Seattle Jewish Leader Turns Israel and Fear of Anti-Semitism into New Jewish Religion

This is the original, expanded version of an op-ed published by the Seattle Times this week:

Last week, the CEO of the Seattle Jewish Federation co-authored a Times op-ed, Recognize and speak out against anti-Semitism, warning that Washington State was awash in anti-Semitism and Jew hatred.    Don’t you believe it.

Keith Dvorchik, CEO of Seattle Jewish federation

The author, Keith Dvorchik, found anti-Semitism everywhere: in dorms at Western Washington University (WWU), at the University of Washington Hillel, at rallies protesting Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, and on the walls of Jewish-owned businesses.  From these alleged incidents, he spins an alarming tale of a community awash in hate.  A community in which it is no longer safe to be Jewish or a supporter of Israel.

His op-ed is of a piece with attempts in over a dozen states to suppress political speech concerning Israel.  Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order attacking the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement, saying “if you boycott Israel, the State of New York will boycott you.”  New Jersey has just passed a similar law punishing any company which supports BDS.  Constitutional scholars and human rights activists have raised numerous concerns about the legality of these efforts given their punishment of free, protected speech.

Dvorchik too reserves his worst vitriol for the BDS movement, whose intent is to “demonize Israel.”  He adds that it represents “anti-Semitism embodied in hatred of Israel and “invokes ancient anti-Semitic tropes” and a “critique metastasizing into Jew hatred.”  In his article, he offers no evidence to support these very serious charges.

In an interview I conducted with him, Dvorchik said that the group intended to destroy Israel.  His proof was a statement by Omar Barghouti that even if there were two independent Palestinian and Israeli states, BDS would still not end.  The Jewish communal leader implied, but did not say, that this meant that BDS would not stop until Israel was destroyed.

But the truth is different: BDS has three planks in its platform: granting Israeli Palestinian citizens rights equal to Jewish citizens; the Right of Return of refugees from the 1948 Nakba; ending the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  Nowhere does it call for the destruction of Israel.

I asked Dvorchik to offer an example that BDS constituted Jew hatred.  He refused to answer my question, saying that if I didn’t move on to another interview question he would hang up on me, which was what he eventually did.

Anti-Semites Under Every Dorm Bed at WWU

Now, let’s examine the incidents Dvorchik raised in his op-ed.  He claims there were “several severe incidents of anti-Semitism at WWU.”  Though the University has refused to release details of any of the incidents, the campus newspaper published much of that information in an article last month.  I secured copies of the campus reports (Report 1; Report 2; Report 3) after a citizen filed a Freedom of Information Act request concerning them.

One concerned a swastika drawn next to a student’s name in his dorm.  A female fellow resident told the victim that she drew the swastika and was upset when someone erased it.  She explained she had been drunk when she wrote it and apologized.  The victim seemed satisfied with her explanation and told school officials that he did not wish her to be expelled from the dorm.  When the central administration asked to meet with him about the incident, he refused.

Some of us who attended college remember stupid things we did while inebriated or under the influence of various substances.  Some of them we wish we could take back.  There is no doubt that this was a juvenile, hateful, immature act of a young college student.  But calling it a “severe” anti-Semitic act” seems extreme given the victim’s response to it.

In another campus incident portrayed as anti-Semitic, a student reported finding both a swastika and a penis drawn on her dorm room door.  She also noted that someone had once drawn the N-word on the door as well.  She identified the possible perpetrator as the guest of one of her dorm neighbors.  The report does not make clear whether the guest was a WWU student, but it appears likely he wasn’t.

When asked whether she wished to report the incident to campus police or file charges, she refused.  From the report, it’s impossible to know what the motivation of the offender was.  Clearly, he intended to use racist stereotypes to stir up a response in the victim.  But the fact that he wrote symbols that were both misogynist, anti-Semitic and anti-Black indicates that this wasn’t exclusively an anti-Semitic act.

