An Israeli diplomat’s June 19 talk at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh was disrupted by two local Jewish groups that oppose Israeli policies in regard to the Palestinian conflict.
Almog Elijis, Israeli counsel for media affairs, was in Pittsburgh to discuss the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem, an update on Gaza, and other current events in the Jewish state. Her appearance was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
About a dozen protestors from Jewish Voice for Peace–which endorses the Palestinian-led movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel–and IfNotNow, which “seeks to end American Jewish support for the occupation,” interrupted Elijis’ presentation by shouting refrains such as “this is not my Judaism!” and reciting the names of Palestinians killed in the recent border riots in Gaza. (The vast majority of those killed during the riots were members of the Islamist terrorist group Hamas, according to Hamas officials.)
“It’s okay; everyone has an opinion,” said Elijis, as a shouter was escorted by security from Levinson Hall.
“This is the first time that’s happened to me,” added Elijis, whose diplomatic duties include serving as an intermediary between the Israeli government and media outlets in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Delaware and New Jersey.
The disruptions were “unnecessary,” said attendee Paul Caplan, of Oakland. “She came here to discuss something, and we should allow her to discuss what she wanted to whether it’s Israel or community or whatever. It’s discourteous to interrupt someone speaking.”
“They’re entitled to their opinion and we’re entitled to listen,” said Skip Grinberg, a former chair of the Federation’s Community Relations Council. “It’s unfortunate that none of them asked questions.”
Opportunities to do so were presented both in a formal query-card fashion — in which inquirers anonymously submitted notes to a facilitator who then publicly presented them to Elijis — and in a relaxed post-event gathering where the diplomat and those interested continued to discuss topics raised earlier.
“I think everyone has a right to express themselves, but it should be in a polite manner. I would rather sit with them and talk with them,” said Elijis. “If two people are speaking at the same time you can’t have a conversation.”
Josh Sayles, CRC director, agreed. “Based on what the protestors yelled tonight, they don’t seem to understand the mission or values of the Jewish Federation. I’m happy to sit down and have coffee whenever they want and help them understand the important work we do in the community.”
The issues involved in Israeli politics are “complex,” explained Elijis.
“Israel is not perfect. The situation is not perfect,” she said. “I represent everyone: the LGBT from Tel Aviv, the settler, the Orthodox. The people in Israel are very divided but I represent everyone.”
Elijis noted a litany of Israeli actions that makes her proud “as a Jew and a human being.”
“I am proud of the work Israel does every day to lessen the impact of the horrific Syrian Civil War, providing humanitarian aid inside Syria to isolated communities, and evacuating injured civilians to receive free treatment in Israel, no questions asked. I am proud that we deliver thousands of tons of aid to Gaza every day. In agriculture, women’s and LGBT rights, education and public health, Israel has transformed communities and entire countries, bringing first-class technology and knowhow to people across the world, from Africa to the West Bank, via developing nations on every continent.”
Regarding Gaza, she noted Hamas’ responsibility in creating the crisis.
“We share the US’ commitment to advancing peace with all our neighbors, including the Palestinians,” she said. “What has been going on in Gaza for the last 11 years is as tragic as it is preventable. As soon as Hamas gives up its aim of destroying Israel, peace becomes possible. Until then, with terrorist organizations like Hamas, in charge of millions of Palestinians, we all live in damage control mode.”
As one of approximately eight members of IfNotNow who attended Tuesday’s forum, Eva Westheimer described her group’s outbursts as “strategic.”
“For us with IfNotNow, we speak to the Jewish community as a public and so everything that we do, that’s what we’re doing — speaking to the Jewish community as a public community,” said the Regent Square resident.
Noting Elijis’ assessment that “the issue around Israel and Palestine is complicated,” Westheimer added: “And what’s not complicated is standing on the right side of our morals and ethics.”
Dani Klein, of Jewish Voice for Peace, said his decision to interrupt Eliji’s talk came “soon after finding out about” the diplomat’s visit.
“I read the description of the event and it was transparent about it being an Israeli government official who was coming to discuss recent events in Israel including the violence in Gaza. At that point I already knew what they were going to say and that I wanted to publicly oppose them,” he said.
Elijis sees her diplomatic role to include not only providing a connection between Israeli and diaspora Jews, but to listen to the concerns of those Jews living outside the Jewish state, and to convey those messages to the Israeli government.
In a Federation Shabbat message disseminated on June 25, Sayles reiterated the Jewish imperative of civil discourse.
“It is part of the Jewish Federation’s mission to engage the entire spectrum of our community, provided we agree on two principles: Israel has the right to exist in the world as a Jewish and democratic state; and derech eretz kadmah l’Torah, translated ‘proper conduct precedes the Torah.’ In other words, civility and mutual respect are essential, even in the midst of a heated argument,” Sayles wrote.
“Tuesday evening was not the first time we had a small number of mostly young Jews protest an Israeli diplomat we brought to town,” he continued. “It likely won’t be the last. Unfortunately, this group did not and has never adhered to either of the two principles laid out above. The tactics they used, which included shouting over the speaker on several occasions (creating anxiety for many of the elderly audience members), were intended solely to disrupt and not to dialogue. Then again, this is the same Jewish organization (IfNotNow) who earlier this week set up tables in JFK Airport and verbally accosted Birthright participants as they were checking into their flights.”
Sayles emphasized the Federation’s unwavering support of Israel.
“It is worth stating the obvious: We will never sever ties with Israel or the Israeli government, regardless of whether that government is rightwing, leftwing or centrist. First and foremost, as the representative of the Greater Pittsburgh organized Jewish community, it is our responsibility to remain connected to the only Jewish state in the world. And secondly, if we are not connected to the Israeli government, how are we going to advocate for issues our community cares about, whether it’s egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, Jewish conversion in the diaspora, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.