A Hint of Trouble: How “Pro-Israeli” Organizations Work to Suppress Freedom of Speech

Dr. Alice Rothchild, right, joined by five SILL volunteers during her speaking tour in Florida. Source: SILL, Facebook.

Almost one year ago, I received an invitation to speak in Sarasota, Florida, and two nearby communities as part of the Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning (SILL) Global Issues Series in March 2017. SILL hosts prominent speakers, ambassadors, and experts in many fields as well as a music series during the winter months when the snow birds arrive from all over the United States and Canada, looking for some sunshine, culture, and intellectual stimulation. We agreed on a talk that mirrored the title of my book, Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine, and I signed the contract. That all seemed very far away.

E-mail sent by the the Heller Israel Advocacy Initiative of The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee.

My first hint of trouble came on February 27 with a kindly email from the SILL leadership letting me know that the Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee had sent out a blast email warning of “The Spread of Anti-Semitism into Sarasota-Manatee.

The broadside went on to deplore the uptick in awful anti-Semitic attacks in the United States and to state that “now in our community, the SILL (Sarasota Institute of Lifelong Learning) Global Issues Series, whether intentionally or not, has added fuel to this anti-Semitic campaign by presented [sic] a speaker who is a purveyor of hatred – Dr. Alice Rothchild” (i.e., me).

They went on to note: “Dr. Rothchild, a member of Jewish Voices for Peace [sic] and a proud BDS supporter” will be speaking in three towns in the area and “unlike other SILL speakers, what Dr. Rothchild will impart to the audience is propaganda, not education.”

They continued with the assertion that BDS (the boycott, divestment, and sanction campaign against Israel that began in 2005 as a nonviolent call for actions designed to put pressure on the Israeli government to ensure Palestinian human rights) “is no different than any other form of bias. BDS is part of a world view that seeks to treat Israel differently than the rest of the world, since NO OTHER COUNTRY or people is the object of an international movement that could result in its destruction. The BDS movement may cloak itself in the language of human rights, but it is the economic arm of a rising tide of anti-Semitism [underlined and bolded] that is sweeping the globe.”

The Federation promised to “oppose anyone in our community who participates in this campaign,” and urged the horrified faithful to contact SILL “and let them know your thoughts.” This letter was signed by Edith Chaiftez, Chairwoman of the Heller Israel Advocacy Initiative, and Howard Tevlowitz, Executive Director. I learned later that serious pressure was applied to the organizers of SILL to cancel their “dangerous speaker.” However, the organizers in a show of both bravery and principle refused to bend, and for this I am extremely grateful.

Edith and Howard, do you mind if I call you by your first names? I feel like I know you. I must confess that being lumped with the racists and crazies who are desecrating Jewish cemeteries and calling in bomb threats to Jewish daycare centers is very tiresome. Let us also remember that Muslim and Palestinian Americans have been working to counter this tide and that one of the suspects behind this trend is a Jewish Israeli teenager who was arrested in Israel for making bomb threats to U.S. Jewish community centers. I have seen this hateful verbiage and heard these threats before. It is fine if we disagree, but this kind of McCarthyesque email and subsequent bullying with intent to prevent a presentation is also a grave disservice to anyone who is interested in advancing peace and safety for Jews and Palestinians alike. Your threatening email also flies in the face of the U.S. constitutional commitment to freedom of speech.

Using the accusation of anti-Semitism to muzzle those with whom you disagree seriously threatens to weaken the actual charge of anti-Semitism, which is a dangerous ideology aimed at Semitic people (in this case Jews) and institutions solely because they are Semites, an ideology that must be vigorously identified and condemned, along with Islamophobia, discrimination against people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQI community. That is very different from speech critical of the policies of the Israeli government which is, after all, a state and not a religion. If you want to talk about changing “the Jewish nature of the state” or the contradictions inherent in the idea that Israel can be both “Jewish and democratic,” then let’s talk about that without demonizing each other.

So what happened?

I was warmly welcomed by the SILL leadership and gave three whirlwind presentations in one-and-a-half days in an increasingly sunny Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch, and Venice. I explained my journey from nice Jewish girl going to Hebrew school three days a week, to outspoken critic of Israeli policy and Palestine solidarity activist. This was triggered by my serious commitment to tikkun olam — healing the world — and by my expanding understanding of history; my almost annual trips to the region since 2004, exploring health and human rights issues; and my concerns about Israeli policies, the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the siege of Gaza.

I got back from my third trip to Gaza and my twelfth trip to the region in January 2017. As a student of history and political movements (colonialism, racism, Islamophobia, Holocaust), I have come to understand that the supposed precious miracle of Israel “born out of the ashes of the Holocaust,” the “light unto the nations,” had, like many countries, committed and continues to commit serious injustices and human rights violations. Additionally, I’m personally responsible because the State of Israel speaks in my name as a self-proclaimed “state of the Jewish people,” and I live in the country that provides cover for the Israeli government and funds the occupation— $3.8 billion per year at last count.

My presentation explored the “dominant paradigms” that frame this conversation and the contradictions that are obvious to anyone who is actually willing to look and see. I also stressed the importance of seeking out the narratives of dissenting Israelis and Palestinians and seeing the so called “other” as a fellow human being with aspirations, mistakes, rights, and suffering that has largely been eclipsed by Jewish privilege and Israeli military dominance.

Dr. Alice Rothchild. Courtesy photo.

My primary thesis is that the current Israeli occupation is a continuation of more than 68 years of colonization of Palestine, of treating Jews as more deserving—more human—than Palestinians, and of Palestinians periodically fighting back, as is the case with many oppressed native peoples. And thus to have a real understanding of the issues, we are compelled to learn about the expulsion, dispossession, and war against the indigenous Palestinians that started long before 1948 and was disguised in the language of Jewish victimization and Biblical privilege. I urged my audience to examine the endless, stillborn “peace processes,” the racist demonization of Palestinians, and the impact of Jewish exceptionalism on everyone.

This was not an easy presentation to give or to receive. I challenged, educated, commiserated, and urged everyone to ask critical questions, to understand that honoring Jewish trauma does not negate the critical recognition of the legitimate rights, concerns, and trauma of Palestinian people. Ultimately, I asked people to understand that the fates of Jewish Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably bound together; that discord and gross inequity will never be resolved if the dominant militaristic power continues to demonize and force a captive population into an inhumane surrender agreement that involves vast power differences and corrupted leadership on all sides. In fact, that is a prescription for rising levels of racism and violent discrimination within Israeli society from the prime minister down to ultranationalist settlers, and for more Palestinian hopelessness and potential radicalization despite their famed ability to persevere.

Edith and Howard, if you are still with me here, I suggest you check out the work of the Israeli organization, Zochrot, which means Remembering. While you are at it, go see The Gatekeepers to hear a critical analysis from the heads of the Shin Bet and then read the testimonials from Breaking the Silence, Israeli soldiers who were once celebrated as the conscience of Israel until the country lurched further rightward. And if you are still interested, take a look at the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish and Taha Muhammad Ali. Lastly, I wish to ask you both to understand that mine is not the only Jewish voice. In fact, as a second article of mine will reveal, a growing number of Jews, including many who attended my presentation, share my sympathy with and commitment to Palestinian rights.

Dr. Alice Rothchild, the author of Condition Critical: Life and Death in Israel/Palestine, is a physician, author, and filmmaker who since 1997 has focused her interest in human rights and social justice on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Prior to that she was involved in the anti-war movement, health care reform, and women’s reproductive rights.