Monday, May 11, 2009

The New Jewish McCarthyism


The image above used to be found at the web site of Toronto's Koffler Center for the Arts, promoting an exhibit called "Each hand as they are called" by Toronto artist Reena Katz. (The show, celebrateing the Jewish roots of Toronto's Kennsington Market will still go on, as it was being co-sponsored by the Luminato Festival.)

No more. Instead there is a press release explaining that the Koffler Centre - an agency of the Jewish Community with major funding from the UJA - was withdrawing its association with the exhibit, because "As a Jewish cultural institution, an agency of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the Koffler Centre of the Arts will not associate with an artist who publicly advocates the extinction of Israel as a Jewish state. "

The exhibit itself has nothing to do with Israel or Palestine.

What was Ms Katz sin? According to the Koffler's press release: "Recently the Koffler Centre of the Arts learned of Reena Katz’s public support for and association with Israel Apartheid Week, which rejects the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state and promotes historically inaccurate comparisons between contemporary Israel and apartheid South Africa, in order to delegitimize Israel."

Ms Katz, for her part, denies ever having advocated against the existence State of Israel or attempting to delegitimize it. She does admit to being severely critical Israe'ls policies, and of comparing Israel's treatment of Arabs to apartheid.

The story made both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.

Below is a copy of a letter I wrote to the Executive Director of the Koffler Centre. (And if you feel so inclined you can write her too at lstarr@kofflerarts.org.)

Ms Starr

I was very disappointed to hear that the Koffler Centre has withdrawn its sponsorship of the art exhibit "each hand as they are called" because you disagree with the political views of the artist Rena Katz. This smacks of a new McCarthyism within the Jewish Community.

I was under the impression that the Kofler Centre was an apolitical arts centre, representative of and serving the entire Jewish Community. While Ms Katz'z views may not be those of the majority of Jews in Toronto (and to be sure no one really knows what the majority of the 160,000 Jews in the GTA think of the Israel Palestine conflict) her views are not unique. Many leaders of anti-occupation groups and even of the Israel Apartheid Week are Jewish.

Neither should objecting to Israel as a de-jure Jewish State (as opposed to a state with a lot of Jews) be grounds for a "herem" by a community organization. Are you, before co-sponsoing events, going to check the bona-fides of every agudah or Satmar affiliated synagogue member to see that they believe that Israel is the official state of the Jewish people? Are you going to check the politics of every musician who plays at Ashkenaz - some of whom have been very outspoken in opposition to the Israeli occupation and its treatment of Arabs. Many members of both Toronto's ultra-orthodox and liberal congregation have doubts about the wisdom of the formula of a de-jure Jewish State. And this is to say nothing of the majority of Toronto's Jews who remain unaffiliated with any synagogue or Jewish organization and who for the most part seem to support a multi-national muti-cultural state in Canada.

Moreover the "sin" for which you have decided to boycott Ms Katz for - that she "rejects the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state and promotes historically inaccurate comparisons between contemporary Israel and apartheid South Africa" - are positions that various Israeli Jews and Jewish politicians have taken. The idea that Israel should be a State For All Its Citizens rather that a Jewish State is one that is legitimately debated in Israel. And even former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has admitted that he wished to reach a two state solution with the Palestinians to end the defacto apartheid conditions in the occupied territories.

I myself have lived in Israel for many years, served in the Israeli army, have served on a synagogue board for 7 years, have raised several hundreds of thousands of dollars for Jewish causes, and also think that the idea of Israel as a de-jure Jewish State is not such a good one, and that comparisons between contemporary Israel and apartheid South Africa are not wholly inappropriate. Will you boycott me as well? Will you attempt to read people like me out of the Jewish Community.

Don't you have a mandate and and obligation to represent and reflect the entire Jewish community? To bring us together through art; not to serve as the gatekeepers of political litmus tests.

Sincerely

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