicants consult informally with the JCRC before submitting proposals anyway.

“We don’t have any programs that are in conflict with them, and I can’t envision that we’ll have any,” said Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of the Hillel Foundation at the University of California, Berkeley. The Berkeley Hillel has not shied away from programs that included a large variety of perspectives on Israel. But contrary to widely circulated reports, it has never partnered with Students for Justice in Palestine, a campus organization that might seem to fall afoul of the new guidelines.

Privately, one leader of a local Jewish organization whose programming often includes dovish-oriented events even welcomed the codification. The policy, this leader said, “gives me protection” from being pulled too far to the left by groups or individuals working with this agency since it’s clear that “this is allowed and this is not.” Like several other local Jewish leaders, this director declined to be identified because of the topic’s volatility in the local community.

But critics argue that even if the rules have not altered any specific funding decisions, writing them down changes the atmosphere and hardens the edges of the communal dialogue, putting up fences where before there were just muddy lanes.

“There is more room to negotiate when a policy is informal,” said Elissa Barrett, executive director of PJA. “I know people have a lot of fears about how enforcement of the guidelines will play out. They are expressing their opinions privately to PJA, but fear that if anyone knew what they thought, they could be fired.”

For now, everyone’s waiting to see what will happen in the federation’s next funding cycle, which begins on July 1. It will be the first round of funding since the guidelines passed.

“We will do business as we always have,” Barrett said. PJA’s Bay Area Jeremiah Fellowship received federation grants for the past two years and will apply again next year.

But many remain particularly distressed at the notion that a grantee could be denied funding because of its partners.

“I understand that the federation and the JCRC are trying to respond to the reality of a hard Jewish left in the Bay Area, including some who support the divestment campaign,” Zipperstein said. “The organizations that support these positions certainly don’t need to be supported by the organized Jewish community. But proscribing association with them is unproductive and dangerous.”

Barrett noted that PJA partners with a wide range of groups for its programs. Suppose, she said, PJA took part in a forum on Fair Trade in which someone asked another panelist whether his organization boycotts Israel?

“Should we fear that question, or prohibit speakers from answering it?” she asked. “Should we call the JCRC beforehand and ask if we are allowed to co-sponsor or invite certain partners in the first place?

“These are the boundaries we will have to test with each other.”

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Daily Forward; reprinted with permission.