Limmud is an international phenomenon, the festival of Jewish learning being embraced by dozens of Jewish communities worldwide from Moscow to Mexico. In most cities the Limmud festival has been met with enthusiasm, but the Seattle debut of Limmud has been marred by controversy.
This past May Limmud Seattle presenter Rabbi David Basior clashed with Israeli soldiers after infiltrating a closed military zone near Hebron. Basior, one of the most prominent anti-Israel activists in the Pacific Northwest enthusiastically promotes a boycott of the Jewish state. However, you will learn none of this from his brazenly misleading biography on the Limmud website, which omits even the hint of a reference to his strident anti-Israel activism. Ironically, Basior’s Limmud bio spotlights his past involvement in Birthright, a program that anti Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace is working to undermine. Basior serves on the Rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace.
Limmud’s promotional materials exult in the diversity of their presenters, where one can hear speakers opine on topics as wide and varied as cannabis, racism and ‘toxic masculinity’. What you will not hear is any presentation regarding the State of Israel outside of the context of ‘the conflict‘. There will be no presentations on efforts, many funded by local charitable foundations, to integrate Haredim into the Israeli job market or to preserve endangered bird species in Israel. This is no accident; Israel related topics are banned from Limmud Seattle as a matter of policy, the subject being considered too volatile.
We avoided Israel topics altogether and instead created civil discourse workshops. -Limmud Seattle
Limmud organizers told one presenter that “we avoided Israel topics altogether and instead created civil discourse workshops. In these workshops – participants – will gain tools and practice talking with each other about Israel in ways that create respect and understanding – even, or especially, if they completely disagree. So there will be no Israel sessions other than these…”
Judy Lash-Balint, author, journalist and human rights activist found herself on the receiving end of Limmud’s anti-Israel policy. Lash-Balint, a member of a leading Israeli think tank offered to present an uplifting view of Israel in a session titled “Putting Aliya on the Community Agenda”. Her proposal was rejected. The letter received by Lash-Balint explained that the Jewish festival was excluding virtually all Israel related topics. “We ended up deciding to keep Israel programming restricted this year to the civil discourse track” Limmud organizers told Lash-Balint, “because views on what a balanced and appropriate program looked like were so disparate.”
Randy Kessler, Pacific Northwest Director of Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs, had a similar experience after offering to provide balance to Rabbi Basior’s extremist perspective. Kessler told TMR “I applied to speak at Limmud Seattle after finding out that David Basior, noteworthy for being a supporter of BDS, was speaking. To balance him, I proposed that I give a talk on separating fact from fiction in common anti-Israel allegations.” Kessler’s proposal was rejected. Says Kessler, “I was told by Limmud co-chair [Deb Arnold] that “because Israel is such a divisive topic,” they avoided speaking topics involving Israel altogether.” This response surprised Kessler, “I am shocked that a community Jewish learning event would deny people an opportunity to learn about Israel, and I am equally concerned that they would allow a speaker who actively opposes the Jewish state.”
I am shocked that a community Jewish learning event would deny people an opportunity to learn about Israel. – Randy Kessler
The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle had no such qualms, their spokesperson Max Patashnik told The Mike Report that “We are happy to support Limmud as it is a wonderful example of Jews being able to come together from across the political and religious spectrum to learn and share with one another.” The Federation, a sponsor of Limmud has a policy which prohibits sponsorship of programs that “advocate for, endorse or promote the illegitimacy of Israel as a secure, independent, democratic, and Jewish state, including, though not limited to, participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS)”. This policy apparently does not preclude sponsorship of programs like Limmud Seattle that includes presenters who are anti-Israel while restricting pro-Israel voices and views.
While few would disagree that “civil discourse” is a worthy goal, Limmud’s “Civil Discourse track” is stacked with critics of the Jewish state. One of the panelists, Stanley Wulf, serves on the advisory council of J Street, the hyper-partisan, Israel-critical advocacy group. Wulf also serves as a board member of Molad, an organization that according to NGO Monitor engages in anti-Israel activities. Maintaining Limmud’s pattern of obfuscation, there is no reference to Dr. Wulf’s leadership in either Molad or J-Street in his Limmud bio.
In his civil discourse presentations, Dr. Wulf, either displaying a complete ignorance of recent Arab-Israeli history or a great sense of irony, appropriates the famous ‘three no’s‘ of the Arab countries’ anti-peace Khartoum Resolution, referring to his rules for Israel dialogue using the same terminology. Dr. Wulf’s ‘three no’s refers to his rules which allows for no blaming, no historical justifications and no moral arguments allowed in communal discussions regarding Israel. Dr. Wulf’s “rules” not so subtly stack the deck against anyone taking a pro-Israel position in any such communal dialogues.
A good portion of Limmud’s sponsors and participants are generous supporters of the Jewish state. Had Limmud been forthcoming, some may very well have declined to be associated with the event. Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, Rabbi Emeritus for Sephardic Bikur
Holim Congregation is troubled by Limmud’s abstruse agenda. Says Rabbi Benzaquen, “The Talmud in Hulin 94a refers to such deception as gnevat da’at and considers it a grave sin. Rabbi Samuel compares it to giving somebody non-kosher fowl but leading the recipient to believe it is in fact kosher.”
The Seattle iteration of Limmud appears to be unique in it’s censorship of Israel related topics. Limmud Philadephia’s schedule was chock-full of Israel-centric sessions; AIPAC’s Erica Miller led a workshop titled “Building a Bridge of Bipartisanship: Politically Engaged Israel Activism“, other session titles included “Israeli Dancing 101”, Waves of Israeli Culture” and “Everything you never knew about old Jaffa“. Limmud San Francisco included presentations on “Hebrew Now – The First Israeli Startup”, “Who is A Jew and why does it matter? – An Israeli Perspective” and “From Rescue to Reconstruction: Global Humanitarian Aid from Israel”, all topics that would apparently be too much for Limmud Seattle organizers to countenance.
I’m very disappointed in this lost opportunity for intelligent unified support for Israel”. – Don Uslan
Don Uslan, a Seattle therapist and involved member of the local Jewish community sees Limmud’s efforts to restrict conversation as “hypocritical and deceptive”. Said Uslan, “I’m very disappointed in this lost opportunity for intelligent unified support for Israel”. Referencing Limmud’s stated goal of bringing the Jewish community together, notes Uslan, “Ironically this whole workshop appears divisive”.
Limmud is not responsible for the views of our presenters or participants. -Deb Arnold
Limmud, co-founder Deb Arnold, defended Limmud Seattle’s inclusion of anti-Israel activists, telling TMR that “Limmud is not responsible for the views of our presenters or participants and we do not promote or endorse any political or religious view. “Says Arnold, “underpinning Limmud Seattle and all Limmud programs around the world is a commitment to an inclusive Jewish environment.” Arnold offered TMR no explanation for Limmud Seattle’s deliberate exclusion of pro-Israel topics.
StandWithUs leader Randy Kessler lauded the program’s stated goal of promoting Jewish learning, but he feels that at a certain point a moral line must be drawn. “While the Limmud organizers deserve praise for putting together a Jewish learning event” says Kessler, “I am terribly disappointed about their Israel policy. In addition, I firmly believe that any organization or individual that supports either a partial or full boycott of Israel should not be included in events put on by mainstream Jewish organizations.”
Limmud Seattle’s website proclaims that “everyone should be a student and anyone can be a teacher” perhaps they should add ‘as long as you keep Israel out of it’.
The Limmud Seattle educational seminar will be held in mid January of 2018 near Seattle, WA.