Congregation Ansche Chesed, a prominent Conservative synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, prides itself on being a “diverse community” that offers its members a “rich array of programming.” But when its leader, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, learned that the synagogue had agreed to serve as the venue for a panel on Israel, he attempted to cancel the event lest it lead to a discussion of BDS.
The flyer for the event had billed it, simply enough, as a talk on “Jewish Perspectives: Is Israel—or can it be—a democracy? Is there—or can there be—equality in Israel? Can a Jewish state be democratic?” But in the last paragraph, the flyer stated: “Last year, at two panels on Jewish Responses to Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), the questions above were among those that people asked. We are interested in continuing this discussion in the Jewish community and more broadly.”
In other words, this panel discussion was not meant to be about BDS at all. Instead, its only connection to BDS was the fact that its actual topic—whether Israel is or can be a Jewish and democratic state—had been raised at two previous BDS panels. But that weak connection was enough to tar the whole event for Kalmanofsky, who said in a phone call Monday that “the conversation about whether there should be an economic assault on the state of Israel, which would turn Israel into a pariah state on the scale of South Africa—that’s not a conversation that we want to explore the merits of here. It’s beyond the pale.”
Ansche Chesed had initially agreed to rent its space to the panel organizers when they approached the synagogue a few weeks ago, but Kalmanofsky, who is on sabbatical this year, was checking email sporadically and didn’t immediately get wind of it. By the time he did, the office staff had already signed a contract. Kalmanofsky told the staff he opposed hosting the panel, and on March 5 a synagogue representative emailed the organizers to cancel the contract. When co-sponsor Donna Nevel pushed back, explaining that they’d entered into a legally enforceable agreement, Kalmanofsky agreed to honor it but forbade them to use the synagogue’s name when publicizing the event. If they insisted on holding the event at Ansche Chesed—he preferred they find an alternative venue—they were to use the street address only.
“We felt that one of the reasons they wanted to have the event at this synagogue was because it was a mainstream synagogue,” Kalmanofsky explained, suggesting that he didn’t want a BDS discussion to reap the benefits of being associated with such an institution. Though he was aware that two of the four panelists actually opposed BDS—in fact, one of them, J.J. Goldberg, is a member of Ansche Chesed—the rabbi believes that BDS is an aggressive tactic that “associates Israel with South Africa” and that a discussion of it is therefore “inappropriate for us as a synagogue with a Zionist commitment.”
“I did have some concerns that it would in fact be a discussion that tilted in extremely harsh ways toward the state of Israel,” he added. “That’s what made me think it was not a great match for our congregation.”
Kalmanofsky is not the only American Jewish leader to express this viewpoint in recent months. In February, the fierce opposition to the BDS panel at Brooklyn College exposed the same unwillingness to explore this controversial movement. The criticism heaped on the rabbis of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun, when they dared to send an email celebrating Palestine’s upgraded U.N. status—which Israel had vociferously opposed—was likewise symptomatic of American Jews’ unwillingness to publicly challenge the policies of the Jewish state.
Kathleen Peratis, one of the panelists, said by phone that she believed Kalmanofsky would have refused to sign a contract in the first place if he had been involved from the start. “He would have said no because—I take him at his word—he was afraid the conversation was going to touch on BDS. It suggests that the fear of BDS is spreading like an inkblot to anybody who might talk about BDS. And that is far from the spirit of an open and free conversation.”
In a letter to the Jewish community, printed in full below this article, several panelists and co-sponsors went further, equating Ansche Chesed’s decision with censorship. Kalmanofsky dismissed these charges. “Listen, we said they can have the event,” he explained. “It’s not a choice that we would have made if we had clearer communication channels from the beginning. But we said yes! They can’t say they’re being censored if we said yes.” Still, his refusal to let the organizers use the synagogue’s name in publicizing the event belies this statement, at least in part.
Interestingly, Kalmanofsky also claimed that, had the request to hold a BDS discussion come from within the synagogue community as opposed to from an outside organization, he would have acceded. “If ten members of our synagogue community came to me and said, we’d like to have this as a program, I’d have no choice but to say yes, absolutely. But they approached this as a space rental.”
