The Shalom Hartman Institute stands by the narrative we shared with JTA, of the events that transpired between our organization and the communications firm Big Duck. We approached Big Duck about doing some work together; we were almost immediately asked a set of questions about the Institute’s political positions on BDS and in light of our “presence” in Israel; and Big Duck said they would decline our business because of these commitments. In these respects, Big Duck’s decision represents a moving of the goalposts on BDS from Israel to North American Jewish organizations, and applies a standard on North American Jewish commitments that would exclude the vast majority of the members of our community. Big Duck’s claims to not apply litmus tests nor to adhere to a BDS policy as a company are belied by their application of a litmus test here, and by their allowing those employees who support BDS to exercise a veto over business decisions on the basis of that commitment. We believe that if and when companies decide to refuse business of North American Jewish organizations because they have a relationship with Israel, those organizations should be accountable to that reputation publicly and transparently.
Between the time we spoke with JTA and the actual publication of the piece, we engaged in conversations with principals at Big Duck and with some of their partners and allies in the organized Jewish community. We remain open to the possibility that this was a miscommunication by Big Duck, though that miscommunication was carried forth from their original comments and through their misrepresentation of the story to the JTA reporter. We also are open to the possibility that Big Duck would genuinely like to learn more about how and why Jewish organizations like ours are triggered and offended by such litmus tests, and how the causes of justice, human rights, and the advancement of democracy in Israel are undermined by the refusal to work with liberal Zionist institutions in North America. We do not believe that when individuals and organizations make mistakes, especially as related to complicated political matters, they automatically deserve to be “cancelled;” and we certainly do not want other Jewish organizations who work with Big Duck to be repudiated right now because of this evolving story. We hope that Big Duck will respond to this moment by apologizing and expressing a desire to learn from this misstep, and then by distancing itself from the culture of anti-Zionist litmus testing that is growing in some sectors of the Jewish community.
As an educational organization committed to improving Jewish communal discourse, we regret we were sucked into this kind of institutional internecine conflict; but we genuinely believe that these tendencies to reduce organizations and individuals to the most tendentious caricatures of what are imagined to be our political positions are not problems that we created. We also feel enormously disappointed that Big Duck and others have come to believe that it is untenable to advocate for the values of religious pluralism, human rights, democracy, and equality within a Zionist framework, and we fear that such an approach will constitute a setback to the pursuit of these values. Our community must engage in a collective reckoning about the ways that extremism and polarization are making a mockery of sophisticated Jewish values commitments that we are bidden to share and debate with generosity and sincerity. We welcome partnership with Jews and others who hold a wide and diverse set of views and beliefs on Israel and other essential concerns, and we will continue with our efforts to build a more inclusive and resilient community with all comers.