Once again we have seen the spectacle of the Jewish leadership banning dissenting Jews from their annual festival of ideas, Limmud Oz.
Organisers of this year’s conference held last weekend in Melbourne told the co-ordinators of a workshop on a new book, Beyond Tribal Loyalties, that their session would not be included. They gave no reasons. At the event, the contributors held their own workshop independently of the Limmud organisers. It was very successful, attracting an appreciative audience of 60 people.
Beyond Tribal Loyalties is a collection of 25 personal accounts by Jewish dissidents from around the world, including Australia, of their personal journeys to adopting a critical stance towards Israel and Zionism.
These journeys always include negotiating pressures from the organised Jewish community, such as the exclusion at the festival. As one would expect, the accounts vary considerably in outlook and experience. Why should such a workshop reflecting diverse Jewish views be so problematic?
This ban follows on last year’s Limmud Oz in Sydney, when, after being on the program, Dr Peter Slezak and I were excluded because of our public promotion of boycotts, sanctions and divestment (BDS) against Israel because of its breaches of international law.
We have seen this time and time again. One or other Jewish communal organisation schedules a speaker who challenges Zionists beyond their comfort zone. It later withdraws the invitation under pressure from communal power brokers. These kinds of decisions are about who belongs to the Jewish community and who has the right to speak as a Jew.
The mainstream leadership constantly tries to delegitimise critics, declaring them self-hating Jews or not “real” Jews – generally beyond the pale. The very phrase comes from the Pale of Settlement in Tzarist Russia where Jews were confined.
In this case, the title of the book would itself have been a provocation: the idea of going “beyond tribal loyalties” certainly challenges the power of those who would rule by fear. However, I affirm my membership of the tribe and my right to speak as such. I would argue that the views I promote are much more in the long-term interests of the tribe than those so stridently imposed by the Zionist leadership.
Limmud Oz generally has had broad parameters for discussion, by far the widest available in the mainstream community. It has traditionally been an oasis of free debate among Jews around controversial issues.
The range of views within the mainstream community is much wider than that reflected publicly by the official leadership and mainstream Jews flock to Limmud Oz to enjoy and participate in the discussion. As we have seen, extraordinary pressures can be placed on those who buck the official line. This means that too often, Jewish community members feel too intimidated to honestly speak their views, even within the confines of the mainstream Jewish community. It is therefore very disappointing that, yet again, discussion was banned.
So why this sense of threat when Israel is challenged? Why this denial of the brutality of the occupation and the undoubted violations of international law by Israel? Tragically, for many Jews, Israel has become the guarantee of existential security, the repository of all Jewish strength.
The Holocaust and the history of persecution in Christian Europe, have left undoubted scars. However, this trauma is prolonged and exacerbated by a strong culture of victimhood and suffering among Jews. This is paradoxically not allayed by the existence of the state of Israel, no matter how strong it is militarily.
I suggest that the Zionist movement has a vested interest in keeping the wounds of the Holocaust open and suppurating. Healing from historical traumas is blocked. Just as the likes of Pauline Hanson or Tony Abbott can mobilise racism and other reactionary responses among mainstream Australians for political gain, so the Zionist leadership can mobilize extraordinary fears among ordinary Jews.
The Holocaust experience has been shamefully manipulated to provoke unquestioning support for Israel. Individuals and groups like Independent Australian Jewish Voices and Jews against the Occupation get systematically demonised.
Many mainstream Jews have expressed considerable concern at this restriction of debate, and as with the bans last year, have protested vigorously to the Limmud Oz organisers.
Surely it is now time to leave the Pale behind, or, to use a metaphor from another colonialist enterprise, stop circling the wagons. Must Israel be supported regardless of its violations of universal law and values? How does this serve Jewish security and wellbeing in the world? Why exclude controversial discussion? Let us engage with criticism, not try to repress it.
Those of us who cross the so-called “red lines” of the organised Jewish community will continue to seek dialogue with our fellow Jews within our community. We will be back for next year’s Limmud in Sydney and hope that organisers will reconsider the short-sighted policy of exclusion.
These bans are ill-advised and can only diminish the reputation of the Jewish community as a whole.
[Avigail Abarbanel, editor of Beyond Tribal Loyalties, is in Sydney 14 – 18 June to speak at a variety of events to promote the book. Details for Beyond Tribal Loyalties can be found here. Vivienne Porzsolt is spokesperson for Jews against the Occupation Sydney.]