Given the current mood in the American Jewish community, whereby synagogue leaders are more hesitant than ever to host conversations critical of Israel, it may be worth keeping this claim in mind. If congregants want their synagogues to be less fearful of entertaining the really tough questions about the Jewish state, it may be up to them to instigate and demand that shift from within. Meanwhile, the inkblot continues to spread.
What follows is an open letter written and signed by the panelists and co-sponsors.
Letter to the Jewish Community: A Synagogue Tried to Shut Us Down
We are a group of progressive Jews deeply involved in Israel/Palestine and immersed in issues of democracy and justice. We are writing to advise you of a blatant attempt last week by leaders of a prominent New York synagogue to shut down a panel discussion on the subject “Israel-Equality-Democracy.”
We are cosponsors and panelists of this event; we approached Ansche Chesed some weeks ago, provided them with all of our information, including the subject of the discussion and the names of the proposed panelists, and asked to rent space from them. They agreed and signed a written contract stating that they would provide a venue. We also agreed they would not be listed as sponsors. We began to publicize the panel to enthusiastic response. We made plans to videotape it for distribution to a larger audience.
Suddenly, on the evening of March 5th, a representative of Ansche Chesed notified us by email that Ansche Chesed was canceling the contract and returning our rental payment. No explanation was offered.
We responded by saying that the synagogue had entered into an enforceable contract and that we would pursue available legal remedies. The next day, we received a letter from the shul's senior rabbi (though he is on sabbatical), advising us that Ansche Chesed would honor its contractual commitment only upon our agreement to new and onerous conditions and, in addition, that they preferred we hold the event elsewhere.
The rabbi's stated reason for preferring that we go elsewhere was the flyer’s description of the panel “as a continuation or product of last year’s panels on BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions].” He added: “Our institution is not interested in entertaining the merits of that position or fostering discussion of such a policy.” However, we had provided the flyer to Ansche Chesed before all parties entered into the contract [see original flyer below]. The rabbi told us that, should we nevertheless insist on the Ansche Chesed venue, we were "forbidden" from stating that the location of the event was Ansche Chesed (that is, we were to use the street address only) and that Ansche Chesed would hold us responsible for "reputational harm" resulting from any violation of this new condition. Clearly, the Ansche Chesed leadership, disregarding the many-faceted conversations that are actually going on in the Jewish community, did not want actual BDS supporters in their shul!
A word about the panel and the program: It was created to give the community an opportunity to hear four Jewish panelists—all highly regarded within the Jewish community and more broadly—exploring, from their different perspectives, important issues about Israel and democracy, with time for panelists to question and challenge each other and for audience members to ask questions. We know this discussion is controversial within parts of the Jewish community. Sponsorship is by individuals who hold a range of views so as to ensure a rich, vibrant, discussion. (Though not the topic of this panel, two of the panelists are BDS supporters and two are not.)
Ansche Chesed has behaved in a manner that is inconsistent with the traditional Jewish commitment to elu v’elu, hearing different views and allowing space for spirited argument about issues—on the street corner, at the dinner or Seder table, and in the meeting rooms of Jewish institutions. This must include wrestling with the very hardest questions about Israel/Palestine, the questions that perhaps make some members of the community most uncomfortable.
Sadly, Ansche Chesed's attempt to shut down the conversation is not an isolated incident; it happens all too frequently in Jewish venues. Jewish institutions cancel speakers or writers or panelists out of fear that the discussion alone will lead to harm. We should not give in to such no-nothingism or to bullying, intimidation, or fear of being “othered.”
We believe we reflect the views of large numbers of Jews who believe in the importance of open and honest discussions about Israel and Palestine, equality and democracy, and strategies for achieving a just solution. We must hold our institutions accountable to foster—not silence or censor—open debate about Israel and Palestine within the American Jewish community. And to this story, at least, there is a happy ending: another synagogue has opened its space to us, and the panel will be heard!
Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark
Letty Cottin Pogrebin