More than 75 people turned out at the Squirrel Hill Public Library Sunday, July 31, for a “community discussion” entitled “Is the Threat to Israel’s Democracy Real?”
The event was sponsored by J Street Pittsburgh, Congregation Dor Hadash, the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee, and the Tikkun Olam Center for Social Justice of Temple Sinai.
While most in attendance appeared sympathetic to featured speaker Gili Re’i’s message that the anti-boycott law recently passed by the Knesset was an “alarming sign” for Israeli democracy, those challenging her message were rebuked for what J Street leaders believed to be an antagonistic tone and a personal attack.
Re’i, who addressed the crowd from Israel through video conferencing, is the associate director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the Israeli equivalent to the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This specific law [anti-boycott law] is part of a larger picture of anti-democratic legislation taking place in Israel over the past year,” Re’i told the crowd.
Citing the recent passage of the Nakba law — which stipulates that the minister of finance may withhold from or reduce the budgets of government-funded bodies that deny the existence of Israel — as well as the Acceptance Committee law —which authorizes the activity of “admission committees” in rural villages in the Negev and Galilee that number fewer than 400 families — Re’i warned that Israeli civil rights were being eroded by the “tyranny of the majority.”
The anti-boycott bill was passed into law by a Knesset vote of 47-38 last month. The law allows Israelis affected by boycotts to collect damages from those who harm their livelihoods through the promotion of boycotts. It also forbids the Israeli government from doing any kind of business with the boycotters. There is no criminal penalty for violation of the law.
Opponents of the law, which include Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League, say the law infringes upon the right to freedom of speech. Knesset legal advisor, Eyal Yinon, also has said that the law “damages the core tenet of freedom of expression in Israel.”
Supporters of the law, such as Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, argue that free speech must have boundaries, and that in a small country such as Israel, a boycott based on differences in politics can create severe economic strain.
“The anti-boycott bill is a very strong silencer, and will have a chilling effect,” Re’i told Sunday’s crowd, which was predominantly comprised of senior citizens. “It sends a strong message that anyone who opposes the government is a traitor. I see the Acceptance Committee law, the Nakba law and the anti-boycott law as challenging the very democratic character of the State of Israel.”
Following her presentation, Re’i opened the floor to questions. Two men in the audience challenged her assertions, and charged that her presentation was one-sided and went on too long.
“We have been invited to a discussion, but instead, we were given a filibuster,” Avraham Anouchi, one of the dissenters, said to Re’i.
“There are many problems in Israel, ” added Joseph Eaton, founder of the doctoral program of the school of social work at the University of Pittsburgh, “but keep in mind the following: In Israel, as in the U.S., libel is forbidden. Is it not reasonable that people threatened in their economic existence should have the right to go to court and be compensated for the economic damage?”
Event moderator, J Street member Naftali Kaminski, quickly changed the direction of the discussion, saying, “Gili, I apologize for the tone,” and telling Anouchi and Eaton, “You have crossed your boundaries.”
Kaminski concluded the video conferencing portion of the program by saying, “I want to apologize. I am always surprised as to how those who self-appoint themselves as supporters of Israel make charges against those who don’t agree with them. It’s embarrassing.”
Anouchi attempted to address the crowd at the end of the program, but people gathered their things to leave without giving him attention.
“I was shocked,” Anouchi, who is Israeli, and a veteran of the 1948 War of Independence, told the Chronicle following the event. “Not only did he [Kaminski] shut me down, but he apologized for the insult of Israelis not accepting his points of view. He wanted to have his agenda, and he didn’t want anyone else to present another point of view.”
Kaminski later admitted to the Chronicle that he might have gone too far in chiding the dissenters. “I may have responded too harshly,” he said.
“I am happy both of them [Anouchi and Eaton] came,” Kaminski continued. “Their questions were very important. But this was advertised as a community discussion with the associate director of the ACRI, Gili Re’i. They [Anouchi and Eaton] are also welcome to make the effort to organize an event. If I go to someone else’s event, I usually don’t try to take the stage and tell the speaker they spoke too long.”
J Street member Malke Frank said she believed the purpose of the event was to educate the community on the situation in Israel, and was not the forum “to have arguments about it.”
“There are always people in the audience who raise issues that run counter to what the focus of the evening would be,” Frank told the Chronicle. “Here, what happened is, they got personal. Naftali [Kaminski] wanted people to ask any questions, but he got uncomfortable that people wanted to challenge her [Re’i]. She answered them, and people applauded her answer to them.
“Sometimes people come with an agenda. If you look at the organizations that are sponsoring an event, you know what the thrust is going to be. It’s coming from a certain place. But you have to respect the people who have come to the event. You have to honor their presence and not let a conversation run amuck. I think it was handled in the best way it could have been in a situation that came out of nowhere.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)