A fourth incident was reported by a student, who complained that the campus World Issues Forum had sponsored a talk by an anti-Semitic speaker.  That was former Black Panther leader, Aaron Dixon, whose talk was titled: “The Stark Similarities between the Black and Palestinian Struggle for Human Rights.”  In particular, Dixon spoke about the growing sense of solidarity between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Palestine Solidarity movement.  The student complained that instead of criticizing Israel, Dixon conflated Jews with Israel.  Therefore, his talk, so it was claimed, was anti-Semitic.  The student also complained that there were no pro-Israel speakers scheduled.

After an extensive investigation which involved watching the video of all Israel-related speakers going back five years, campus officials determined:

“The speakers did not place blame nor make discriminatory remarks against Jewish people,” and students may expect to be exposed to expressions they find personally offensive as part of the experience of higher education.

As a result of this tempest in the teacup, the WWU administration has pulled out all the stops.  It’s created a special university task force consisting of 14 members, none of whose names have been reported publicly:

The 14-member task force is composed of faculty, staff and three students…

The task force’s goals are to review the impact of anti-Semitism and the best practices to prevent and respond to concerns of anti-Semitism, Director of Communications Paul Cocke said in an email.

To accomplish its goals, the task force has established three subcommittees. One will study the impacts of anti-Semitism, another will study the best practices for addressing anti-Semitism and the third will gather input from campus and community groups…

This strikes me as the overreaction of a campus administration desperate to show the powerful local pro-Israel community that it’s being pro-active about the issue.  As to the actual level of danger of concern that such incidents should merit–it certainly shouldn’t rise to this level of intensity.

What truly concerns campus activists is that the task force will come up with recommendations (as has happened on other campuses) which stifle free speech and violate principles of academic freedom in order to protect the sensibilities of pro-Israel Jewish students and faculty who’ve made a mountain out of a mole hill.

Pages of Book Burned at UW Hillel

Dvorchik characterizes the UW Hillel incident thus: “burned pages from a book by a Jewish poet were scattered outside the UW’s Hillel building, a sickening reminder of Jewish books burned during the Inquisition.”

I called the Hillel director, Amee Huppin Sherer and asked about this event.  She said that her office manager had entered the building in late May and found individual pages of a book burned around the edges.  She reported the incident to the Jewish community security unit, Safe Washington.  It’s director, Andrew Chadick, determined that the pages were from a book written by Heinrich Heine.  He is the famous German-Jewish author who warned that any country which burned books would end up burning people.

I asked Ms. Sherer whether she knew anything about the perpetrator.  She told me Hillel’s video surveillance system didn’t show anyone entering the building.  A report was made to the police, which has not had any further success identifying how the incident happened.  I asked her whether, given these facts, she felt comfortable with the Federation op-ed saying the incident was a “sickening” reminder of the Inquisition.  She replied that the incident was “definitely concerning.”  When I noted there was a difference between that and an outright anti-Semitic act, she avowed that the incident was “clearly anti-Semitic.”  Later, she reverted to saying it was “concerning.”

Though it’s certainly possible an anti-Semite burned pages of book in Hillel, it’s equally possible an impressionable Jewish student who knew something of Jewish history and the role of Heine was trying to make a point about the dangers of anti-Semitism on campus.  Or alternatively, the incident may be a complete mystery.  But Keith Dvorchik is being irresponsible by labelling this as an anti-Semitic incident.

Rabbis Who Allegedly Eat Palestinian Babies

Dvorchik described yet another incident this way: “An anti-Israel poster depicts a rabbi eating a bloody baby.”  The facts of this report aren’t quite as he describes them.  In July 2014, Palestinian activists and their supporters held a rally at Westlake Center, a downtown mall, protesting Israel’s war on Gaza.  That summer, in Operation Protective Edge, 500 Palestinian children were killed.

Among the signs raised by a protester was a cartoon depicting a diner wearing a Star of David (Israel’s state symbol).  On his plate was a Palestinian baby.  Next to his plate was a glass full of the baby’s blood.  Clearly an offensive poster and worthy of condemnation.  Organizers of the event should have demanded it be removed.  But this was a statement made by a single individual at the rally, which was held under a period of great distress for the Palestinian community, which was under desperate assault (over 2,300 Gazans were killed during the war).

