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Limmud acknowledges it ‘overstepped the mark’ by inviting BDS supporters

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Limmud heard the community’s ire, and disinvited three Jewish anti-Israel presenters to its annual conference in Cape Town next weekend following outrage from people claiming that the organisation had gone too far.
by NICOLA MILTZ | Aug 02, 2018

By removing the three, who are associated with Boycott Divestment Sanctions South Africa (BDS-SA), from the programme, Limmud has thrown open the debate as to who is kosher and who is not when it comes to community forums.

Limmud – an international Jewish cultural and educational organisation taking the form of an annual conference in various countries – is widely viewed as a highlight on the local Jewish calendar. It always offers a diverse, star-studded line-up of prominent local and international Jewish academics, cultural experts, business leaders, and political heavyweights. It is known to push boundaries and challenge people.

But this year, Limmud pushed the boundaries too far. When the Cape Town programme was released last week, members of the community were angered by the inclusion of three BDS-aligned speakers: Heidi Grunebaum, Mitchel Joffe Hunter, and Jeremy Phillips.

Heidi Grunebaum is an academic, social activist, and associate professor doing research at the Centre for Humanities Research at the University of the Western Cape. She is a member of a minority group called SA Jews for a Free Palestine.

Jeremy Phillips is a postgraduate law student at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and an active member of the UCT Palestine Solidarity Forum on campus. This organisation has been campaigning for an academic boycott of Israel.

Mitchel Joffe Hunter, who has presented at Limmud in the past, also supports SA Jews for a Free Palestine, and the Palestine Solidarity Alliance.

The community’s response was swift and fierce, as people expressed their disgust on various platforms including social media platforms such as WhatsApp groups, Twitter, and Facebook. Radio talk show host Howard Feldman’s phone lines were flooded with angry callers on his Morning Mayhem show on Chai FM.

In a letter to the organisers of Limmud, a shocked and irate Gary Nathan said it was “totally unacceptable” that Limmud would give these people a “platform, recognition, and legitimacy”, and went so far as to accuse those responsible of failing Limmud and the Jewish community.

He said: “The speakers support organisations that are clearly anti-Semitic, blatantly anti-Israel, and their arguments are based on lies and half-truths.”

Failing to disinvite them would send a signal to the community and “future generations of Jews” that their arguments were “legitimate”.

“We will send a message to our brothers and sisters in Israel, who are on the front lines defending our country with their lives, that we have abandoned them.”

He was not the only one to express their disapproval.

Adina Roth, the National Chairperson of Limmud SA, told the SA Jewish Report that Limmud “had overstepped the mark” and that the pressure to disinvite the three speakers was unlike anything Limmud had experienced before.

“Our community finds itself in a difficult time in relation to Israel. The community feels Israel is under scrutiny and under attack by the wider media and in this context, Limmud has strived to create a space where dialogue is still possible across a range of opinions. At the same time, we are aware the actions of BDS-SA are often perceived and experienced as inflammatory, intolerant, and anti-Semitic. The association of these presenters with BDS-SA was too much for our community right now.

“We heard the community’s cry, and it led to the very painful decision to cancel the speakers. We agonised for days over this.”

The Cape Town Limmud is being held at Herzlia Middle School Campus from 9 to 11 August. The venue is a change from previous years where it took the form of a sleepover outside the city. Called “Limmud in the Hood” it will take place over four days, and includes 18 international speakers and more than 140 sessions.

As soon as the programme was released, the school was flooded with calls from angry members of the community in response to the three speakers.

Geoff Cohen, the Director of Education at United Herzlia Schools, said that Herzlia had a reputation of being open and inclusive, but the school drew “a certain line in the sand” when it came to who it allowed to address its staff and students.

“We have a tick list that works well for us. It consists of four questions: Do you believe Israel has a right to exist as a Jewish state? Do you believe in a two-state solution? These two questions should elicit a ‘yes’ response. Do you believe Israel is an apartheid state? And do you support BDS? The last two should elicit a negative response.”

The three speakers told the SA Jewish Report this week that they wanted the Limmud conference to conclude its sessions before commenting.

Said Grunebaum: “Limmud is a precious and immensely important space. I would like to honour that. I would prefer to wait until after the [conclusion of the] 2018 edition of Limmud before I share my reflections.”

In 2009, Limmud’s conference was mired in controversy with the visit to South Africa of Israel Defence Forces Legal Adviser, Lieut. Col. David Benjamin. His visit came fresh on the heels of the war in Gaza dubbed Operation Cast Lead.

His visit resulted in several local human rights activists, including some members of the Jewish community, voicing their objections to him being given a platform at the conference. They pushed for Benjamin’s withdrawal from the programme. Limmud stood its ground, saying that Benjamin would offer a first-hand perspective of the policy of the Israeli military, including its view of what happened during the three-week Gaza war.

This week, however, Roth said the pressure was overwhelming.

“We held our ground with the IDF legal advisor, even though there was a strong outcry from some of our Limmud constituencies. We were able to appeal to our Limmud principles of diversity in content and engagement through dialogue. In this instance, it was difficult because there was the same argument that the presenters came in the spirit of dialogue, of engagement. But, in the current context of our community, the extent of the vulnerability and pain is very strong, and the vehemence was so strong. We are a cross-communal organisation; indeed we are our communities. We needed to respond to that as well.”

Raymond Schkolne, an active member of the Cape Town community, said Limmud was a wonderful organisation, a “broad tent” including all sides of the spectrum. He said he did not believe the speakers should have been censored.

“This week’s developments will serve to further polarise the community, and this is not in [its] best interests.

“Let’s not forget these are Jewish people that are on a Jewish journey. The common narrative is that we are under pressure as a community, so we have to unite and get into the laager and not be seen to be critical of Israel. But it is important to grapple with these issues, and to be critical where it’s appropriate to be.

“It is not the Jewish way to alienate, exclude, and marginalise them, even vilify and demonise them. We are alienating the youth. Instead of finding ways of bringing them in, we are pushing them out.”

Longstanding Limmud volunteer, Daniel Barnett, said he believed Limmud “handled the situation correctly and responsibly” by removing the speakers from the programme.

“The community must have perspective here. There are tens of Israel-themed sessions on the programme, none of which are on BDS. There is no communal organisation that offers such a diverse range of topics on Israel in such a congested space,” he said.

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