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Lex Rofeberg

By BERNIE BELLAN

If you’re reading this and you hadn’t been aware that there was a huge storm of controversy that developed quickly over the past 2 weeks within Winnipeg’s Jewish community,  also within online Jewish communities whose members weighed in throughout the world – let me explain what happened.

 

 

 

As with so many other news stories these days, this one began on the Internet. I first became aware that something was happening when I checked my emails on Sunday morning, February 24. One of the emails was from a friend. The subject line in the email was: “This is circulating on FB” (Facebook). In the email was a link to the Facebook page of Ron East.
Now I know Ron East and am well aware that when he sets his teeth to launching a campaign where he takes aim at individuals or groups that he claims are anti-Israel, his campaigns often have major impacts.

Such is the nature of social media these days that it doesn’t take long before what might have begun as what some regard as nothing more than a tempest in a teapot caught fire. In this case Ron’s target was someone who was slated to appear both at Limmud and Shabbat Across Winnipeg (which, this year, was to be held at the Shaarey Zedek on March 1, in conjunction with Congregation Etz Chayim and Temple Shalom. By the way, as a side note, I also became aware that the Adas Yeshurun Herzlia congregation was holding its own version of  Shabbat Across Winnipeg, also on March 1 – for Orthodox Jews.

The individual who was being targeted by Ron East was someone by the name of Lex Rofeberg.  In his Facebook post Ron accused Rofeberg of being anti-Israel and pro-BDS. He referred to Rofeberg’s belonging to a group known as “IfNotNow”. (Read more about IfNotNow in my article  on page 12.) As I note in that  more detailed story about the chronology of events that followed Ron’s initial Facebook post, it didn’t take very long for various organizations, including the Jewish Federation, Shaarey Zedek, Etz Chayim, and Temple Shalom, to acquiesce to the demand that Rofeberg be disinvited from appearing at Shabbat Across Winnipeg. The organizers of Limmud, however, refused to disinvite Rofeberg from appearing at Limmud.

Due to the rapid nature of events as they were unfolding over social media, on February 26 I decided to post a story to our website (http://jewishpostandnews.ca/local/2827-limmud-and-shaarey-zedek-finds-themselves-enmeshed-in-unexpected-controversy), with a line at the end of the story saying that I would provide updates to the story, should there be something new to report.
The story did receive considerable attention. I might also note that, even though the story, as of writing this column, has had over 1700 views, the only two comments I received in response to the story were quite well thought out and what I would consider relatively restrained, even though they represented diametrically different viewpoints.

But, restraint is hardly the word I would use to describe what was going on in the world of social media. The level of vituperative comments being hurled on Facebook was indeed ugly, especially those coming from Rofeberg’s critics.

Yet, in my own reporting on what was happening I tried to remain as studiously dispassionate as I could be. You can judge for yourself whether that’s a fair assessment if you read my article at the above link.

Several individuals asked me though why I wasn’t taking a stand one way or another over what was going on. I replied that I would wait to do that in my Short takes column (which is what you're reading now). For the time being, I replied, I wanted to try to confine my writing about what was going on to explaining the chronology of events and how various organizations and individuals were responding to Ron East’s initial demand that Rofeberg be disinvited from speaking at both Shabbat Across Winnipeg and Limmud.
Many individuals with whom I spoke – or emailed, made similar points. One of those points was: How could the organizers of Limmud not have vetted Rofeberg before inviting him to speak here? (I myself posed that same question to Limmud organizers but  was never given an answer to that question. Instead what I was told that Rofeberg was clearly instructed not to deviate from the subjects of the two talks he was slated to give, none of which had anything to do with Rofeberg’s views about Israel.)

The battle lines were drawn, however, and Rofeberg had become the unwitting lightning rod for charges that Limmud had veered into dangerous territory by allowing an anti-Israel speaker to present at Limmud. Interestingly, both the Jewish Federation and the three synagogues that had banded together to present Shabbat Across Winnipeg were relatively quick to disassociate themselves from Rofeberg.

Yet, the organizers of Limmud held firm, standing on the ground that Limmud is all about encouraging dialogue (even though those same organizers took pains to explain that Rofeberg would not be speaking about anything to do with Israel and had been warned not to deviate from the subjects of his talks).
So, was this a classic case of freedom of speech being squelched by noisy protesters – even though all the noise they were making thus far was on the Internet?

Certainly the notion that anyone who might be associated with a group that is accused of lending support to terrorists (which is an accusation commonly leveled at IfNotNow, which you can readily discover if you do some further reading about that group) should be barred from speaking at an event such as Limmud is troubling.
I wonder, for instance,  who is to be the arbiter of what subjects can and cannot be broached at Limmud which, after all, is meant to encourage discussion of a great many subjects? The notion that a well-organized campaign on Facebook can quickly bring Jewish organizations to their heels, as happened in this case, is disturbing.

In 2014, for instance, Iā€ˆattended a presentation at Limmud given by three representatives of an organization known as New Israel Fund. That particular organization has also found itself subject to attacks from the right. Here is a quote from Wikipedia about NIF: “The New Israel Fund is the largest foreign donor to progressive causes in Israel. Its financial support for Breaking the Silence, Adalah, B'Tselem, Yesh Din, and other groups allegedly hostile to Zionist values has drawn criticism from many associated with Israel's political right.”

I wonder whether Ron East and others who have lent support to his attacks on Lef Rofeberg would have savaged Limmud back in 2014 over allowing a presentation by three spokespersons for NIF?
Such is the nature of discourse over the Internet these days. Individuals don’t have reasoned discussions; instead they hurl epithets at one another and call for boycotts.

Yet, there is an overriding aspect to this story that I haven’t broached yet and that is the subject of money, specifically money from well-heeled donors. It’s no secret that some donors use the threat of withholding donations, or conversely, offering to make large donations, to exert influence over the direction of Jewish organizations. That’s the way it always has been and will undoubtedly always will be. (It’s also one of the reasons it’s important to have an independent newspaper for the Jewish community. There are certain individuals and organizations that refuse to support this paper precisely because of the independent position I insist on taking.  I’m sorry, I will be an unquestioning cheerleader for no one.)
So, when the Jewish Federation and the three synagogues quickly distanced themselves from Lex Rofeberg, you can see money talking – and why not? If someone who is a donor is displeased with an organization and wants to exert influence, that should be that individual’s prerogative.

At the same time though, I admire the organizers of Limmud for standing up for the principle of free speech. There may be a price to pay for that in future Limmuds, however, as Limmud relies on donor support for its existence. Also, you had better believe that next year the organizers of Limmud are going to be scrupulously careful in vetting any speakers who might be tainted with the specter of anti-Israel views.

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