No loyalty, no presentership

Limmud Oz, for those who don’t know, describes itself as:

Limmud-Oz is a major Australian Jewish community-wide conference and festival celebrating Jewish learning and creativity.

Limmud-Oz is a unique, volunteer-led, cross-communal and multi-generational event, catering for the broad diversity of opinions within the wider Jewish community.

Limmud-Oz is just one of over 50 similar events under the umbrella of Limmud International , which is at the forefront of a revolution in global Jewish education and thinking, and is creating a learned, open, dynamic and respectful community.

[emphasis added]

A couple of years ago, my friend and former lecturer Peter Slezak presented a talk there. Last year, when it was held in Melbourne, I heard Samah Sabawi gave a talk. I don’t know her personally, but understand she’s a Palestinian advocate of BDS (and generally supports Palestinian rights).

Out of some bizarre sense that I had something interesting to contribute, one person involved in Limmud Oz this year asked me if I’d join a couple of panels. I agreed to one of them, which I was told was something about dissent.

Last week, I received an email from Vivienne Porzsolt informing me she’d been banned from talking. ‘BDS supporters therefore undermine Limmud-Oz’, wrote the program director of Limmud Oz and the Shalom Institute, Michael Misrachi. Peter Slezak received the same email, despite having also been invited to give a talk.

I don’t support the blanket BDS, but I like to think I’m as subversive as anyone, so I sent an email to Michael Misrachi confessing that ‘I may well be considered too unpatriotic and subversive for the undoubtedly sensitive ears of the local Jewish community’. I made no secret of my critics from the Jewish establishment: I proudly quote them on the profile I was asked to provide.

Misrachi did not reply for a number of days. I then heard that he went to the efforts of phoning the organiser of my panel to determine my politics. Considering I had tried to inform him of them in my email querying whether I was to be banned, I was a little surprised. (It doesn’t take much effort to find out what I think about Israel for anyone with functioning internet access.) So I wrote an article outlining my views, and noting that the Jewish News had more or less accurately represented my views in their corrections.

THE report “Academics slam journal for unbalanced coverage” (AJN 14/05) stated that in his Overland article, Michael Brull voiced support for a boycott of Israel, accused the Jewish community of hiding behind accusations of anti-Semitism and implied the author opposes a two-state solution. In fact, Brull argues against a blanket boycott of Israel and is in favour of a targeted boycott of West Bank settlements. Further, in the article, he only claims certain elements within the Jewish community level charges of anti-Semitism and he does not argue against a two-state solution.

So I sent my article to Galus Australis and Overland, but it quickly became unpublishable, because Misrachi almost immediately replied with rather politely abusive emails. He told me, however, that I was welcome to speak at Limmud Oz, rather defeating the point of the original article.

At least it got some public attention. Galus Australis – which has run an article by Jake Lynch, who supports BDS – reported on the issue, and featured quotes from my aborted article on the controversy. The logic of the ban escapes me. If the highly trained minds at Limmud Oz think that boycotting Israel is bad, and it has connections to Israel, why would they insist pro-boycotters stay away? If they believe speaking would break the boycott, shouldn’t they be in favour of breaking the boycott? Or do they support boycotting Israel too now? Has Limmud Oz joined the BDS campaign?

The whole thing is kind of comical, and a welcome distraction. I don’t know what kind of response I’ll get if/when I talk (the organiser has publicly commented on her desire to pull my panel in protest). As it stands, it looks like I’ll be talking with three others about learning to disagree while maintaining a dialogue. It seems a bit funny now.

As for Misrachi, I found his emails quite rude. I virtually begged him for a public comment, which he refused to provide, and I said I’d respect the privacy of his emails, which I think is kind of silly given that he wrote as program director, and my agreement effectively shields some of his antics from the public scrutiny they richly deserve.

However, one point does deserve raising. At one point, Misrachi informed me that while he was okay with me making my views known in my article, his problem was with my ‘personal attack on [him] which is totally unfounded and defamatory’. Defamatory sounded like a legal threat, so I worried and puzzled over what possibly could have qualified as defamatory. (It also didn’t surprise me that I might be subject to the kind of bullying which some of the more loyal devotees of the Israel government consider appropriate.)

So I asked, ‘What personal attack have I made on you? What have I written that is defamatory?’

He replied:

I object to the implication that I don’t know how to use Google (which I do and have), that I exclude those who views I don’t like (which I don’t – there are countless presenters at Limmud-Oz with whom I disagree), that I lament Hineni’s pluralism (which I deeply value and celebrate), and your self-righteous and mocking tone.

