Manny Waks, Gershon Baskin, Shifra Waks and Sheree Waks at Limmud Australia, 2013

Brouhaha over Israel boiling Down Under

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Gershon Baskin from the Israel / Palestine Centre for Research and Information, gave a gripping blow by blow account of the process of negotiating the release of Gilad Schalit in which he was intimately involved. Cross-accusations among Jewish leaders in debate on Israel spill over into annual Limmud Oz conference.

SYDNEY – Accusations of bullying, blackmail and “carpet bombing” by Zionist leaders, threats of withholding six-figure sums by Jewish donors, and claims of “subterfuge” and “cloak and dagger” politics against progressive voices are poisoning the debate Down Under on Israel.

“I don’t recall a time when our community has been so divided,” said Dr. Mark Baker, the director of the Center for the Study of Jewish Civilization at Melbourne’s Monash University, during a heated debate on Israel at the annual Limmud Oz conference the weekend of June 9..

Baker, who also sits on the New Israel Fund of Australia’s advisory board, savaged the campaign to “delegitimize” Jews, which he says has created a “toxic atmosphere” in Australia.

“[They are] attacking Jews who are mainstream, whose very core is support and love for Israel, and trying to marginalize them and turn them into enemies of Israel, enemies of the Jewish community,” Baker said, referring to supporters of the New Israel Fund, among others.

“The politics of power is trying to silence and to bully those voices into belonging to this so-called one tent, which is actually a right-wing tent.”

But Philip Chester, president of the Zionist Federation of Australia, denied the allegations as “not just completely false but defamatory.”

“Spreading falsehoods and making these very personal, nasty allegations is an attempt by some to undermine or delegitimize a viewpoint they don’t agree with but that very many in our community do,” Chester told Haaretz. “Why is our conduct characterized as bullying and the other noble? I simply don’t accept that we are so divided on Israel,” he added.

The annual two-day Limmud conference drew record numbers of about 1200 people last weekend in Sydney, featuring more than 200 presentations by some 175 speakers, including a record number from overseas, among them Israeli scholar and commentator Daniel Gordis, veteran journalist Ron Ben-Yishai and back-channel negotiator Gershon Baskin.

But the controversial admission of one Australian presenter triggered a sequence of events that became the bitter backdrop to what many claim is the highlight of the Jewish calendar in Australia.

Dr. Peter Slezak, an arch-critic of Israel and a co-founder of the left-wing Independent Australian Jewish Voices, was barred from speaking at Limmud in 2011 and 2012.

But his presentation on “The Wicked Son: Confessions of a Self-Hating Jew” was allowed by the newly formed Limmud board after he pledged not to veer into Israeli politics and agreed to have a Limmud representative moderate his packed session.

As a result of his inclusion, the Limmud board said it had been subject to “a campaign of ugly bullying and an attempted boycott,” even though it did reject some presenters, including Vivienne Porzsolt, an outspoken activist for Jews Against the Occupation.

Slezak’s admission provoked several community powerbrokers to either refuse to attend or refuse to present at Limmud. Dr Ron Weiser, a Zionist stalwart and committee member of the Jewish Agency, neither presented nor attended, infuriated that organizers backtracked on “written commitments” regarding “red lines” in 2011.

“The communal leadership does not see any reason why a leading member of the Independent Australian Jewish Voices should be given a platform,” he told Haaretz.

But some critics accused Weiser, who helped spearhead an anti-NIF campaign when it launched here in 2011, of behaving like the “thought police” of the community.

One incensed Jewish leader blasted him and others, including Zionist Council of NSW president Richard Balkin, for “carpet-bombing” those who don’t toe the Israel PR line.

Weiser, lauded by some senior officials as Israel’s leading advocate in Australia, declined to be drawn on the allegations.

But Haaretz understands that he and Hilton Immerman, chief executive of the Shalom Institute, which plays a pivotal part in organizing Limmud, have been embroiled in a longstanding war of words that resulted in Weiser recently apologizing for accusing Immerman of “a form of communal vandalism.” Immerman declined to comment.

Limmud’s decision to provide Slezak a platform also prompted Stanley Roth, an honorary life president of the United Israel Appeal, to threaten to withhold an estimated $100,000-plus donation to the communal purse, although he later backed down.

Roth told Haaretz that he and several other donors were “very concerned” by the Limmud board’s decision. “It’s totally wrong for communal resources to be used to give platforms to people whose views are anathema to Israel,” he said.

By contrast, Karen Loblay, a board member of NIF, was so outraged by “thinly veiled threats” made against the Limmud board that she declined to donate at the recent community appeal function.

The maelstrom prompted Michala Lander, a co-chair of Limmud, to send a withering email to Yair Miller, president of the Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney.

“Before today, I considered myself to be a future leader of this community,” she said in her email, which was leaked to Haaretz. “However, after this event, I have no interest in being involved with a community that practices such bullying tactics [and] blackmail.”

The executive of the Board of Deputies passed a resolution last week saying that “conduct that denigrates or defames any individual or organization in the community is unacceptable conduct, as is any attempt to pressure or intimidate others into not participating in or attending Limmud-Oz.”

NIF Australia president Robin Margo welcomed the resolution, but noted that there was no similar support when personal attacks were directed at NIF’s Australian leaders and former MK Naomi Chazan and former Haaretz editor-in-chief David Landau during their visits to Australia. (Full disclosure: Dan Goldberg helped organize media for Naomi Chazan and David Landau’s visits to Australia.)

“The Board of Deputies took no effective action when it first became aware of personal vilification,” Margo told Haaretz. “But thankfully, now that similar conduct has been alleged in relation to Limmud-Oz organizers, the executive has emphatically declared its opinion that such conduct is unacceptable in our community.”

Some accuse Limmud of being overrun by progressive, left-leaning Zionists, while others accuse the establishment of narrowcasting Zionism and muzzling dissent. Either way, Limmud appears to have been at the vortex of a deepening fault-line between conservative and progressive Zionists that dates back to the bitter feud when NIF was founded here, if not before.

In an email to colleagues amid the brouhaha, one Limmud board member wrote: “The battle for a more open, more adult, less thought-policed community is a long one and will not be won overnight. But Limmud-Oz 2013 will hopefully turn out to be a little victory that needs to be fought again until the norms are changed.”

Dan Goldberg

Dan Goldberg is the Head of Factual at Mint Pictures and is the Australian correspondent for Haaretz. He was the Head of Development at North One TV Australia and the National Editor of the Australian Jewish News. Dan Goldberg is co-winner of Australia's Walkley Documentary Award for film on sexual abuse at a Melbourne yeshiva.

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