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Finding a speaker can be a delicate task

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Achinoam Nini, left, and Tony Kushner, right
Achinoam Nini, left, and Tony Kushner, right

The directors of Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts were astonished when their guest speaker for a May event, U.S. playwright Tony Kushner, was harshly criticized for his statements about Israel. Last month, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto went so far as to disassociate itself from the event.

“We weren’t and we aren’t looking for any political discussion in regards to the issues that the UJA’s concerned with,” said Cathy Jonasson, executive director of the Koffler Centre.

“The dialogue we’re interested in is primarily in the area of culture. When we stray into politics, we aren’t legitimate as a cultural organization.”

READ: JEWISH GROUPS, ARTISTS QUESTION KUSHNER BOOKING

The controversy in Toronto is not unique. Across the country, Jewish organizations have been forced to backtrack, disinvite and sometimes defend artists and speakers when charges are made that they are too divisive or their remarks put them beyond communal norms.

Jewish organizations face the delicate task of finding prominent speakers who will not offend sponsors but are interesting enough to attract patrons.

In Kushner’s case, separating his work, which includes a two-part epic on the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, from his politics, is not easy.

The issue that concerned UJA was the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) and which side of that divide Kushner sits on.

“He’s straightforward on the issue. He doesn’t support BDS. He does support Israel and you obviously take his word,” Jonasson said in an interview. “We would have thought that issue was over and done with.”

Evidently, it wasn’t. The Toronto federation, which was listed as one of the Koffler Centre’s institutional supporters, felt compelled to remove its name from advertising for the event.

“The speaker is associated with an organization that clearly supports BDS,” said Steven Shulman, federation’s campaign director and legal counsel. “There’s lots of room for diversity, but there are certain lines. BDS is one of those lines we wouldn’t want to affiliate ourselves with.”

Kushner is a member of the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which has endorsed BDS. He has, however, stated that he does not support a boycott of Israel.

In a letter published in the New York Jewish Week newspaper in 2011, when a debate arose as to whether City University of New York would grant him an honorary degree, Kushner wrote: “I am on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace and have remained there even though I disagree with the organization about a number of issues, including the boycott. I remain affiliated because the men and women of JVP are courageous, committed people who work very hard serving the interests of peace and justice and the Jewish people and I’m honoured by my association with them.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver also generated headlines in February when it invited renowned Israeli singer Achinoam Nini (known as Noa) to perform at community Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations.

READ: AFTER JNF WITHDRAWAL, ISRAELI EMBASSY TO SPONSOR CONTROVERSIAL NOA CONCERT

Critics pointed to Noa’s vocal support of B’Tselem, an organization that monitors human rights in the West Bank, and Breaking the Silence, a left-wing NGO that criticizes the Israel Defence Forces.

JNF Canada, which had been a sponsor, backed out after hearing from its constituency, “many of whom had expressed discomfort with the artist’s views and organizational affiliations,” according to a statement issued at the time.

“Any artist who chooses to publicly intertwine their art with their politics is potentially opening themselves up to controversy,” Josh Cooper, JNF’s CEO, said in a statement to The CJN.

The Israeli Embassy and the Consulate General of Israel for Ontario and Western Canada in Toronto have since stepped in as sponsors.

The debate over whether Noa was an appropriate choice for Yom Ha’atzmaut festivities highlights the diversity among Canadian Jews when it comes to defining what support for Israel looks like.

“We do not all share the same political perspectives, and probably never will. But we do share the democratic values that allow ourselves and our neighbours to express them,” said Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver CEO Ezra Shanken, in a statement to The CJN.

Noa has denied being a supporter of BDS, which is an important distinction, Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs pointed out.

“Despite her passionate views and critical orientation to the current Israeli government, Achinoam Nini is clearly and demonstrably within the tent of the Zionist family. And, despite his passionate views, Tony Kushner has allowed his name and standing to be leveraged for purposes that are fundamentally inconsistent with the principles of the normative, pro-Israel community,” Fogel said in a statement to The CJN.

READ: FORTY-FIVE FACULTY MEMBERS AT MCGILL ENDORSE BDS

Jewish organizations such as Toronto’s federation and JNF Canada, which sign on as sponsors but have not hired the speaker themselves, sometimes find themselves in the uncomfortable position of being seen as censors, a role they adamantly deny they play when they withdraw their sponsorships.

UJA Federation of Toronto cannot and does not want to be a clearing house for the hundreds of speakers its affiliated agencies bring in every year, which would be “a bureaucratic nightmare,” Shulman said. “We’re not interested in being the police for political speakers and cultural speakers,” he said.

Drafting guidelines for speakers that would cover every situation without being too over-reaching would be impossible. In the end, federation relies on its co-operative relationships with the agencies it supports, he said.

The question of whether an artist’s work can be separated from his or her politics is a thorny one, where lines are blurred. But even when Jewish organizations invite politicians who have an unambiguous record on Israeli issues, the situation can be less than straightforward.

JNF Canada rescinded its invitation to former Arkansas governor and Republican U.S. presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee last year, when statements he had made about same-sex couples and transgenderism came to light.

Huckabee, who was to have spoken at a Negev dinner in Ottawa raising money for autism research in Israel, was selected because he is a “staunch supporter of Israel,” but the “media spotlight has recently focused on Mr. Huckabee’s comments that bear no relevance to JNF or autism,” Cooper said at the time.

Mike Huckabee FILE PHOTO
Mike Huckabee FILE PHOTO

A 2013 Negev dinner honouring then-prime minister Stephen Harper for his unequivocal support of the Jewish State attracted 4,000 people and raised what was then a record $5.7 million.

“I am not aware of any criticism,” Cooper said in an emailed statement. “There was widespread recognition from our community that he was a most deserving honoree.”

But, there were prominent members of the Jewish community who felt that Harper’s record on refugees – his government had restricted access to health care for them, among other concerns – made him an inappropriate choice for a community that should have a particular sensitivity to refugee issues.

Similarly, there were those who felt that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, honoured by CIJA and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto last year, was a poor choice because her government had taken a hard stance on extending funding to Jewish day schools.

Wynne, like Harper, is a supporter of Israel, and both politicians used the honour to announce an official mission to Israel.

READ: PREMIER’S TRADE MISSION TO ISRAEL WILL FOCUS ON HIGH-TECH, LIFE SCIENCES

Fogel says that “some criticism was motivated by partisan consideration, but none that I am aware of related to any substantive criticism of Premier Wynne’s position on Israel.”

The Jewish community and Israel’s supporters are far from monolithic, and as political discourse has become more highly charged and partisan, perhaps it is impossible for Jewish organizations to find a compelling speaker who avoids any whiff of controversy.

But in some cases, there are guidelines. For CIJA, that means speakers may be chosen to educate or “provide a platform for competing views,” Fogel said. “All of that is kosher, provided the overall program reflects balance and none of the participants breach the red line on either side of the spectrum (rejection of Israel, racism, etc.)”

For other groups in the Jewish community the interpretation of where that line lies varies. At the Koffler Centre, they are excited that Kushner will be sharing his experiences on the stage in May, Jonasson said.

“We have a responsibility to artists and to our audiences. We choose artists because we think they have something valuable to offer through their art.”