A test for the big tent

A test for the big tent

What is an individual’s responsibility for decorum inside an open tent of the Jewish community? And how should the community respond to demonstrations within its walls? These questions were put to the test recently at a public event in Pittsburgh, where Israeli Consul General Yaron Sideman spoke at the Jewish Community Center.

In advance of the event, members of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which opposes the policies of the Israeli government and supports an end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, including through the international pressure of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, used social media to encourage a protest at the event. Organizers, though, allowed JVP to attend and participate.

At the beginning of the evening, audience members were warned not to disrupt the proceedings and were informed that police officers were on hand to maintain order. As the diplomat spoke, however, two JVP members stood at their seats and silently displayed letter-sized signs with words such as “Lies” and “Another Jew against the occupation” printed on them. And when the protesters ignored police requests to sit down, they were removed from the hall.

Successive pairs of JVP protesters similarly stood and displayed their small signs and were each quickly ejected. Sideman continued to speak over the orchestrated interruptions. No one was arrested. But as the demonstration continued, some in the audience became increasingly distracted and irritated.

If members of JVP wanted to criticize Israel’s policies and engage on the issues, they would have done better to raise their concerns during the question-and-answer session. Indeed, they were implored to do so but chose not to. They also can run their own programs, which have not been disrupted by pro-Israel members of our community.

But this situation presents a more fundamental question: How open and patient does the community need to be? The sponsor of the event, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, thought it solved that problem by allowing JVP to attend and by asking audience members to write questions on index cards.

We regularly confront the issue of whether our communal tent is sufficiently open to divergent views.  That debate played out in full color when the Conference of Presidents voted in May 2014 to deny membership to J Street. And it is an issue regularly raised by JVP. But here in Pittsburgh, JVP was welcomed into the tent.

JVP’s deliberate effort to disrupt the proceedings was a slap in the face to event organizers and the audience who wanted to hear the speaker. It can only make others more cautious about future efforts to open the communal tent.