The D.C. Jewish Community Center runs a popular music festival featuring klezmer, a cappella, Broadway, liturgical and classical sounds. This year, they invited a Brooklyn feminist punk rock band called The Shondes — Yiddish for “disgrace” — to join the lineup.
Weeks later, the center uninvited The Shondes because the band’s leader had made public statements questioning whether Israel should exist as a Jewish state.
The JCC has staged an “Embracing Democracy” series over the past year, tackling tough issues with speakers on American Jews’ relationship with Israel and the birth of the Jewish state. David Harris-Gershon was asked to speak on his memoir about how he changed after a Palestinian terrorist’s bomb in Jerusalem seriously injured his wife.
But the JCC withdrew Harris-Gershon’s invitation after discovering that he had written a blog post sympathetic to the boycott and divestment movement against Israel.
And the JCC is home to one of the nation’s leading Jewish-themed theater companies, Theater J, which frequently takes on the wrenching drama of clashing Israeli and Palestinian narratives.
But one production in Theater J’s lineup this year — “The Admission,” a world premiere by an Israeli playwright about competing versions of a battle in Israel’s 1948 war for independence — was scaled down after a conservative group in Montgomery County denounced the JCC and called on the area’s 275,000 Jews to stop donating to Washington’s leading Jewish charity.
The JCC’s awkward about-faces reflect the explosive power of Middle East politics, the sensitive terrain on which Washington’s Jewish institutions operate, and increasing polarization within American Jewry.
A tradition of vigorous, nuanced debate is increasingly being boiled down to a binary choice of worldviews.
In a traditional approach to supporting Israel, all this disinviting looks like a Jewish institution making clear that it will foster debate but won’t cross a certain line, a bedrock belief that Americans should stand by a fragile Jewish state in the Mideast.
But to other American Jews, many of them young people who feel less of a bond with Israel, the JCC’s actions constitute a self-destructive timidity driven by the need to protect a relationship with important donors.
The Shondes will play at the Black Cat on June 2, sponsored by a leftist group, Jewish Voice for Peace, which endorses sanctions against Israel. A few weeks ago, Harris-Gershon spoke in the District, not at the JCC but at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, sponsored by two liberal Jewish groups, J Street and Americans for Peace Now, both of which oppose a boycott.
And a restaging of “The Admission” just finished a three-week run at Studio Theatre, sponsored not by the JCC but by former D.C. mayoral candidate and restaurateur Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American who spent many years running Arab-Israeli dialogues in partnership with Theater J’s director, Ari Roth.
The disinvited, then, got to come anyway — proving either that dissent is alive and well among Washington Jews, or that sensitivity to polarized opinions about the Mideast conflict is pushing Jewish institutions away from the audience they seek. Or both.
“A wonderful aspect of Jewish tradition is healthy debate,” says Stuart Weinblatt, rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. “But ultimately, a big tent does have parameters. It’s not inappropriate for the JCC or any institution to ask, ‘Does this play or speaker convey a narrative that helps people understand Israel’s ongoing struggle?’ There are plenty of venues willing to host productions critical of Israel. The Jewish community doesn’t need to be that place.”
“You have to push the envelope, you have to challenge,” says Gil Steinlauf, senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in the District. “This is the essence of what it means to be Jewish: We welcome dissent. And I do see a move away from that welcome in the Jewish community.”
But Steinlauf says the JCC acted in the face of difficult tensions between younger Jews who feel free to criticize Israel and an older generation that asks, “ ‘In what way can we ensure that the Jewish people retain our integrity in a world that is often hostile?’ Both views are completely valid, but they can be conflicting. The JCC has had to deal with that in a town that feels the weight of the world — a city where, like in Israel, everything is much more intense.”
The debate over who gets to speak rages among Jewish student groups on campuses nationwide. In a recent survey of U.S. rabbis, one-third said they were not comfortable expressing their views on Israel to their own congregations for fear of losing their jobs.