Further, it’s important to note that cartoon did not depict a rabbi, as Dvorchik claims.  Rather, it depicted an Israeli.  The offending cartoon did not attack Jews, it attacked Israel and did so because of the deaths of vast numbers of Palestinian children.  Judaism and Israel are related, but not the same.  As a Jew I love Israel.  But I am not Israeli.  I am an American Jew.

That is not a defense of the statement made by the image.  It is a statement offering context to the offending poster.

Unnamed Capitol Hill Business Allegedly Attacked

Finally, the Federation CEO levels this allegation: “Members of a pro-Palestinian organization march into a store and shout at the Jewish owner, “Hitler was right.”  When I asked Dvorchik for more information about this incident he told me that the Capitol Hill store owner-victim was unwilling to reveal his identity.  The store owner did not file a police report either.  I pointed out to Dvorchik that it was hard to credit such a report unless the victim was willing to convey details of the event that occurred.  He said that he would approach the man again and ask if he was willing to go public.  As of press time, I have not heard from either Dvorchik or the alleged victim.

Jews: surrounded by enemies everywhere and other bubbeh meisehs

Do Jews have a right to be sensitive to issues of anti-Semitism?  Given our bloody history, of course.  Jews have every right to be vigilant about such matters.  But do Jewish leaders have the right to play fast and loose with the truth in order to dramatize their concern for the safety of their fellow Jews and their support for Israel?  No, they don’t.

In fact, crying wolf as Dvorchik has done only diminishes Jewish claims to sympathy from the wider community.  If you exaggerate the threat one time or many times, when you really face trouble and need the non-Jewish world’s support, they will remember all the times you stretched the truth.  Then they will not be there when you need them.

As someone who worked as a fundraiser for Jewish federations in New York and California and spent my youth and adulthood as part of the organized Jewish community, I have witnessed the gradual decline of the quality of Jewish leadership in this country.

Dvorchik himself may exemplify this trend.  His resume shows he has a BA in accounting from Penn State and a PhD in counseling.  His job prior to coming to Seattle was as Hillel director at a Florida university.  As I talked to Dvorchik on the phone, I felt I was talking to someone who himself wasn’t on the firmest ground regarding some of the material he was discussing.  For example, he felt constrained to remind me that Heinrich Heine, the author whose book was allegedly burned, had also said that a country which burns books will eventually burn people.  It felt patronizing, as if he was giving me a lesson in Jewish history.  Perhaps one that he himself had been given by the Safe Washington security consultant who investigated the incident.  Dvorchik didn’t even pronounce Heine’s last name correctly.  I had the feeling I was talking to someone to whom Jewish history wasn’t a terribly familiar field.

Knowledge of Jewish culture and traditions has been replaced in this country by a cheap form of religion which I call pro-Israelism.  It’s represented by wealthy pro-Israel magnates like Sheldon Adelson, who know nothing about Judaism and hold Israel to be the only glue holding Jews together.  This is not the Judaism I grew up on.  Rather, this is a form of idolatry: the worship of land and power over tolerance, peace and justice as represented by the Biblical prophets.  Similarly, this version of Jewish identity emphasizes fear and mistrust of non-Jews, especially Muslims.  It suggests falsely that anti-Semitism is rampant and Jews face personal danger everywhere but Israel.

This impoverishment of American Jewry also afflicts Seattle and may explain why despite the Jewish population nearly doubling over the past decade (from roughly 35,000 to 65,000 according to a Federation survey), the annual fundraising campaign has declined drastically from $8.4-million in 2005 to $2.3-million in 2015.

My sense is that this invocation of the hoary anti-Semitic tropes of yesteryear is a vain attempt to evoke Jewish fear and motivate distracted Jewish donors to return to the fold.  But it won’t work.  These days donors aren’t motivated by negative emotions or fear.  They’re motivated by a constructive, forward-thinking innovative message which captures their spirit and imagination.  This isn’t that.

What are leaders like Keith Dvorchik offering young Jews?  Is being Jewish in America reduced to fighting against anti-Semitism and supporting Israel?  Is this our new secular religion?  What happened to a Judaism based on solidarity with the oppressed?  What happened to Judaism based on spirituality and prophetic ethics?

If Judaism is only what we fear, then perhaps Jews are telling Keith Dvorchik and other communal leaders something by voting with their feet and pocketbooks.