Questions of communal free speech are always tested on the periphery. Last week, such a test played out in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., where Hasia Diner, an authority on American Jewish history, was invited by the Foundation for Jewish Studies to give a lecture on Jewish immigration to America. The intended venue was the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Md.
Diner, who is Jewish, holds some extreme views on Israel, which she outlined in Haaretz in 2016: “The exponential growth of far-right political parties and the increasing haredization of Israel makes it a place that I abhor visiting, and to which I will contribute no money, whose products I will not buy, nor will I expend my limited but still to me, meaningful, political clout to support it,” she wrote.
She also criticized as “racist” Israel’s Law of Return, which guarantees the right of Jews to automatic Israeli citizenship. And she wrote that she feels “a sense of repulsion when I enter a synagogue in front of which the congregation has planted a sign reading, ‘We Stand With Israel.’”
This outraged members of COPIA, a hardline D.C.-area pro-Israel group that seeks to police the limits of acceptable speech about Israel. COPIA determined that Diner was “one of the world’s leading Jewish anti-Semites and Israel haters,” criticized both the JCC and the sponsoring foundation for scheduling the lecture, and urged those on its email list to not “give this poisonous anti-Israel ideologue the attention she craves.”
Under COPIA pressure, the Bender JCC told the Foundation for Jewish Studies that it couldn’t bring Diner into the JCC building as she stands outside the “big tent” of the Jewish community. Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation, a generally liberal Zionist community, stepped in to host the Diner lecture on Monday.
We abhor Diner’s views about Israel and Zionism. But COPIA’s vigilante tactics do not help Israel or the Jewish community. The group’s obsessive and unrelenting drive to crush what it judges to be Israel’s enemies by strong-arming the rest of the Jewish community is narrow-minded and divisive. In its pursuit of purity, COPIA has attacked mainstream and respected Jewish communal organizations, and targeted several individual communal leaders who disagree with COPIA’s scorched earth, unforgiving tactics.
COPIA’s stated goal of protecting the Jewish state against its enemies is unquestionably a worthwhile objective. Israel needs all the friends it can get, and efforts to hold critics accountable for what they say is fair game. But COPIA crosses the line when it seeks to ban legitimate speech and orchestrates boycotts and sanctions of its own against Jewish organizations and communal leaders who don’t adopt the group’s intolerant and uncompromising stances.
We have long advocated the defense of abhorrent speech through engagement and more persuasive argument. We urge COPIA and organizations like it to abandon their bullying tactics.