Censorship on Shavuot

by Rabbi Alissa Wise

“Whoever has the ability to denounce [the sins of] his 
family members, but fails to denounce them, is held 
accountable for [the sins of] his family members; if 
[he has influence] over the residents of his city [but
 fails to denounce their sins], he is held accountable 
for [the sins of] the residents of his city; if [he
 has influence] over the entire world [but fails to 
denounce their sins], he is held accountable for [the
 sins of] the entire world.”

– Talmud Bavli, Tractate Shabbat, 54a

On Sunday, May 27, an event organized by Young, Jewish, and Proud (YJP) (the youth branch of Jewish Voice for Peace) was cancelled by the 14th Street Y—a Jewish community institution.  The irony is not lost on me that the event was to be a Shavuot study session, complete with blintzes.

Shavuot is the holiday, after all, that commemorates revelation — the receiving of the Torah at the foot of Mt. Sinai — and is commemorated partly by an all-night study session. The  Tikkyn Leyl Shavuot, is not just a night of Torah study, but is a night for learning of all kinds: Torah, Talmud, Hassidut, and beyond.

Why, then was the YJP event beyond the pale for the 14th Street Y?

Well, the Executive Director of the Y, Stephen Hazzan Arnoff would have you believe there was nothing wrong with the content, although he cancelled the event on 8:00 pm Friday evening (yes, on Shabbat!), less than 48 hours before the event. His stated reason was concern over attendance exceeding the 75 person limit in the room (for which YJP had already contracted and paid.) Of course, that claim holds no water –  the event had only 40 RSVPs as of Friday evening. Even so, there could have been a myriad remedies to the issue of over-attendance, such as limiting entry to 75 people.

The real issue, of course, was the event itself. Titled “Go & Learn,” this program was to be part of a series of educational workshops in Jewish communities across the US held to learn about and discuss the Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law. So far events have taken place in San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and Philadelphia, with Los Angeles and Chicago upcoming.

“Go and Learn” was designed by a group of young Jews across the country for all members of the Jewish community—those who have never heard about BDS, those who are opposed to BDS, those who are unsure how they feel about BDS, and those who are in full support of the Palestinian call. The workshop includes, for example, an activity where participants reflect on boycott and divestment campaigns throughout history (such as South Africa, California grapes, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and Darfur). Participants indicate through color-coded stickers whether they support, oppose, have participated in, or still have concerns over each of those campaigns. The activity invites the participants to look at how they make their own ethical decisions around calls for boycott and divestment campaigns in general which are, at the end of the day, tried-and-true social movement tactics for shifting power and agitating toward change.

Participants also engage in a close reading of the actual text of the Palestinian call for BDS from 2005—a document that most people have never read. Throughout the entire program, space is made for questions and discussion. There is no end goal of the event other than for everyone to have had a chance to share their thoughts and hear from others.

How terribly disappointing – and frankly embarrassing – that the holiday of Shavuot, a festival based on Torah study and discussion did not inspire the Jewish community to keep its doors open to young Jews eager to discuss and learn. This incident raises the deeper question for me: what is the purpose of a Jewish holiday if its deeper lessons and purposes don’t inspire reflection on how we are or are not living out those values as Jews?

The state of the institutional Jewish world these days is truly a shameful one – and I am not afraid to say so. As a rabbi, a Jew, a young person, and someone invested in a dynamic and diverse Jewish community, I feel that must challenge the gatekeepers in the Jewish world to reflect on what they want their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to inherit. Do we want a fearful, closed community more concerned with silencing discussion then having challenging conversations? Do we really want to bequeath a deeply fractured set of communities unable to share space or holiday celebrations?

This Shavuot left me with a sour taste – not the sweet taste of Torah I typically experience. I left the mountain feeling profoundly disappointed in what Jews have have made from that ancient experience at Sinai and the gift of Torah.

The soul searching of Elul and the Yamim Noraim, the Jewish Days of Awe, are just around the corner.  It can’t come soon enough.

Please consider adding your name to this letter to the Executive Director of the 14th Street Y urging him to reconsider and allow the event to take place at the Y.

You can watch a short video of what happened with the Go & Learn participants gathered Sunday outside the Y and were barred from entry.

To organize a Go & Learn event in your community, send an email to: golearnATjewishvoiceforpeace.org.

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