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.
Jewish Voice for Peace advocates boycott, divestment, and sanctions. JVP calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and its replacement by a unitary state that will absorb four generations of Arab “refugees.” Dr. Penny Rosenwasser, the named JVP moderator of the Beinart event, is well known for her strong and passionate anti-Zionist advocacy.
Blumenthal presents none of this history. Instead, he focuses on an alleged member of the Jewish Federation Board, Jonathan Wornick, as the initial source of the pressure on the Jewish Community Center to withdraw its support for the Beinart event.
Again, Blumenthal is getting bad information. Wornick has not been a Federation board member for the last two years.
By way of disclosure, I have met Wornick twice. I am on his Facebook page, as I am on hundreds of others. Wornick did put a notice about the Beinart lecture up on Facebook. This, for the hyperbolically inclined Blumenthal, was “the beginning of the pressure.” However, Wornick was just another voice of outrage amid a popular groundswell, within a community where many have become tired of their institutions sponsoring events that threaten the existence of the Jewish state.
Someone in Germany hacked into Wornick’s Facebook account, and some of Wornick’s pages appear in Blumenthal’s column. Where Blumenthal got this material is an issue, for most certainly Wornick and Blumenthal have not “friended” each other.
With a large dose of spin and manipulation of context, Blumenthal transformed Wornick into some sort of crazy racist, the very prototype of the Zionist leader that Beinart warned us against. This is a Wornick that perhaps Blumenthal’s “source” will recognize, though no one remotely familiar with Wornick will take this portrayal seriously.
No one, especially if they carry an anti-Zionist message, needs the imprimatur of the JCC or the Jewish Federation to speak in Berkeley. There are plenty of groups, on- and off-campus, which would welcome Beinart’s discredited narrative. As Blumenthal’s correction revealed, Beinart pulled out not because of the JCC, the Federation, or even its phantom board member Jonathan Wornick, but because — in Beinart’s own words — even he did not want to be sponsored by Jewish Voice for Peace.