“In a sector of the Jewish community, there’s a feeling that there’s a deepening animus against Israel, in the international community, the media, even in the U.S.,” says Sid Schwarz, founding rabbi of Adat Shalom, a synagogue in Bethesda, Md. “If you’re feeling besieged, you try to control the things you can control. That’s why you see these controversies about who can speak where.”
Most reviews of The Shondes say nothing of the group’s religion or politics, mentioning instead their anthemic writing, their exotic juxtaposition of violin and punk, or, as Rolling Stone put it, their “mix of riot-grrrl furor, arena bombast and klezmer stomp.”
But being Jewish is central to the band’s identity. The Shondes boast on their Tumblr about being blessed while on tour by the chief rabbi of Poland. Louisa Solomon, the lead singer, has a Hebrew letter tattooed on her wrist. Her politics feature in some lyrics, as in “I Watched the Temple Fall,” which makes clear her antagonism toward Israel’s policies:
“I’m sick/from the blood all over our hands/how the land soaks it in so the desert can/finally bloom with this colonial hate/no heart, no heart could really beat love for this state.”
In late March, Solomon was stunned by a call from DCJCC’s chief executive, Carole Zawatsky, canceling the invitation to perform in June because the DCJCC would not let artists use their events as a platform for supporting a boycott of Israel.
Solomon asked if the problem would go away if she agreed not to mention a boycott from the stage, but there was to be no negotiating. Solomon says Zawatsky focused on the “Temple Fall” lyrics “with what I heard as a clearly accusatory tone, as if the title itself were evidence of the band’s self-hating tendencies.”
For Zawatsky, the deal-breaker was Solomon’s avowed rejection of Zionism — the political movement for a Jewish state in the land of Israel. The original invitation to The Shondes “was a mistake,” she says. “A group that self-identifies as anti-Zionist doesn’t have a place on the stage of the DCJCC.”
Zawatsky says there’s nothing new about that rule; it’s a line almost all Jewish institutions enforce. “It’s very important for us to be relevant in theater, in music, in literature,” she says. “Those can be hard conversations. By looking at ourselves, we can be better people.” But, she adds, “the fundamental ground rule is that Israel should exist.”
Solomon rejects the idea that she is “suffering from internalized anti-Semitism simply because I am a proponent of BDS [shorthand for the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement]. I told her I was a proud Jew, a committed Jew and very comfortable having respectful debate.”
Solomon does not back down from her skepticism about a Jewish state. “Jewish institutions like the JCC regard it as treasonous that perhaps a nation-state was never a solution to Jewish persecution,” she says. “Treating someone like me . . . like I’ve committed treason, is bizarre. They’ve shot themselves in the foot here.”
After Harris-Gershon’s wife, Jamie, was badly burned and riddled with shrapnel in a 2002 terrorist bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, he fell into an angry depression. When they returned home to Washington, he was barely able to get through his days as a teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.
He eventually decided that the only way out of the depths might be to confront the Palestinian bomber. He returned to East Jerusalem, visited the bomber’s family and wrote a book — “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried To Kill Your Wife?” — about his journey to a new empathy for Palestinians.
Invitations followed, including a bunch to speak at Jewish institutions. Last fall, he appeared at Washington Hebrew Congregation and the Northern Virginia JCC. But at the end of January, Harris-Gershon got an e-mail from Zawatsky canceling his invitation to the DCJCC.
Zawatsky had come across a blog post in which the author expressed support for a boycott of Israel. In a phone call a few days after the e-mail, she asked, “Do you indeed support economic sanctions against Israel?”
Harris-Gershon said he did, but said his position was neither black nor white, that he believes Israel must be a Jewish state, opposes a cultural boycott of Israel and has no objection to traveling there — indeed, he expects to send his children, who attend a Jewish day school, to Israel on their class trip.
“David is a mensch,” Zawatsky says. “But he’s threading a very fine needle. He certainly identifies as a Zionist and wrote a good, thoughtful, painful book. But BDS has been a line that the American Jewish community has set.”
