Out Loud

Standing up to Bullies

12 May 2017

Late Friday last week I heard the news: a performance in Michigan by Achinoam “Noa” Nini — the internationally-acclaimed Israeli musician who recently joined the NIF board – had been canceled.

And why? The synagogue that was hosting the show succumbed to pressure from extremists, emailing congregants that there were “several credible threats of protest and demonstration” from ultra-right wing Jewish bullies which they said they could not manage.

This isn’t new. Noa is an outspoken advocate for progressive values in Israel. Going back, at least, to her decision to perform in that fateful peace rally in November 1995 in which Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, bullies have been targeting her shows, smearing her name, and trying to undermine her livelihood.

A year ago in Vancouver, the same kinds of thugs falsely accused Noa of being a supporter of the BDS movement (she is not), which prompted the Jewish National Fund of Canada to shamefully withdraw its sponsorship of one of her concerts. At the time, the Israeli Embassy in Canada stepped in to support the concert and make sure that the show — a part of the community’s Israel Independence Day festivities — would go on.

Two months ago a concert in Mitzpeh Ramon in the Negev faced significant pressure after reports surfaced of planned protests. But the concert organizers would not be intimidated. They stayed the course, and a packed house turned out – despite the protests – to enjoy Noa’s music.

What’s going on is clear: bullies and bigots are threatening one of Israel’s most prominent artists because she has the audacity to call for peace, democracy, and equality for Israelis and Palestinians, and they will try to do the same thing to anybody else who stands for these values.

That’s what makes the incident in Detroit so troubling. Because, unlike in Vancouver or in Mitzpeh Ramon, the Jewish community ultimately caved in to the intimidation from thugs. And, in caving, they are likely to inspire more of these efforts.

We are living an era of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” of rising neo-authoritarianism, and of intense political polarization. It, perhaps, should not come as a total surprise that our Jewish communities are not immune from these trends.

But we cannot just let this incident pass. It needs to be a wake-up call for Jewish communities to say, loudly and clearly, that we will not cower in the face of those extremists who would shut down dissent and debate. We must demand that our communities welcome diverse voices, even – especially – when it comes to Israel. We must insist that our synagogues and communal institutions not bow to bullying, and that they make room for the difficult but necessary conversations that we must have if rising generations of American Jews are to forge positive, lasting relationships with the Israel we love.

I know Noa. She is strong and amazing, and I know that she won’t back down from championing the issues that matter to Israel’s future in. She never has, and she never will. I also know that what happened in Detroit will be just a blip on her career. But I do worry for us that — unless we recommit ourselves to courageously fighting for our values — there will be more and more spaces in the American Jewish community where progressives are not welcome.

This is one of the challenges of our time. We must rise to it.