Two years ago, David Harris-Gershon predicted in the blog he wrote for Tikkun magazine that what he was posting “could bring censure.” The post, the Pittsburgh day school teacher wrote, was his “coming out” as a supporter of the boycott, divest and sanction, or BDS, movement.
The censure didn’t come until early last month, when the Hillel at the University of California at Santa Barbara retracted its invitation for the author to speak about his memoir, What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife? The book recalls Harris-Gershon’s attempt to heal emotionally after a terrorist bomb at Hebrew University injured his then-girlfriend.
Censure came again on Jan. 30, when the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center’s CEO, Carole Zawatsky, sent an email to Harris-Gershon rescinding the invitation to speak there on March 13. The two spoke by phone on Feb. 3.
According to Zawatsky and others, by publicizing his support for BDS, Harris-Gershon crossed a red line, because of which he is not welcome in the Jewish communal tent.
“Our mission is to support a strong, safe secure Israel,” Zawatsky stated, and Harris-Gershon’s political beliefs are “outside the bounds. They’re not supportive of the state of Israel.”
BDS is a label given to a growing movement that includes activists who don’t recognize Israel as the Jewish state, as well as others like Harris-Gershon, who considers himself “a progressive Zionist who would like to see Israel thrive as a Jewish, democratic state resulting from a finalized two-state agreement,” which he
wrote in Tikkun on Jan. 29, a day before receiving the email from Zawatsky.
Zawatsky said the publicity surrounding the Santa Barbara cancellation brought Harris-Gershon’s position on BDS to her attention.
The Washington area’s organized Jewish community drew its red line regarding BDS in 2011. That April, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington released a statement that it “unequivocally rejects the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement” and that it “will not support, assist or fund any organization that encourages boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the state of Israel in pursuit of goals to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish State.”
Speaking to WJW, Harris-Gershon noted that the topic of his DCJCC presentation was not BDS, but about his book, whose major themes are “reconciliation and dialogue.”
“BDS has never been a topic of discussion at any of the dozens of JCCs and synagogues I’ve spoken to, and something I would not bring up because it’s not relevant to the event,” he said.
The writer made appearances at Washington Hebrew Congregation and the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in November. He discussed his book and the topic of BDS never came up, according to those familiar with the events.
“There were no sparks at all,” said Leslie Maitland, who organized the event at Washington Hebrew Congregation.
“He was absolutely terrific,” echoed Jeff Dannick, executive director of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. “His book was extremely thoughtful. He didn’t say anything about BDS. It was a non-issue.”
Both appearances, however, came before Harris-Gershon’s views on BDS
became more widely known, and Dannick and Maitland said they were unaware
“Here’s the problem,” revealed Dannick, “BDS is like a red line. Had we known at the time, we would have had a similar problem as the DCJCC had. I’m glad I didn’t have to make that decision.”
The DCJCC is already under scrutiny over its upcoming production of the Israeli play The Admission, which has caused controversy among local right-wing Israel supporters. Asked if the reaction over The Admission influenced the decision to disinvite Harris-Gershon, Zawatsky answered, “Absolutely not. Our BDS position was taken a long time ago, not for this situation.”
Appearances can convey the wrong impression about where an agency stands on controversial questions, Dannick added. “When someone is pro-BDS, it creates a political firestorm and creates the impression that your institution is pro-BDS, which it’s not.”
Asked whether institutions should check speakers’ political positions before an invitation is issued, Dannick said, “I imagine we have to be more vigilant about that.”