Harris-Gershon has run into that line before. A campus Hillel group at the University of California at Santa Barbara also retracted its invitation in January. But the boycott movement is not mentioned in his book, he doesn’t bring it up in his appearances and it didn’t come up at his other D.C. area events. “It was totally routine,” says Leslie Maitland, who organized the Washington Hebrew event.
“You’ve invited me because you were moved by my story, which centers around the need for dialogue,” the writer says he told Zawatsky. “Now, because I believe Palestinians have a right to boycott, just like the U.S. has a right to sanction Iran, dialogue’s not so important?”
The controversy over the disinvitation boosted sales of Harris-Gershon’s book and won him speaking gigs at Jewish community centers, campus groups and synagogues.
At the King library, where Harris-Gershon spoke to about 120 people, only one questioner mentioned the boycott.
“David is not a political radical,” says Rabbi Alana Suskin, director of strategic communications at Americans for Peace Now. “His book is not political. But there’s an overwhelming fear in the Jewish community of any discussion of BDS.”
What drives that fear? Suskin falls quiet for a moment, then rubs her thumb against her forefingers.
The latest missive from Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA) — a very small group of Montgomery County activists with a very big voice — is headlined “Washington Post Loves Theater J’s Attacks on Israel.”
“Imagine the sheer delight of Post journalists when handed an opportunity to write about a play in a local Jewish theater that accuses Israel of brutality toward Palestinians,” the e-mail begins.
Sent in mid-May to many donors and board members of Jewish institutions in the Washington area, the e-mail is part of a years-long campaign by personal injury attorney Robert Samet and four others who, as their Web site says, “believe there is no place in our Jewish community centers and institutions for anti-Israel propaganda.”
After Theater J announced plans to stage the world premiere of “The Admission,” COPMA asked donors to stop giving to the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, which last year distributed about $11 million to local social services providers, Jewish schools and community centers, and $6 million to Israel and other overseas Jewish communities. The Federation last year gave $443,000 to the DCJCC, which reported $6.9 million in revenue in its last tax return.
COPMA’s call for a freeze on donations “was not successful,” says Federation chief executive Steve A. Rakitt. But pressure from the group did prompt extensive debate. “Some people told us we had to intervene, to do something to stop the play,” Rakitt says, “and others said ‘you have to support it.’ ”
The Federation board had taken up COPMA’s demands before. In 2011, when the group criticized another Theater J production, the Federation stated its support for Israel and “robust dialogue,” but added it would not “fund any organization that encourages boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel.”
That was not sufficient for COPMA, which wanted a policy rejecting cultural programs “that undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel.”
Rakitt says the Federation “will not get into the business of dictating guidelines for the DCJCC or any other institution, other than the bright line on BDS. We don’t want to micromanage.”
He says the JCC properly focuses on the arts to reach its intended audience, but “at the same time, we believe there is a limit. I don’t think anyone would argue that the KKK should have a platform in the Jewish community. I’m not drawing a parallel, but we believe the BDS movement, because of its anti-Semitic and anti-Israel background, does not merit a platform in Jewish institutions. But I am concerned that when we hold back from engaging on important issues, including Israel, we lose an opportunity to build a stronger community.”
In an e-mail, COPMA’s Samet declined to be interviewed “because in the past The Washington Post’s treatment of the anti-Israel programming of Theater J at the DCJCC has been very protective of Theater J and has itself been very hostile to Israel.”
“Big tents are vital to us Jews,” COPMA’s treasurer, Carol Greenwald, wrote in Washington Jewish Week. “At some point, however, you stop discussing a lie because it only serves those who want to perpetuate the lie. The liar, and the lie, needs to be expelled from the tent.”
Many executives of D.C. Jewish organizations consider COPMA a persistent pest that punches above its weight.
“I consider COPMA very extreme,” says Susie Gelman, ex-president of the Federation and a major donor to the JCC. “They are cultural vigilantes who are McCarthyist in their tactics. Clearly, without their pressure, the production of ‘The Admission’ would have been different.”
