Montreal Jewish festival boots panelists who defied its funders, calling for end to ‘Birthright’
From Aaron Lakoff’s website, a statement from Sarah Woolf, Aaron Lakoff, and Moishe Dolman:
Le Mood, described by organizers as “Montreal’s festival of unexpected Jewish learning, arts and culture” will be hosting its third annual festival on November 3, 2013. The festival features “hands-on workshops, film screenings, comedy shows, interactive moderated discussions, live musical performances, lectures, panel discussions, visual arts exhibits, and more.” Le Mood is one of the largest gatherings of Jewish youth in Montreal; last year it boasted over 120 presenters and more than 1000 attendees.
On Tuesday, October 22, we were told by Le Mood festival director Mike Savatovsky that the festival had cancelled our longstanding, scheduled panels.
The first panel, entitled “Where are all the radical Jews?”, was to be moderated by writer and researcher Sarah Woolf, and featured three panelists: journalist/community organizer Aaron Lakoff, Yiddish-French-English translator Moishe-Volf Dolman, and artist Lisa Vinebaum. The approved synopsis is as follows: If you asked someone this question today, they might answer “Brooklyn” or “There are radical Jews?!” But Montreal’s Jewish community has a long tradition of radicalism. In fact, many of our institutions have radical roots – see the Jewish Public Library, Canadian Jewish Congress, JPPS/Bialik, and even Centre Hillel! Today, few traces of these groups and individuals remain. What happened? We’ll take a look back and then search forward to understand what role radical Jews play in Montreal today and can play in the future.
In addition, Sarah Woolf was to host a second panel in her capacity as curator of an upcoming online and outdoor walking tour; the project maps historically significant buildings and sites in Montreal’s old garment district, and showcases the experiences of Jewish garment workers in the early 20th Century. This panel has also been pulled as a result of Woolf being banned from Le Mood.
Savatovsky initially provided no reason for cancelling the panels, saying only that “internal tensions” within Le Mood necessitated the action. However, when pressed as to whether the cancellation was a political choice, Savatovsky told Woolf: “You have a specific instance when you did go against a program that our funders support; we’re not willing to create a platform for people whose mission goes against the beliefs of our funders.”
The funders to whom Savatovsky alluded, and whose beliefs Le Mood participants are apparently beholden, is Federation CJA (Combined Jewish Appeal). Le Mood is supported by a handful of organizations, but CJA is its primary funding source. The events or conversations that preceded the decision to cancel the panels and to ban Woolf and Lakoff from speaking remain unclear, but we have been led to believe that the order was delivered to Le Mood by CJA.
The ‘specific instance’ to which Savatovsky is likely referring is an article, co-written by Woolf, critiquing the Taglit-Birthright Israel program (http://electronicintifada.net/content/jews-we-say-birthright-trips-must-end…). [As Jews we say ‘Birthright’ must end: “We have founded Renounce Birthright because Birthright demands our complicity in two intersecting (but distinct) forms of violence: first, the occupation of Palestine and the Israeli government’s brutal regime of apartheid and second, the erasure and suppression of diverse Jewish experiences and communities across the world.”] Lakoff was not told why he had been banned from speaking, but we have been led to believe that Woolf and Lakoff’s respective engagements with Palestine solidarity activism and writing were underscored as a reason for the ban and panel cancellation. It should be noted that neither panel was planned to focus on the Birthright program or Palestine, though, in principle, we do not believe that either of these topics should be off limits.
Ultimately, we’ve been banned from speaking at Le Mood because of our personal politics (or whatever Le Mood and Federation CJA perceive our respective politics to be), not based on the content of our panels, which were reviewed, accepted, and scheduled months ago.
Sadly, this is not the first time in recent years that Jews have been censored by their own community for their political beliefs. One need look no further than Toronto artist Reena Katz, Master’s student Ben Peto, Nobel Prize nominee Jeff Halper (whose Gelber Centre talk was cancelled by Federation CJA in 2009), or every time pro-Israel organizations try to censor Israeli Apartheid Week on university campuses.
The alleged purpose of Le Mood is to interact with young people who otherwise don’t feel connected to these traditional Jewish organizations. Savatovsky himself summarized the spirit of the festival in an interview with the Canadian Jewish News: “We’re challenging people to rethink and re-imagine what Judaism means to them…Judaism’s richness was fed by a tradition of debate, discussion and diversity of perspectives on what it means to be connected to the cosmos and to each other.”
We are deeply disheartened to learn that Le Mood has fallen victim to the very behaviours and attitudes it had promised to avoid: stifling, censorial, top-down and centralized notions of what Jewishness can and should be. Instead of offering new ways of opening, orienting, and understanding the complex set of identities that constitute Jewishness, Le Mood has proven itself, disappointingly, to be more of the same old program. Words such as “alternative” and “grassroots” are bandied about freely, but when push comes to shove, the organizers are unwilling to provide “a platform for people whose mission goes against the beliefs of our funders.”
We do not deny that curatorial discretion rests with the organizers of Le Mood; however, their choice to unceremoniously ban specific individuals ought to raise red flags for everyone involved. We hope that the organizers, participants and presenters of Le Mood will ask themselves what kind of event they are contributing to in the lead-up to November 3.
In raising our objections to Le Mood and CJA’s actions, we want to make it clear that, while we have been singled out, we don’t believe our banning is really about us as individuals: it’s about controlling the conversation and quieting dissent. Moreover, this kind of behaviour is hardly a one-off or an exception; the actions taken by Le Mood and CJA are symptomatic of much larger, more pervasive problems within the organized, institutional Jewish community.
It is distressing that these organizations, Le Mood and CJA, claim to represent us as members of Montreal’s Jewish community, while simultaneously working to actively exclude us.
Moishe Dolman, co-panelist
The panelists will be presenting the content of the prepared panel, in an act of protest, outside Le Mood (at Espace Réunion, 6600 rue Hutchinson) at 2 PM on Sunday, November 3.