Sunday, May 17, 2009

McCarthyites Up The Ante

The McCarthyism in the Toronto Jewish community is going from bad to worse.

Last week I (and three of Toronto's four daily newspapers) reported on the blacklisting of Toronto artists Reena Katz by the Koffler Centre for the Arts, because of her strongly anti-racists views on Israel/Palestine. (See my blog entry here.)

Yesterday the Lori Starr, Executive Director of the Koffler Centre, added gasoline to the fire with a Letter to the Editor of the Toronto Star.

Decisions not base on belief

At the Koffler Centre we completely understand that like any healthy and vibrant community, ours is one with many diverse opinions where ideas are explored and examined. Our commitment is to ensure that as a cultural centre, we are part of that examination and certainly have no intention of stopping anyone for being critical of Israel's policies.

However, our centre, like our community, is committed to Israel's well-being and existence as a Jewish state. No organization could partner with any individual who works against one of their core values. Just as every individual has a right to freedom of expression, any organization is free to choose with whom it partners.

Our decision was not based on Reena Katz's beliefs, but rather her role in undermining Israel's existence as a Jewish state.

The question of whether the exhibition will continue is up to the artist. We have simply adhered to our principles by disassociating with both the artist and the project, as we should have.

What smarmy nonsense. Here is a letter that I wrote the Star in reply (so far they haven't published it.)

Re “Decisions not base on belief” Saturday May 16, 2009

Lori Starr’s attempted justification of the Koffler Centre (letters May 16th), is a load of rubbish.

First she claims that her center one where “many diverse opinions and ideas are explored and examined.” We would never blacklist anyone for his or her opinions, she says. But in the next sentence she supports the blacklisting of Reena Katz for publicly advocating for her opinions re Israel/Palestine. So, it seems that the Koffler center supports diverse opinions only as long as you don’t express them!

Second Ms Starr claims that “our centre, like our community, is committed to Israel's … existence as a Jewish state.” Which community? Certainly not the Jewish Community. No one has ever polled the Jews of Toronto on this issue, and it is well know that many Jews, some prominent, think that Israel as a de-jure Jewish State (as opposed to a state with a lot of Jews in it) is a bad idea. Some of these Jews come to this position from conservative theological reasons (including the world’s largest Hassidic sect) and some from progressive humanist ones. Among religious Jews, some synagogues celebrate Israeli Independence Day, some are theologically indifferent, and some view the creation of the Jewish State as a sin. Many progressive Jews think Israel should be a “state for all its citizens” Jews and non-Jews. These debates go on all the time in the Jewish community.

Who exactly is Lori Starr and the Koffler Centre to be telling us what the Jewish communities core values are? Who are they to say whom the community can and cannot support?
What I could of added is that Ms Katz denies the facts of the case. She denied every having undermined Israels existence as a Jewish State. She claims only to be against Israels racist policies. But of course was never asked to explain herself before the decsion makers at the Koffler. And the Koffler Centre's claim that the decsion to continue the show or not is solely up to the artist is disengenous too. The Koffler Centre is just the most visible hammer of the Official Jewish Community in Toronto. The word has gone out that Reena Katz is treif - so now the Baycrest Centre, the major Jewish old folks home, which was integral to some of the performance art in Katz's performance pieces, has also pulled out. Today Katz, and exhibit curator Kim Simon (also Jewish) issued this statement.

Dear friends, supporters and colleagues,

As our situation with Koffler Centre of the Arts continues unresolved, we offer this
brief update on the status of the Reena Katz exhibition each hand as they are
called:

While we have made every attempt to present the exhibition as originally
intended, with numerous logistic delays and the fact that Baycrest Centre
Geriatric Care – an essential and valued collaborator in the project - has
withdrawn their participation, we are prevented from moving forward at this time.
Our request to meet with the Koffler board of directors has been rejected and the
question of silencing discussion and diverse voices within our communities
remains.

While it is with great sadness that we announce the exhibition will not be opening
to the public on Wednesday, May 20th as originally scheduled, we continue to
work towards the presentation of each hand as they are called.

The incredible support that we have received from cultural workers,
administrators, organizers, academics, and the media has been the inspiration
for our desire to continue moving forward. Your writing, calls, and critical
discussions are greatly appreciated and act as a place marker for the original
spirit of the project.

We will continue to share updates as they happen, and please visit our website
for any information: www.eachhand.org

Sincerely,
Reena Katz, artist
Kim Simon, curator
So, not only has the chill of an intolerant and fearful Zionist hegemony (that not a word I use easily) fallen over the Official Toronto Jewish Community, but a public art exhibit designed to celebrate the rich and vibrant Jewish history of Toronto has been nixed. We are all the poorer for this.

Fortunately, we live in a city where the Official Toronto Jewish Community is not as completely powerful as it would like to be. There are Jews who are able to express other voices. One is Rick Salutin, who writes in today's Globe and Mail about another issue that has got the Official Jewish Community in a lather, and trying to censor - Seven Jewish Children. And he mentions the Katz affair to give that controversy some context. (You can read my own take on Seven Jewish Children here.)

It seems to me that this affair is not just unfortunate and annoying. The Official Jewish Community" has thrown down the gantlet. It has decided that it will read out of "our community" anyone who does not support Israel as a Jewish State or even anyone who may be "undermining" that position by publicly confronting Israel's discriminatory policies towards Arabs. They have drawn a line in the sand that defines if you are in or out. I think any such line is a bad thing. But if I must stand on one side or the other, it is not with Lori Starr, the Koffler Centre, and the rest of the Official Jewish Community. It is on the side of open debate and the core Jewish values of honesty, justice, and mercy.

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