The Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington has withdrawn a commitment to host an event about American Jewish history on Labor Day because of remarks about Israel made by the program’s main speaker.
Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, will instead lead the daylong program about Jewish immigration on Sept. 3 at Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.
The JCC notified Rabbi Gordon Fuller, executive director of the program’s organizer and sponsor, the Foundation for Jewish Studies, on Aug. 22 of its decision to renege on its commitment to host the history program.
According to Michael Feinstein, the JCC’s chief executive, he made the decision within hours after the local rightwing pro-Israel group COPIA sent out an email that blasted the center for agreeing to host “one of the world’s leading Jewish anti-Semites and Israel haters” and called for recipients to contact Feinstein.
Feinstein said it was the first he heard of the program or of Diner.
“Honestly, I had no idea what their program was, nor had we done anything to vet who they were having speak … until I started getting a gazillion emails,” Feinstein said, referring to the Foundation for Jewish Studies.
After meeting with Feinstein, Fuller began searching for a new site. Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb agreed to host the program at Adat Shalom and his board concurred.
Who is Hasia Diner?
Diner has written 11 books on the American Jewish experience, many about Jewish migration. Her most recent book, “We Remember with Reverence and Love: American Jews and the Myth of Silence after the Holocaust, 1945-1962,” won the National Jewish Book Award and the Saul Viener Prize from the American Jewish Historical Society.
“When you talk about Jewish immigration, the first name that comes up is Hasia Diner,” said Elaine Amir, the Foundation for Jewish Studies’ president.
Diner also wrote a controversial opinion piece in Haaretz in 2016 in which she calls her lifelong Zionism naïve and castigates what she sees as Israel’s rightwing and ultra-religious turn.
“The exponential growth of far right political parties and the increasing haredization of Israel, makes it a place that I abhor visiting, and to which I will contribute no money, whose products I will not buy, nor will I expend my limited but still to me, meaningful, political clout to support it,” she wrote.
She went on to call the Law of Return, a fundamental part of Israel’s Basic Laws, guaranteeing the right of Jewish people to immigrate to Israel, “racism.” She wrote, “I feel a sense of repulsion when I enter a synagogue in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, ‘We Stand With Israel.’”
Diner declined to talk about the controversy, telling WJW in an email that she would only answer questions “about the history of immigration to the U.S. in the context of immigration. Nothing else.”
Amir said the immigration program will have nothing to do with Israel.
But Feinstein said his agency draws a line at someone supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement aimed at eroding American financial support for the Jewish state. He said Diner crosses that line.
“When it was brought to our attention that [Diner] said she does not want to go to any Jewish setting where Israel will loom large as an icon of Jewish identity, we felt her perspective on Israel was not in line with the values of the Bender JCC and our community,” he said. “We don’t host somebody that promotes BDS or someone who challenges Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
In its email, COPIA also urged recipients to write to Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. In 2014, COPIA members, then calling themselves COPMA, called for a boycott of the Federation in protest of productions at Theater J, which members said were anti-Israel.
Preuss did not respond to several requests to comment for this story.
Group threatens more opposition
The Foundation for Jewish Studies was established in 1983 as a home of serious, adult learning. Amir said she’s never seen so much controversy about the foundation’s programs.
“Some of it verges on comparing [Diner] to a Nazi, it’s very emotional,” she said of the emails she’s received. “But we’re not changing it. She’s a scholar, and we’re an organization that brings in scholars.”
Fuller said his organization does not vet speakers for their views on topics outside their area of scholarship.
“Just as we don’t like when we read about Israeli professors who are not allowed to present or do other things solely because they are Israelis … we don’t want to be the flip side of that coin by holding our speakers to certain beliefs or litmus tests that don’t apply to the topic at hand.” he said.
On Aug. 24, COPIA sent an email to Fuller with an attachment that calls on its mailing list to write Fuller opposing the program. “We’re hoping that the program will be pulled or the speaker changed and that we won’t have to send the email,” the group told Fuller.
“We read [COPIA’s message], we considered it and we decided to take the action that we’ve taken,” Fuller said, adding that his organization has received “vitriolic” emails about the event, as well as support from many members about their decision to go forward with the program.
“We’ve had an increase in both donations and registrations since they started this issue,” he told WJW in an email.
Dobb said that while he disagrees with Diner’s position on Israel, his congregation’s welcome of her and the foundation’s program demonstrates its openness to a variety of ideas.
“The entire community benefits when at least part of the community sends the signal that we are, in fact, a big tent,” Dobb said. “I respect that different communities have different criteria. People can and should differ with the professor’s statements on Israel, but should not extend the condemnation to silencing an expert on Jewish history from speaking on topics like Jewish immigration.”
