Following JNF Canada’s decision to withdraw its support of an upcoming Yom Ha’atzmaut event that it co-sponsors every year with the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver (JFGV) over the appearance of left-wing Israeli singer Achinoam Nini, the Israeli Embassy and the Consulate General of Israel in Toronto have stepped in as sponsors..
“We were thrilled when both the embassy and the consulate approached us with offers to be official sponsors of our Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration,” Stephen Gaerber, chair of the board of JFGV, said in a press release. “As official representatives of the State of Israel, we see support from the embassy and the consulate as strong messages that there is room for diversity both within Israel and within our community. We are also very happy that the deputy consul general is once again planning to represent the State of Israel at our Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.”
More than 50 Jewish community organizations will be participating in the May 11 event at Vancouver’s Chan Centre.
JNF Canada cited the participation of Israeli singer Achinoam Nini – known by her stage name, Noa – as its reason for cancelling. “The entertainer that has been hired does not reflect nor correspond to the mandate and values of the Jewish National Fund of Canada,” CEO Josh Cooper said in a statement earlier this month.
The original JNF Canada decision followed a Jerusalem Post article that claimed Vancouver Jews were “outraged” over Nini’s upcoming performance, alleging that she supports the boycott, divest, and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. An online petition titled “Stop Achinoam Nini from performing at our Yom Haatzmaut celebration” had 418 signatures as of publication.
The group Vancouver United with Israel denounced Noa for her vocal support of B’Tselem, an organization that monitors human rights in the West Bank, and Breaking the Silence, a controversial left-wing NGO that criticizes the IDF.
Noa denies being a supporter of BDS, which, in a Facebook post earlier this month, she said is “a hypocritical movement full of contradictions that will not bring peace to Israel nor help the Palestinians achieve their goals.”
On Feb. 24, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that “Israel sees great importance in having Jewish communities around the world mark and celebrate the State of Israel’s Independence Day. As the official representatives of the State of Israel, the embassy and consulate work constantly to promote the unity of the Jewish People and the Canadian Jewish community’s ties with the State of Israel.”
In a Feb. 24 open letter to Cooper, geriatrician Mark Clarfield, a Canadian oleh and professor of medicine at Ben-Gurion University, urged JNF to reconsider its position.
“Not only is the JNF decision ill founded, but as I am sure you are now aware, it is based on a totally false accusation about [Nini’s] supposed support for BDS. Now that it is clear to the JNF that its decision was based on inaccurate information the menschlich thing to do would be to apologize for the misunderstanding and renew the support for her performance. Even Canada’s Israeli embassy has signed on!” Clarfield wrote.
“Not taking this step will make us all wonder about JNF Canada’s true motivation which to the outsider appears to be a very narrow right wing attack on a true artist and patriot. Don’t we Jews and Israelis have enough enemies not to be attacking each other, especially over spurious and false accusations!”
On Feb. 25, JNF issued a second statement in response to the controversy, signed by Cooper and JNF Canada president Jerry Werger.
“When we heard that the artist chosen to perform at this year’s Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration was one who has generated divisiveness both in Israel and throughout Diaspora communities, we were concerned. We consulted with Keren Keyemeth LeIsrael senior staff, JNF Canada and JNF Pacific region leadership to discuss our responsibility to our constituency, many of whom had expressed discomfort with the artist’s views and organizational affiliations. At no time did we claim that the artist supported BDS. We contacted JFGV and agreed to disagree on the choice of entertainment and respectfully decided to take a one-year hiatus from sponsorship of the event,” they wrote.
“We want to be absolutely clear that JNF Canada is not protesting, boycotting, delegitimizing or censoring this event. After hearing from so many of our donors, we simply are not comfortable using charitable funds to support this particular artist.”
Cooper and Werger said that “Yom Ha’atzmaut celebrations and other community events should be inclusive,” and noted that JNF has “demonstrated that this is not a position only addressing one side of the political spectrum.”
They were alluding to a controversy that erupted over JNF’s invitation to former Republican U.S. presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to speak at last year’s Negev Dinner in Ottawa, which raised the ire of LGBTQ groups and some members of the Jewish community over Huckabee’s comments about transgender people.
“Last year, we had contracted a guest speaker who represented the right side of the political spectrum. Subsequently, his comments caused a division within the local Jewish community. Once this became apparent, we cancelled the contracted speaker and brought in a different presenter who appealed to a substantially wider audience,” they said.
“JNF respects Judaism’s rich tradition of debate and dissent. Nevertheless, we hold Jewish community harmony as our utmost priority. We want to make it clear that while we have had disagreement around one choice of entertainment for an event, we look forward to continue working with federations from coast to coast, especially celebrating Yom Ha’atzmaut together in Vancouver in 2017.”
After contacting Nini to clarify her position on BDS when the controversy first broke, her manager issued the following statement to JFGV: “Noa is opposed to BDS. To say that she is a BDS supporter is an outright lie. She has never supported BDS – on the contrary – she has done all she can to bring many top artists to Israel and has done so with great success. Noa has a strong love for the State of Israel. She has served in the army, and her husband is an army officer.”
On Feb. 25, Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency For Israel, sent a letter of support to the JFGV.
“Naturally, in Israel and the world at large, there are many different opinions and strident arguments about the road to peace. But in no way can we allow for differences of opinion to undermine those core values which unite us in our desire for a strong Jewish Future with a strong Jewish democratic Israel at the centre,” Sharansky wrote. “Especially in these turbulent days when enemies on the outside strive to delegitimize Israel, there must be a place within for a broad range of views As one who has often had the pleasure of enjoying Noa’s outstanding voice and spectacular talent I applaud the Vancouver federation and I know your Yom Ha’aztmaut celebrations will be wonderful.”