Forward Thinking

Censorship at the 14th Street Y!

By Jay Michaelson

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As reported in these pages last week, the 14th Street Y pulled the plug on a controversial Shavuot event sponsored by the left-wing advocacy group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). The Y did so at the eleventh hour, and on the pretext that the Y was concerned about large crowds of attendees and media.

Which is absurd. In the end, JVP drew about thirty people to the event, which was held in a nearby park, and had reserved a room for 75. Anyway, no one could reasonably expect their event to be of interest to more than a few dozen people, especially on Memorial Day weekend and Shavuot; it was not marketed as a mass event, and in the end no media showed up at all. This excuse doesn’t pass the laugh test.

Obviously, the real reason JVP was banned from the Y is that it is controversial — but there’s more to it than that. The JVP program, “Go and Learn,” was meant to discuss the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement, which targets Israel economically for its policies regarding the Palestinians. The BDS movement is often depicted as anti-Israel, and indeed many of its loudest proponents are just that. It also doesn’t help that JVP, as an organization, refuses to take a stand on the “one state” solution for Israel/Palestine, which would effectively wipe the Jewish state off the map. This is an organization far to the left of the Jewish mainstream (and, not that it matters, but far to the left of my own views as well).

But then again, according to its website, “The 14th Street Y is a thriving and dynamic community center located in the heart of the East Village.” Isn’t being a community center about hosting events that are of community interest, even if many other people find them problematic? And isn’t the East Village, of all places, full of folks (Jewish or otherwise) who support BDS, or are interested in learning more about it?

“Go and Learn” wasn’t an action, wasn’t a protest, wasn’t a rally filled with incendiary speakers. It was billed as an informational session and a discussion, i..e., it’s exactly what institutions like the Y should be promoting. JVP’s YouTube video about the controversy makes that quite clear.

The deeper reason why JVP was banned is that it, and BDS, have become litmus tests for Jewish funders seeking to draw lines around permissible discourse about Israel. In the San Francisco Bay Area, JVP and BDS are the specific examples of an organization and a position that cannot be supported or hosted at a federation-sponsored facility or program. To the best of my knowledge, UJA-Federation of Greater New York has not formally adopted the Bay Area guidelines, but informally, they are used all the time.

So, while I’d like to say “Shame on the 14th Street Y” for their cowardice, consider the choice the Y faced. It may be that to have allowed JVP to hold their program would’ve cost the Y the support of the federation — let alone many donors. That’s a tough call to make: between censorship on the one hand, and financial hara-kiri on the other.

The real shame, then, lies with those who have supported such gag rules in the first place. These rules are offensive to Jewish community, to values of Jewish peoplehood, and to the missions of organizations like the 14th Street Y. They create a climate of fear and suspicion, as Jewish professionals wonder what opinions are safe to express. They’re also wrong-headed. Squelching debate doesn’t make JVP look less legitimate; it makes the Jewish institutional world seem less legitimate. So much for dissent, pluralism, and the notion that different opinions (elu v’elu) may both represent the word of God. We look like a bunch of scared parochialists defending an illegitimate policy with the tools of censorship and condemnation.

If Israel’s policies are legitimate, the Jewish community should not be afraid of respectful debate about them. And if BDS is illegitimate, we should encourage and participate in debates which show it to be so. Running away from BDS, clapping our hands over our communal eyes and ears, makes it look more important and legitimate than it is. (In an upcoming column in this newspaper, I will state my case against BDS in more detail. I believe it to be both wrongheaded and deeply problematic.)

Now, supporters of the gag rule will say that to even talk about BDS is anti-Semitic, and that JVP’s supporters are, by definition, self-hating Jews. We wouldn’t allow the KKK at the 14th Street Y, they’ll say, so why would we allow this hate group instead. But these statements are fallacious and insulting. BDS is a policy, and advocating it is a legitimate viewpoint (again, one with which I strongly disagree) based on a judgment of the Israel/Palestine crisis, and Israel’s responsibility for it. Doing so may be wrong, but it is not hate speech, and as JVP is manifestly not a self-hating organization. Just watch some of their videos for yourself. These are people who have strongly-held convictions about Israel, convictions which may indeed strike many of us as misguided, even offensive. But they are also our people, our sisters and brothers and siblings. They ought to be able to meet in our community centers.

Or at least, we should let the centers decide that for themselves, and not fear that their many other valuable programs would be put into jeopardy if they allowed this one to go on. At least then, if the 14th Street Y said no, the community it serves could hold its leadership accountable.

Policies like this one are designed to strengthen our community, and its commitment to the State of Israel. Yet each time they are enforced, we get weaker and weaker.

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