Perhaps not wanting to be embroiled in another controversy over factual inaccuracy, late last week Max Blumenthal issued an updated and corrected version of his column on how anti-Zionist Zionist Peter Beinart was muscled out of a speaking engagement in Berkeley. Blumenthal’s correction is a step forward in setting the record straight, but only a step: whoever is feeding Blumenthal the nonsense he has been publishing is not knowledgeable about the workings of the Jewish community here.
Blumenthal’s readers might conclude from his vitriol that a bunch of right-wingers who want to silence any and every dissonant voice criticizing Israel’s policies dominate the East Bay Jewish community.
You could only write something that absurd if you were patently unfamiliar with this community.
As someone who moved here ten years ago from the Midwest, I am dismayed by how far left this Jewish community is. Given a choice between being left and being Jewish, most of our community would embrace leftism with alacrity. The examples are legion, and some of them were well documented in a recent piece by Natan Nestel in the Jerusalem Post. And contrary to Blumenthal’s assertion, the Jerusalem Post is not simply the mouthpiece of the Israel Defense Forces.
That’s that kind of hyperbole that perhaps led to Blumenthal’s previous journalistic controversies: his accusation that the Israeli military was training American police personnel in torture methods; and his airing a video of drunken American youth in Israel making racist statements. The first accusation led to Blumenthal’s source parting company with him on what was said, and the second was considered so lacking in newsworthiness that the Huffington Post wouldn’t run it. Put a camera in front of any bunch of drunken young people and ask questions the right way, you will get some scandalous footage. You just will not get news.
The Bay Area Jewish community is divided between an establishment that begins on the left and falls off the face of the planet somewhere, and groups of pro-Israel activists, who — counter to Beinart’s thesis — get no help from the Jewish organizations. The divisions, conflicts, and emotional intensities separating these groups, to put it mildly, run deep.
The community’s motto is that it has a “big tent.” Indeed, the tent is so big that Students for Justice in Palestine — the most vicious anti-Israel group on the Berkeley campus — participates in events at Berkeley Hillel. Both J Street and New Israel Fund are in the tent. Even Tikkun’s Rabbi Michael Lerner, who is not inclined toward establishment types, is welcome in the tent.
Some of the Jewish progressives have been unrelenting in pushing their anti-Israel agenda within the organized community. Their successes only heightened their aspirations. This resulted in a number of incidents that mobilized people who ordinarily do not participate in the community.
Two incidents come immediately to mind. First, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival hosted the “documentary” on Rachel Corrie — the now beatified martyr of the International Solidarity Movement — complete with a discussion led by her mother before an audience that was viciously anti-Semitic. Second, the East Bay Jewish Community Center sponsored a lecture by Cindy Sheehan.
Sheehan’s message before an audience of comfortable Jewish progressives was that Israel killed her son. Yet even progressives know: not only did Israel oppose the invasion of Iraq on geopolitical grounds, but so did every major American Jewish organization.
Inevitably, those who ordinarily stay out of the community’s political decisions have enough. Push politics to the extreme, and you get a reaction. In this environment, opposition to Beinart was inevitable. His program of boycott, divestment, and sanctions, however limited, was no longer palatable. His advocacy of forcing Israel to make more concessions in a post-Gaza environment sounded like a boring retread of what had failed. But sponsorship by the Jewish Voice for Peace was the deal-breaker, even for some of the most liberal elements of the community.