SYDNEY, Australia (JTA) — Legitimate criticism or illegitimate dissent? Censorship or free
speech? Fighting for a democratic Jewish state or sleeping with the enemy?
These are some of the vexing questions Australian Jewry is grappling with in the wake of a
controversy surrounding Limmud-Oz, the Australian arm of the global festival of Jewish
learning, and the recent establishment here of a New Israel Fund chapter.
Last month, Australia’s Limmud dropped two presenters from its June 11-13 conference
for being “vocal advocates” of boycotting Israel. That prompted two others to withdraw, citing a
breach of Limmud’s policy of being apolitical. Organizers say they acted within their rights.
The controversy comes on the heels of another community brouhaha surrounding the criticism of
Israel when the New Israel Fund opened a branch earlier this month in Australia. The arrival here
of the organization, which promotes equality and democracy for Israeli minority groups and has
come under criticism for its support of some Israeli Arab organizations that seek to strip Israel of
its Jewish character, prompted some community leaders to consider putting the organization “on
notice,” JTA has learned.
Last month, some leaders of the Zionist Federation of Australia considered issuing a
warning to NIF and its president, Naomi Chazan, who is planning to come to the country in mid-
June for the formal launch of the Australian chapter. But two internal e-mails obtained by JTA
reveal that others on the federation convinced the majority that it would appear “very heavy
handed” and “a grave error of judgment” to do so.
The debate came amid accusations by some in Australia that NIF funds nongovernmental
organizations that support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. NIF issued new
guidelines last year precluding funding for groups that support the BDS campaign.
Passions surrounding the BDS issue have been running high in Australia since last December,
when the Marrickville Council in Sydney voted to adopt a boycott of Israel. The proposal was
overturned in April under extreme pressure.
Ron Weiser, a former Zionist Federation of Australia president who has led a campaign critical of
NIF, said Marrickville’s attempted boycott “crystallized” that BDS could be used as “a marker”
to determine whether people were inside or outside the “Zionist tent.”
Though he stressed that NIF is “within the Zionist tent,” he says he remains concerned that NIF
has “strayed” from the “good social and welfare work it does.”
Chazan, a former deputy speaker of the Knesset, was due to visit Australia in February 2010 but
canceled at the 11th hour following a controversial campaign waged against her in Israel by Im
Tirtzu, a right-wing Israeli group that sprang up after the Goldstone report on the Gaza war, and
made NIF and Chazan central targets.
Im Tirtzu, which distributed posters portraying Chazan wearing a horn labeled NIF, issued a
report claiming that 16 NIF-affiliated organizations were cited as sources in the Goldstone
report, which accused Israel of committing war crimes in the Gaza Strip. The author of the report,
Richard Goldstone, recently retracted some of the report’s accusations.
For its part, NIF says the work of Israeli human rights organizations it supports were credited
with helping provide information for dozens of follow-up investigations of the monthlong Gaza
war in the winter of 2008-09 by the IDF. Those investigations “led the IDF to improve its
operational procedures and also enabled Judge Goldstone to revise his conclusions,” the NIF said
in a statement.
Danny Lamm, the president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, was among those who
opposed Chazan’s planned visit last year. Recently he issued a letter to colleagues saying
that “The ECAJ and other organizations around the world continue to monitor NIF’s activities.”
Chazan’s planned visit was challenged last month when the Shalom Institute, which runs
Limmud-Oz, confirmed that a major donor had threatened to withdraw funding for Shalom if
Chazan, who also is scheduled to speak at Limmud-Oz, was not removed from the program.
Shalom Institute CEO Hilton Immerman told JTA that he would not accede to the pressure.
“We believe that she is a patriotic Israeli who has contributed much to the Jewish homeland,”
Immerman said of Chazan. “We will not bow to any pressure to withdraw her from the
Naomi Paiss, NIF’s communications director, told JTA that “The New Israel Fund has always
been an integral part of the pro-Israel, pro-democracy and pro-peace community, in Israel and
overseas. We believe that as the Australian community becomes more familiar with our
accomplishments and our work, we will overcome the misrepresentations that are fostering
Robin Margo, the inaugural chair of NIF in Australia, said, “Unfortunately, this is the sort of
thing that happens when hysteria is whipped up in a community. I applaud the Shalom board for
refusing to cave in to the pressure.”
But Immerman said the decision to drop from the program the two BDS proponents — Peter
Slezak, a co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, and Vivienne Porzsolt, a
spokeswoman for Jews Against the Occupation — was justifiable.
“In supporting BDS, these individuals advocate denying free speech to Israeli academics and
performers, on whom we depend for Limmud-Oz, yet, ironically, claim this right for themselves,”
They may, however, attend the festival, he noted. “Limmud-Oz remains a very broad tent,” Immerman said. “The program includes and celebrates a
wide diversity of opinions.”
Porzsolt slammed the ban, saying it “smacks of excommunication.” Slezak accused organizers of
“moral and intellectual weakness.”
The decision to “boycott the boycotters” was a “clear breach” of Limmud’s pluralist principles,
said Jenny Green and Joel Nothman — the two presenters who withdrew last week from
Limmud-Oz in protest.
“We abhor the idea of being associated with an event that bans ideas,” they said. “Dissent on the
question of Israel is not tolerated at all.”
Larry Stillman, an executive member of the leftist Australian Jewish Democratic Society, told
JTA that he was equivocating over whether to withdraw from a panel debate on Jewish dissent.
“I don’t feel like being used by the organizers to demonstrate that they allow ‘acceptable’
dissent,” he said. “There is a history of this censoring kind of activity in Australian Jewry.”
Novelist Alan Gold, who has participated in Limmud-Oz since it began in 1999, said the notion
that Limmud-Oz is practicing censorship is absurd.
“Just as no rabid right-wing racist or virulent Islamophobe would be given a platform at Limmud-
Oz, so it is not incumbent on the organizers to give a platform to those who advocate the
delegitimization of Israel,” he wrote in an open letter.
Philip Mendes, co-editor of the book “Jews & Australian Politics,” told JTA that “The
overwhelming majority of Jews are opposed to the BDS, and although some may have felt the
Limmud-Oz scenario was handled poorly, there is very little sympathy for the actual views of
Slezak and Porszolt.”