Free speech and communal funds PDF Print E-mail
By Alan Krinsky   
Friday, 28 May 2010 00:00

Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement demonizes Israel

Alan KrinskyAlan KrinskyA half-page ad in a recent issue of the Forward presented an “Open letter to all Jewish communities.” The signers were protesting a policy adopted in February by the Jewish C ommu n i t y F e d e r a t i o n (JCF) of San Francisco and the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma counties.

The new policy includes the following restrictions: The JCF does not fund organizations that through their mission, activities or partnerships endorse or promote anti-Semitism, other forms of bigotry, violence or other extremist views; actively seek to proselytize Jews away from Judaism; or advocate for, or endorse, undermining the legitimacy of Israel as a secure independent, democratic Jewish state, including through participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, in whole or in part.

The petitioners claimed that this new policy will “curtail freedom of speech and artistic expression by declaring certain opinions and organizations out of bounds” and that it “does grave damage to the vibrancy of the American Jewish community.”

Is this really the case? Will the measure inhibit free speech? Is it unfair?

What seems clear is that no one is preventing anyone from saying what he or she wishes to say. This policy is therefore not a limitation on free speech. The real issue, then, is not free speech, but rather how we define legitimate claims on communal resources.

In this case, we have people and organizations claiming to be part of a community and thus entitled to benefit from communal funds. However, others, including the leaders of the communal organization, the JCF, argue that some groups and events promote values and goals at odds with the established values and goals of the institution – and that such groups and events have no legitimate claim on the funds of an organization whose values they oppose.

I agree with the latter view: no one, no group has the right to claim communal or institutional funds to say whatever they want. Institutions, including communal ones like Jewish federations, have missions, and people donate money to further these missions.

If it is indeed the case that a group – even a group comprised of members of that community – in some serious way opposes the mission of the institution, by what right do they have a claim on any of the institution’s funds? They are free to seek funding elsewhere.

Support for this argument can be found in the fact that almost no one, including, I suspect, the signers of the open letter, would object to prohibiting the funding of groups and events in the first two categories above, where racism, anti-Semitism, violence, or Jews for Jesus are promoted. Few would insist that such a policy restricts free speech.

The question is this: Ought the third group be included with the first two?

I, for one, would argue yes. Although Israel has a strong army, I would argue that the BDS movement demonizes Israel by singling it out among the nations for criticism and attack. Even a person who thinks Israel guilty of wrongdoing cannot reasonably identify Israel as the supreme villain in our world. The human rights abuses throughout the world and throughout history dwarf anything done in Israel’s name, even if one cannot justify all of Israel’s actions. To single out Israel, as Jews and non-Jews in the BDS movement do, does contribute to undermining Israel’s legitimacy – and this is far from trivial in today’s world, where the assault on Israel’s right to exist is already widespread, and Israel is already the object of so many UN resolutions.

I do acknowledge that much care needs to be taken in exercising this policy, not to draw too narrow a circle for what is acceptable, but I think it is clear that the BDS movement, in singling out Israel as a pariah, contravenes the missions of Jewish federations everywhere, and that supporters of BDS have no legitimate claim on communal resources.

As an afterthought, I want to suggest that to claim this policy is a restriction on free speech is to equate free speech with money, something evident in the recent and very conservative Supreme Court ruling that recognized corporations as persons with free speech rights to spend money in political campaigns. We ought to get away from a system where spending money is considered free speech, because if anything, such a system inhibits genuine free speech by minimizing the voices of those without enough money to express themselves in the political arena.

Paradoxically, then, the petitioners in the San Francisco case, though generally well left of center on Israel, are adopting a view of money and free speech more characteristic of the right.

Alan Krinsky works in healthcare quality improvement and lives in Providence. Contact him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .


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