MONTREAL — Le Mood, a Federation CJA-funded project that brands itself as an alternative Jewish community event for diverse voices, is facing its first true test after it disinvited two controversial scheduled speakers less than two weeks before its third annual conference.
Aaron Lakoff, a Jewish anti-Zionist activist, and fellow journalist Sarah Woolf say they were told by festival director Mike Savatovsky on Oct. 22 that Le Mood, the Festival of Unexpected Jewish Learning, Arts and Culture, had cancelled the two panels they were to give at the Nov. 3 event.
Le Mood issued an Oct. 30 statement that it’s open to criticism of the government of Israel, but does not have “an obligation to provide a platform to people actively engaged in delegitimizing the State of Israel.”
Savatovsky would not take any questions, emailing, “While we are aware of concerns raised regarding the cancellation of certain panels, we do not consider this to be a significant issue.”
Federation board member Rabbi Reuben Poupko conceded that “mistakes were made” in not scrutinizing invited speakers more thoroughly, but nevertheless was blunt: “Butchers do not invite vegans to their conventions,” he told The CJN.
Woolf was scheduled to moderate a panel discussion titled “Where are all the radical Jews?” featuring Lakoff and two other speakers and focusing on the tradition of radicalism among Montreal Jews and the role Jewish radicals play here today.
Woolf was to host a second panel on a walking and online tour she is preparing on historically significant sites in Montreal’s old garment district and the experience of Jewish workers in that industry in the early 20th century.
In an online statement, Lakoff and Woolf said they think an article they co-wrote last April calling for an end to Birthright trips in the online publication Electronicintifada.net may be the reason they were yanked. They wrote that these free trips to Israel for young Jews should be renounced to protest “the Israeli government’s brutal regime of apartheid.”
They quote Savatovsky as having told them: “You have a specific instance when you did go against a program that our funders support. We’re not willing to create a platform for people whose mission goes against the beliefs of our funders.”
Woolf and, in particular, Lakoff, a broadcaster on Concordia University’s radio and TV stations, have been outspoken critics of Israel. Lakoff is associated with Tadamon, a Montreal group that calls for the boycott of Israel and its dismantling as a Jewish state, and was a member of Not in Our Name, Jewish Voices Opposing Zionism.
Le Mood, which is patterned on similar Limmud festivals in Jewish communities around the world, attracts more than 1,000 participants, mostly young adults, during its day-long programming.
“Ultimately, we’ve been banned from speaking at Le Mood because of our personal politics (or whatever Le Mood and Federation CJA perceive our respective politics to be), not based on the content of our panels, which were reviewed, accepted, and scheduled months ago,” Lakoff and Woolf said in their online statement.
They claim to be the victims of censorship and that this incident is consistent with a culture of stifling dissent in the Jewish community.
As an act of protest, Lakoff, Woolf and Moishe Dolman, another scheduled co-panelist, planned to present their panel outside the Le Mood festival, which was held at Espace Réunion in Mile End.
Rabbi Poupko countered that this is not an issue of free speech or silencing criticism. Critics of Israeli policy are welcome – the Canadian Friends of Peace Now, he points out, are represented at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, the federation’s advocacy agency.
“It’s not our responsibility to host people who accuse Israel of apartheid or call for its boycott. That’s where we draw the line, and that’s the case in all North American communities. It’s very simple,” he said.
“No matter how it is branded, Le Mood is still sponsored and housed by the federation.”
Rabbi Poupko said it would be unreasonable to think that Lakoff and Woolf would not have brought up their views on Israel at Le Mood.
“You are not going to see Tadamon include diverse views on its panels, so why should the Jewish community include people who are diametrically opposed to its core mission, its support for Birthright, its fight against [boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel]?” Rabbi Poupko said.
To be “a true Jewish radical” today is not to delegitimize Israel but to defend it, he maintained.
Elsewhere in its statement, Le Mood said it “seeks to provide a space for critical discussion and dissenting opinions, including those critical of the policies, decisions or actions of the government of Israel. This openness is evidenced by the wide range of sessions, speakers and points of view represented at this festival.”
It describes the festival as “an important outreach endeavour, designed to promote tolerance, inclusiveness, and pluralistic Jewish values.”