Dobb added that he understands the decision may make Adat Shalom a target for some.
“But it can only burnish our reputation in the eyes of the pluralistic, open-minded wings of our larger community,” he said.
The JCC was absolutely within its rights to cancel this event. The article shows bias by characterizing the JCC’s decision as withdrawing “a commitment” to host Prof. Diner. I am willing to bet that not all material facts regarding Prof. Diner were disclosed to the JCC at the time that the event was scheduled. Prof. Diner’s statement “I feel a sense of repulsion when I enter a synagogue in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, ‘We Stand With Israel’” is appalling.
The JCC leadership has a duty to its own members to enforce its own policies, and to not bring in speakers like Prof. Diner who many members would find repulsive. Being “open minded” does not mean that we need to bring in or encourage speakers who attack the very existence of the Jewish state.
I don;t happen to agree with Professor Diner on some aspects of her reaction to the wprsenihg level of racism and anti-democratic behavior of the present government of Israel. AND I thank God for the willingness of Rabbi Scherlinder Dobb and Adat Shalom Congregation to offer space for the discussion of Jews and immigration after the Bender JCC refused to allow Prof. Diner to speak. One of the great defining moments of Judaism is the Torah story of Abraham’s criticising God’s intention to destroy all the people of Sodom. If it is a sacred act of Jews to criticize God’s Own Self for the sake of justice, how much more so are we obligated to criticize the Government or even the State of Israel for the sake of justice. It is only idols that cannot be criticized, and as the Psalms teach us, prostrating ourselves to idols brings death upon the idolator. Making Israel into an uncriticizable idol is deadly to Israel and the Jewish people.
Shame on the and in the Federation for succumbing to dime-store McCarthyism. If tolerating debate and dissent was good enough for the rabbis who decided that the views of both Hillel and Shamai should be recorded in the Talmud, surely it’s good enough for our community.
Hasia Diner is a leading scholar in the field of immigration history, particularly with respect to the experiences of Jewish Americans and Irish Americans. She is a prolific author, with many award-winning books to her credit, and has mentored several of the most respected mid- and new-career scholars in American Jewish history. As such, she was recently honored by her peers at the Biennial Scholars’ conference of the American Jewish Historical Society, who bestowed upon her the Lee Max Friedman award for distinguished service to the profession. Not only is this awarded (biennially) to the most accomplished, respected scholars in the field, but it is notable that Prof. Diner received the award less than two years after writing a controversial article that was profoundly critical of Israel and which advocated support for the BDS movement. Several people in the room at the AJHS conference were on record with articles of their own that directly refuted Prof. Diner’s position and which were deeply critical of her, yet at the same time, they joined with their colleagues in recognizing her scholarship. Personally, I believe that there is an important difference between inviting someone to speak about their area of expertise and agreeing (or vehemently disagreeing) with opinions on completely different subjects, that they hold as individuals. My own animus toward the BDS movement and its goals should not prevent me or anyone else from learning about a totally different subject from someone who has different political beliefs from mine.
Also, to DIS-invite someone because of their individual views (i.e. not an organization), bending under pressure from those who disagree with Diner’s personal beliefs, is worse than not inviting her would have been in the first place, because it is a victory for intolerance and bullying. It contributes to the incivility that has beset our community (& our country), and if these tactics are allowed to succeed, it cuts off avenues for future dialogue on a host of other issues.
Don’t you realize that it is scurrilous and anti-moral to segregate one’s “scholarship” from one’s ethical behavior? What is the purpose of “learning” or “scholarship” if not to behave in a humane way that one’s research uncovers. Are you telling me that someone could “study” the experience of Jews in American from 1945 to at least 1962 or later and not realize that the security of the State of Israel is fundamental to the survival of the Jewish People entirely? Is it merely a convenience that the initial period of focus did not include the 1930’s, which even the most ardent BDS’ers can hardly deny were so miserable for Jews all over, including in the USA? What was being protested was not that she can voice her vitriol anywhere she wants, as often and to whatever extent she is inclined, but that financial supporters of Federation and JCC did not want their money being used to underwrite an avowed enemy of the State of Israel and someone who has made it plain that she is working her hardest to financially impair Israel and its resident Jew, and for that matter Arabs as well. This is NOT a first amendment issue; it is an economic issue. I and the zillions of opponents to the proposed travesty did not want to see our money supporting the undermining of economic viability of Israel that we [and the banners in front of synagogues that sicken this professor] proclaim.