Another local funder of many Jewish nonprofits, the Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Foundation, born of the fortune of one of Giant Food’s founding families, also won’t give to programs that support BDS, says executive director Alison McWilliams. The foundation — which last year funded programs bringing Arabs and Jews together in schools, social services and even a TV sitcom — gave the JCC $20,000 but stayed out of the debate over “The Admission.”
“It’s not our place as funders to tell them what kind of programming decisions to make, or even to advise them on that,” she says. Do all funders follow that principle? “Probably not.”
Even the bright line drawn against BDS turns out to be fuzzy around the edges. The Federation took no position on whether to vet each person in a performing group. “That’s a very good question, and we did not address it,” Rakitt says.
At the JCC, that became a question that had to be addressed.
Ari Roth, artistic director of Theater J, had Tony Kushner, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Angels in America,” on the phone earlier this year with a very uncomfortable question.
“On behalf of the Jewish people, are you now or have you ever been a signatory to a boycott of Israel?” Roth asked, hoping for a clear “No,” because only then could he stage one of Kushner’s plays next season.
“What has happened to our Jewish community?” Kushner replied, as Roth recalls. Then, after a pause, “No, I’m opposed to cultural boycotts of any kind. But what kind of question is that? You know, you go from redlines to blacklisting in a heartbeat.”
It’s a question the JCC now requires Roth to ask of all artists he considers bringing to Theater J.
Roth’s boss, Zawatsky, voluble and charming through a long interview, falls silent when asked whether it’s difficult to have to search through artists’ pasts before deciding whether they may perform at the JCC. After more than 20 seconds, she says, “It’s difficult to be a leader in complex times.” Then silence again.
“We are being asked to be our own research department,” Roth says. “Israel is worth fighting for, but we’re going into some unholy places. It’s just not our nature to vet people.”
Theater J had nursed “The Admission” from conception to premiere, with readings and workshops that generated great enthusiasm and deep concern. Zawatsky insists the JCC’s commitment to the play never wavered. “We brought in a director from Israel, set and costume designers, a composer and the playwright. That’s not something you do if you don’t have a strong conviction that this is an important show.”
But after COPMA’s campaign, the JCC negotiated “an about-face, a retreat,” Roth says. The number of performances was slashed from 34 to 16, and limits were placed on costumes, set and props, all so the play could be billed as a workshop production rather than a full-scale show.
The JCC says it made changes not because of COPMA’s campaign, but because the Israeli theater that had planned to stage the premiere of “The Admission” shut down for financial reasons, leaving Theater J with no Israeli partner.
Zawatsky says the JCC remains committed to challenging theater, but any show about or from Israel should be produced in that country before appearing at Theater J.
Two people who asked not to be named because they are not authorized to discuss internal matters said the JCC board was concerned about losing $250,000 in donations if “The Admission” went ahead as a full production. Zawatsky denies funding was a factor in her decision.
Some JCC board members, speaking privately because they were told not to talk about the controversy, said they would have ignored COPMA and charged ahead with the canceled events. “It’s a pity we pulled back,” one says. “But I understand they’re trying not to take unnecessary risks with our funding.”
As a director and playwright, Roth relishes generating electricity, pushing audiences to think beyond what they already believe. Instead, he finds himself vetting artists and coping with new limits. Next year’s six-show Theater J season includes Kushner’s play about a leftist union activist who has given up on politics and life, an Eastern European shtetl musical with a klezmer-rock score, and a drama about interracial adoption — but no show from or about Israel. Roth says the theater is stepping back from its Voices from a Changing Middle East series, “and that wasn’t our choice,” but rather the JCC’s. Still, he says, “We will resume in 2015. The huge hope is that it can still happen here.”
“If you can be terrorized by e-mail, that’s what COPMA has done,” Roth says. He has met with COPMA activists and recognizes them as being like people he knew growing up, people driven by a love of Israel and a fear that a hostile world could turn against Jews at any time.
“I think,” Roth says with sudden enthusiasm, “we should write a play about them.”