Panel on Jewish activism will go on, but not at BJE

An upcoming panel discussion on the topic of Jewish activism has experienced more than its fair share of action even before taking place.

“Reclaiming Jewish Activism: Rediscovering Voices of Our Ancestors” originally was going to be held next week at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco.

But BJE officials scrapped that plan two months ago after learning that panelist Rae Abileah is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace and co-director of Code Pink, two organizations that support forms of BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) against Israel.

The event will still take place Thursday, May 24, though it has been moved to Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. Other panelists include Julie Gilgoff and Elaine Elinson.

Rae Abileah

Organized by the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring of Northern California and co-sponsored by Bend the Arc Bay Area, the discussion will focus on social justice and how the activists/panelists have each been inspired by one of their ancestors.

“Activists tend to push the envelope, rather than write history, [and] their accomplishments often remain unknown, forgotten or repressed in the dominant ‘narrative,’ ” said Diana Scott, a member of the Workmen’s Circle and an organizer of the event. “So we’ve created an opportunity for three activists to consider the social justice accomplishments of little-known ancestors who have influenced them.”

Gilgoff authored “Granddaughter’s Rite of Passage: Tales From the McCarthy Era,” which is based on her family history. She will talk about the Red Scare and her upbringing as a so-called red diaper baby (children of socialist and communist sympathizers during the McCarthy era).

She also pays tribute to her grandfather, Max Gilgoff, who died from a heart attack while being interrogated about his political activism.

Elinson co-authored “Wherever There’s a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California,” which won a 2010 gold medal from the California Book Awards.

Julie Gilgoff

As an activist, Elinson’s joined picket lines in California vineyards and, as communications director of the ACLU of Northern California for the past two decades, worked for voting rights and other civil liberties. She is currently working on a novel about Selina Solomons, an early 20th century Jewish suffragist.

Abileah will be talking about her granduncle, Joseph, whom she credits in part for her own dedication to pacifism and activism. A Haifa-born musician who became a pacifist during Israel’s War of Independence and later devoted his life to Arab-Jewish reconciliation, he was the subject of a biography, “Israeli Pacifist: The Life of Joseph Abileah.”

Abileah, a Half Moon Bay native who once belonged to BBYO, gained notoriety last year when she heckled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a speech to a joint session of Congress. She supports boycotting Israeli products from the West Bank.

Abileah said the initial cancellation of the panel discussion was “shocking and painful” because she plans to talk mainly about her uncle and how he has inspired her.

Elaine Elinson

“They said I was too controversial and they couldn’t have an event with me on it,” she said. “I don’t blame the [Jewish Community] Library. I think they were pressured by the [Bureau of Jewish Education]. I think we were censored by BJE.”

The panelists and Scott co-signed a March 28 open letter condemning the cancellation and accusing the JCL of doing so “based on narrow-minded, divisive guidelines from the federation.”

They were referring to the guidelines instituted two years ago, which delineate for grantees of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation the limits of speech regarding criticism of Israel.

Said Scott: “The climate has chilled sponsorship of events in the Jewish community. If [fear of incivility] really had been the issue, then we should have sat down and discussed how to address it.”

David Waksberg, executive director of the Bureau of Jewish Education, which oversees the library, denied that the guidelines entered into his decision, and he noted that the event never was officially added to the JCL schedule.

“We didn’t muzzle anything,” he said. “They’re having their program. I wish them well. It wasn’t appropriate for us.”

“Reclaiming Jewish Activism: Rediscovering Voices of Our Ancestors,” 7 p.m. Thursday, May 24 at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, 290 Dolores St., S.F.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.