A local leader in Israel advocacy calls on Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel to reconsider its decision to host David Harris-Gershon as planned.
Philadelphia’s Beth-Zion Beth-Israel Synagogue plans to host an event with David Harris-Gershon, who claims he loves Israel but who is an outspoken supporter of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS. The invitation should be rescinded. Harris-Gershon is certainly free to express his opinions elsewhere, but Jewish communal organizations should not give a platform to those who abet a movement like BDS.
BDS is an extremist propaganda campaign that calls for unfair discrimination against Israel. Its goal is to breed prejudice, delegitimize Israel and ultimately eliminate the Jewish state. One of its three planks is the alleged right of Palestinian refugees of the 1948 War and their descendants, now numbering 5 million, to “return” not to the proposed Palestinian state, but to Israel where they would turn Jews into a minority. Since 1949, this demand has been a euphemism for the destruction of Israel. Simply put, Harris-Gershon is aiding a movement that opposes the very existence of the Jewish state.
Harris-Gershon has also trafficked in BDS propaganda. He uses his twitter account to “re-tweet” the messages of some of the fiercest anti-Zionists who purvey gross distortions about Israel, such as Ali Abunimah, Max Blumenthal and Stephen Walt, a co-author of the infamous book, The Israel Lobby. He has made ugly claims about the power of the Israel lobby, writing on Feb. 4, 2013 that “ … when the hawkish ‘pro-Israel’ lobby in America can influence our representatives to sound as if they — well — are representing Israel’s citizens more than our own.”
Why would a synagogue host a man with these views?
The rise of these anti-Israel campaigns in liberal democracies, especially the United States, has forced the Jewish community to make tough choices and draw red lines. When does criticism of Israel cross the line into destructive and dangerous defamation of the largest Jewish community and the one Jewish state in the world? When does it descend into the “new anti-Semitism,” characterized by the “3 Ds” — double standards, delegitimization and demonization of the Jewish state? When should Jewish communal organizations decline to sponsor events that promote such views, even if they are espoused by Jews who claim to love Israel?
The decision has been tough because, as Judea Pearl, author and father of slain journalist Daniel Pearl, pointed out, we are familiar with and have developed antibodies for classical anti-Semitism, but not for the “new anti-Semitism,” which often passes as political criticism and is often disguised in human rights rhetoric. But this new mutation uses the same techniques and distortions before, simply substituting the Jewish state for the Jewish people. We are obligated to develop a line of defense against it.
The decision has been tough also because the Jewish community firmly upholds the principle of free speech. But there is no contradiction between supporting anti-Israel extremists’ right to speak, and choosing not to give them a platform. Surely one can support the right of Ku Klux Klan or Nazi Party members to speak, but refuse to host them.
Fortunately, some national Jewish groups have risen to the challenge. Hillel International and many JCCs have begun to set red lines, and Hillel International’s president and CEO, Eric Fingerhut, has been upholding them. Hillel Guidelines state that Hillels will not partner with student groups that:
• Deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;
• Delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel;
• Support boycott of, divestment from or sanctions against the State of Israel;
• Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior toward campus guest speakers, or foster an atmosphere of incivility.
Jewish communal organizations should have the courage to set similar guidelines.
Israel has managed to withstand conventional armies and terrorism. Today, the propaganda campaign is the newest assault against it. The campaign attempts to erode public support for Israel and divide the Jewish community. The propaganda does not just attack Israel, one of the Jewish people’s crowning achievements, it also attacks Jews everywhere.
Israel faces many domestic and international challenges today. The Jewish community should promote reasonable, constructive and informed debate about these challenges, not promote extremists who revive the debate about whether the Jewish state should exist or who irresponsibly and falsely demonize it. Now is not the time to be silent or passive. We must stand up and draw some clear red lines. And BZBI should do the same.
Joseph Puder is the director of the StandWithUs Philadelphia office.