So let the record be clear, oh kind and gentle reader. The program director and chief of censorship at Limmud Oz does indeed know how to use google, and he does not appreciate mockery. He later clarified (after I’d announced my outrage) it wasn’t a legal threat. Given the safe nature of the various talks (especially after the purge), one wonders how Misrachi could disagree with countless presenters.

When I was sixteen, both Misrachi and I were youth leaders at Hineni. (Hineni, oh Gentile reader, is a politically non-partisan Zionist youth movement.) My views on Israel were quite notorious at the Jewish school I attended, the same school where virtually everyone in Hineni came from, yet no-one ever raised the issue or considered it significant.

A few final points.

In Israel right now, a bill is finding its way through the Knesset, proposing to fine anyone who advocates a boycott of Israel. It was presented by Likud. This obviously reflects a pretty similar mindset, as we witness the collapse of basic liberal values in Israel and the frightening winds of chauvinist nationalism. The banning of speakers who hold disloyal views is what we might expect from Likud. Or Yisrael Beitenu (No Loyalty, no speakership!). Or Kadima for that matter.

When Israel prevented Chomsky from visiting the occupied territories, it caused shock throughout the world. Even China let Chomsky deliver talks. I mean, Turkey lets him make scathing talks about their treatment of the Kurds. So I think this should be put in the broader context of people who should not be considered supports of Israel, but supporters and co-travellers of the ugliest trends within Israel, which should appal anyone who really accepts the most basic conception of liberal values.

Limmud Oz, it should be noted, defended itself to Galus Australis. I swear, I am not making this up:

In a statement, Limmud-Oz has added that it does not “shy away from the tough issues or from challenging points of view.” It points out that there are a number of sessions at Limmud-Oz that tackle the very issues of BDS and criticism of Israel.

They don’t shy away from the tough issues or challenging points of view: they feature discussion of BDS. They just don’t let the contrary point of view complicate their discussions. Personally, I think it would be difficult to ridicule what is already self-parody. But of course, I should be sure not to try, because the program director and chief censor of Limmud Oz does not appreciate being mocked.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

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  1. Brull is well known for defaming left-wingers who supports the right of Israel to exist free. He has done so in Overland, and regularly on his blog. It sounds like the convenor of Limmud Oz did not appreciate his constant misrepresentations of other people’s views

  2. Michael is deliberately controversial, and thoughtful on the issue of Israel. I have no issues with that. I was hoping for a great discussion with him.

    But the censorship of two other speakers has left a very bad taste in my mouth, particularly when the representative of the virulently and crudely anti-Muslim QSociety (Vicky Janson) was free to make her presentation. Hello? It seems that only because I pointed it out has Limmud realise that it is playing with fire by provoking the anti-muslim sentiment which exists in the Jewish community.

    So no, rather than let people throw a verbal challenge/hiding to criminal fire-breathing supporters of BDS, or the proponents of racial and religious intolerance, Limmud is banning them all.

    This is a problem for everyone, and shows the naivite (QSociety) and the domination by a right wing agenda (BDS= total enemies). By the way, I am not in favour of blanket BDS, but that is not the point here. The ‘establishment’ seems incapable of dealing with a significant international movement face to face other than banning it.

    Why should I come to Sydney to participate in a panel about dissent if controversial views can’t be put forward, particularly over BDS? It is not enough that I am being given permission to now discuss BDS–the people who were involved in it in the first place should be the ones talking about it.

  3. Larry: My understanding is that Peter only advocated BDS at Marrickville on the narrow grounds that they should not change their position because of the Murdoch press. As for me, I look at the bans as a challenge. I intend to be as subversive as Peter, in the hope that they can consider me as dangerous as Viv and Pete next time. I’d love to join the honour roll of banned from Limmud Oz next time.

    Also, the great fear of LO is people delegitimising Israel. I’ve already pled guilty to this charge in an article I co-wrote with the particularly dreaded Antony Loewenstein:

    “We consider it our duty to delegitimise all governments, everywhere, especially those who act in our name. That includes Rudd’s Government, which has supported Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians. It also includes the US, with whom we are in a military alliance. However, we have also criticised oppressive regimes elsewhere. One of us has written a book, The Blogging Revolution, about repression in China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Iran, Egypt and Syria. In short, we “demonise” all governments, everywhere, and urge everyone to do likewise (full disclosure: one of us wrote an undergraduate thesis on anarchism).”

  4. Pingback: Limmud Oz, Tracker Debate « Michael Brull

  5. well, one of you assume registration for the session then! Joel and I are officially withdrawing form Limmud 2011 tonight, so if they want to keep our panel sessions, they’ll have to find other people to run them anyway.

  6. In the interests of transparency, there were a couple of comments on this thread that were not approved. All commenters are welcome, but please refrain from personal attacks.

  7. Pingback: My speech at Limmud Oz « Michael Brull

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