Bernie newBy BERNIE BELLAN

I have to admit: I’m really torn when it comes to deciding how to deal with controversial speakers whose message may be objectionable to large swaths of the Jewish community.
The issue has arisen in recent weeks as a result of two speakers having been invited to appear in Winnipeg - one Jewish, one Muslim – both of whom aroused the ire of certain individuals who are experienced at using social media to orchestrate campaigns whose purpose is to delegitimize critics of Israel.

 

We reported on the effort to have rabbinical student Lex Rofeberg disinvited from appearing at Shabbat Across Winnipeg, also Limmud, during the first weekend of March. That effort was partially successful, as Rofeberg was indeed disinvited from appearing at the Shaarey Zedek as that congregation’s guest speaker for Shabbat Across Winnipeg. But, the organizers of Limmud did not cancel Rofeberg’s appearance at Limmud and, by all accounts, he was well received by the Jewish audience there.
Confession time: When the brouhaha over Rofeberg’s coming here first emerged, I was largely responsible for publicizing the growing controversy through both our Facebook page and on our website. When the Jewish Federation reacted to the growing controversy over Rofeberg’s appearing here, I took no public position on the subject. What was reported in this paper was a description of what was going on – nothing more. Should I have rallied to the cause of free speech? Perhaps, but as you will see, even such supposed defenders of free speech as the organizers of Limmud take a very nuanced approach to that subject.
Further, I am well aware that the Jewish Federation has to be politically sensitive to any perceived notion that it is implicitly lending support to a critic of Israel.  Thus, because the Federation was contributing monetarily to Rofeberg’s appearing at the Shaarey Zedek as its guest speaker during  its Shabbat Across Winnipeg program, I could understand the Federation’s decision to withdraw any association from that program – until Rofeberg was subsequently disinvited from appearing there.


On the other hand, while the Federation is associated with Limmud in the sense that the key organizer of Limmud is an employee of the Federation, it does not offer any monetary support for Limmud, so I could well understand the position that the organizers of Limmud took when they refused to disinvite Rofeberg.
But, before the organizers of Limmud become too self-congratulatory over their supposedly principled stand in not cancelling Rofeberg from appearing this year, let me ask them: What if Rofeberg had wanted to speak about Israel’s perceived injustice toward Palestinians, which is the raison d’etre of an organization to which he belongs - IfNotNow? How about taking it one step further: What if a member of Independent Jewish Voices asked to give a presentation about what that group argues is Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories? Would that person be allowed to speak at Limmud? I hardly think so.


I don’t recall Limmud ever serving as a forum for critics of Israel – of which many are Jewish. Yet, the mission statement of Limmud is “To celebrate Jewish life and learning in all of its diversity by bringing together Jews of all backgrounds and all ages for learning experiences.” Really? Jews of all backgrounds? When is the last time Limmud ever featured a speaker who was stridently critical of Israel? Clearly the organizers of Limmud draw a clear line between what is allowed and not allowed to be discussed at Limmud. Even in the case of Rofeberg, the organizers of Limmud took great pains to make clear that, under no circumstances, would Rofeberg be allowed to speak on anything other than his announced subjects, both of which had absolutely nothing to do with Israel.
The only instance I can recall of hearing an intelligent discussion of the legality of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories that heard both sides of the subject occurred last September at the Fort Garry Hotel during what was billed as the Israel and Palestine International Law Symposium. One of the sessions involved a very reasoned debate between David Matas and Michael Lynk, who is the “Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967”.


I see no reason that the same debate couldn’t be held at a Jewish forum, including the Asper campus or any of our local synagogues.


Which leads me to the planned appearance here of Linda Sarsour. While we do have a report in this issue by Myron Love about the controversy surrounding Sarsour’s coming here, I am quite bothered by the notion that Sarsour should not be allowed to speak  anywhere here. As it was in the case of Rofeberg, a Facebook campaign to keep Sarsour from coming here has been mounted by one individual in particular. There is now an online petition calling upon the Social Planning Council to cancel the invitation to Sarsour.


We have had many critics of Israel speak here in past years. I have been in attendance at many events where Israel was subject to severe condemnation. I can recall hearing former British Member of Parliament George Galloway, Israeli Haaretz journalist Amira Hass, Israeli critic of the policy of demolition of Palestinian houses Jeff Halper, and most recently Palestinian Anglican priest Naim Ateek – all of whom were deeply critical of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
Now, while universities or public schools are under no obligation to offer a forum for anyone who may ask to speak there and, just as the Jewish Federation was well within its right to disassociate itself from Lex Rofeberg’s appearance at Shabbat Across Winnipeg, so too  was the Seven Oaks School Division well within its right to cancel the panel discussion that the Social Planning Council was planning to hold there April 26.


But, if a church or some other private institution were to decide to allow the Social Planning Council to hold its panel discussion there, I would not have a problem with that. Are we going to adopt the tactics of left-wing critics of Israel who demand that defenders of Israel not be allowed to speak  or shout down those speakers – all in the name of “anti-normalization – and demand that critics of Israel also not be allowed to speak anywhere?
Who is to be the arbiter of what is allowed to be said when it comes to discussing Israel? Are we going to allow Facebook groups that can spring up overnight the right to decide who is allowed to speak and when?
There have been many other virulent critics of Israel who have appeared here over the years, including the speakers cited above, also Norman Finkelstein, Mordecai Briemberg, and Michael Keefer.  
I don’t recall any concerted effort by any Jewish organization or individuals to ban any of those speakers from coming here – nor, for that matter, was there even much attention paid to their being here, except perhaps in last year’s case of Anglican Priest Naim Ateek.


But now, with the advent of social media and the immediate ostracizing of anyone who a particular individual or individuals might decide should not be allowed to speak here, attention is called to the presence of speakers who otherwise might go largely unnoticed - except by those few individuals who flock to hear any critic of Israel.
Linda Sarsour is controversial for having expressed views on subjects well beyond criticism of Israel. The Social Planning Council itself has published a link to eight of Sarsour’s most controversial tweets, including calling the Muslim Brotherhood “cool”, saying in 2016 that Republican presidential candidates wanted to “torture women and children”, attacking Hillary Clinton, police officers…the list of her targets goes on and on.


She may make us feel deeply uncomfortable – for many reasons other than simply her criticism of Israel and support for BDS but frankly, if it were not for social media, how much attention would she have received? Is Sarsour any more disliked by pro-Israel individuals than say, Norman Finkelstein? But Finkelstein came and went with no attention paid to him in media other than our own – and perhaps some left wing websites or publications. I daresay the same would have happened with Sarsour had attention not been called to her impending appearance by one individual in particular, whose Facebook campaign to have the Social Planning Council rescind the invitation to Sarsour was then picked up by B’nai Brith and the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. Is Sarsour any more notorious than George Galloway was when he appeared here – at a time when he was probably one of the most famous critics of Israel anywhere? Was there any mention of Galloway in any of our daily papers or on the CBC? The answer is no.


I wonder too, whether a speaker such as Ari Shavit – a staunch critic of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians, would ever have been invited to deliver the Kanee lecture in 2015 if a petition had been launched online not to have him come here? We’re living in a new age when individuals are subjected to litmus tests overnight by an individual or individuals or organizations who take it upon themselves to decide whose views we should or should not be hearing. But organizations such as the Jewish Federation have to be sensitive to what those Jewish arbiters of opinion have to say – because the Jewish Federation and other organizations might well find themselves targeted by those same arbiters of opinion for not being sufficiently pro-Israel.