Statement from Leah Levane, Co-Chair of Jewish Voice for Labour on the “disinvitation” to contribute to Interfaith Panel at Greenbelt 2019

Greenbelt festival: Photo Wikipedia

[The statement below was sent to the Greenbelt organisers. Minor typos etc have been corrected]

Updated 25th August – link to a Greenbelt statement in response.

Wednesday 21 August, 2019

Earlier this year my colleague Naomi Wimborne Idrissi was invited to contribute to a Panel at this year’s Greenbelt Festival. She was unable to attend and suggested that she ask whether others involved in Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) were able to contribute. This suggestion was warmly welcomed. I as Co-Chair of JVL was scheduled to participate, and my name then appeared on the programme.

Earlier this week, pressure was put on organisers about my participation and, on 21st August, the invitation was withdrawn. JVL fully understands the degree of pressure that may have been brought to bear on the organisers and also understands that there are wider issues for Greenbelt organisers.  However, withdrawing the invitation is disappointing and will be counterproductive and JVL’s involvement and the response to it is still likely to be “the story of the Festival”. The pressure will not reduce because Greenbelt has succumbed to it, instead it will give succour to those who seek, at the very least, to deny legitimacy to JVL’s important perspective.

In the email disinviting me, the Greenbelt organiser stated that “I realise the signals this sends and that this kow-tows to those who would effectively silence your legitimate work and voice, and ours as Greenbelt.”

The objections made seem to be based on the notion that it was unacceptable for Greenbelt to imply that a JVL speaker could represent Jewish thought. Despite courageous stands in the past, this time Greenbelt has, by disinviting me, given credence to the idea that there are “the right sort of Jews” and “the wrong sort of Jews” – and that those who stand up for Palestine are in the second category.

Withdrawing the invitation gives credence to the falsehood that there is a singular ‘Jewish Thought’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jewish thought through the centuries has been marked by disputation; yeshiva students spend years contemplating the arguments in the Talmud. JVL has never claimed or even hinted that it alone represents Jewish thought; in fact such a claim by us or anyone else would be absurd. We do assert we represent a strand of thought with a long and resonant history. It is of great regret that some believe that exposure to such thought is dangerous and that those who come to Greenbelt do not possess the critical intelligence to determine their own evaluation of our positions.

While JVL understands the difficulties that you face; JVL continues to do its work, despite having had venues forced to cancel JVL meetings and even a bomb scare at a planned film showing.  But we had expected, given the courageous stand that Greenbelt has made in the past, that this pressure would have been resisted not least in recognition of the dangers of silencing alternative voices for honest and respectful debate, for democracy, for diversity and also for Jewish people.

I could go into detail to disprove the lies and distortions in some of the tweets that I have seen objecting to JVL’s participation,  not least specific accusations about me being repeated again, despite having been rebutted; but I would prefer to draw your attention to important points made, for example in “Dialogue in the Jewish Tradition” [1] as further evidence of the importance given to different Jewish views in that tradition.

 Why then do we record the minority opinion?

 Why do we record the non-accepted opinions of the schools of Hillel and Shammai? To teach future generations that one need not demand that only one’s own way is correct, for our forebears did not do so. Why then do we record the minority opinion of one as opposed to the majority opinion of all the rest, given that the majority decides? So that a future court might have reference to them, and rule thereby. “(Mishna, Eduyot I: 4-5)

The point is that it was important to note minority opinion respectfully, not least because, at a future date, the minority view may well turn out to be the correct one and that it was important to enable future generations to draw on the wisdom that minority perspectives contained, and to show  “how important it was to be open to alternative perspectives and open to changing one’s own mind”

Other than with fascists, JVL has always been willing to debate with those with different points of view, but joint invitations and direct invitations have been rejected by those who disagree with us .  But we will not be silenced. We stand with the many Jewish colleagues in this country and others, who support Jeremy Corbyn, who support the struggle of the Palestinian people and, especially the many Jewish people in the US who are currently risking arrest and imprisonment, based on our Jewish values, to oppose Trump, most especially those who hold services and protests outside Detention Centres for migrants.

We would certainly welcome an opportunity to discuss participation in future Greenbelt events but would need confirmation that you would resist the pressure that would, undoubtedly be applied. Retaining the proud and courageous record of Greenbelt, especially in relation to Palestine, depends on this.

Leah Levane
Co Chair and on behalf of Jewish Voice for Labour

[1] Mitch Chanin, Mira Colflesh, Dr. Saundra Sterling Epstein, and Rabbi Rachel Schoenfeld, Dialogue in the Jewish Tradition, Jewish Dialogue Group 2006

Statement on disinviting Leah Levane from the Greenbelt 2019 programme by Greenbelt Festival 
Greenbelt has taken the decision to dis-invite Leah Levane (Co Chair of Jewish Voice for Labour) from one of its panel conversations at its festival this weekend. The panel conversation was on eschatology (see note 1 below) and was designed to be a playful and imaginative conversation about the stories our different faith traditions have schooled in us about the way the future will unfold and what these views mean for the way we live together in the present.

We are not afraid of inviting speakers considered controversial in the mainstream Jewish community to Greenbelt and have platformed Marc Ellis and Mark Braverman from the States, Jeff Halper from Israel and Robert Cohen from the UK in the past. (As well as many other more mainstream Jewish voices, like Rabbi Jonathan Wiitenberg, Rabbi Hershel Gluck and Rabbi Shoshana Gelfand from the UK.)

However, given the febrile nature of the debate around anti-semtism within the Labour Party in the UK at the moment – and the fact that we have more Jewish contributors on the bill and Jewish families in our audience this weekend than ever before – we reached a view that, on balance, Leah’s presence on the bill would draw too much attention away from the rich history and wider Jewish conversation that we have had the privilege of fostering over the years, continue to foster this year, and hope to grow in the future.

So, because of a whole web of delicate, inter-related issues and programming that we’re staging over the the weekend (see note 2 below), we reached the point where we recognised that a disproportionate amount of attention would have been focussed in Leah’s direction, on this particular panel, and on our decision to include her – and away from a range of other programming we have planned for this weekend. On balance, we do not think this attention is fair to our wider programme, to the other Jewish contributors and guests we have with us this weekend, to Leah herself, and to those expressing their concerns from outside of the event – to whom we would not be able to afford adequate time in terms of listening and nuanced explanations in the short time we have before the festival opens.

In disinviting her, Greenbelt must make it clear that Leah was not coming as a representative or spokesperson for the Jewish community in the UK. She had been invited as one voice onto panel; as a lively and interesting contributor; as someone whose passionate and contrary voice in the face of the prevailing narrative in the UK we considered would be interesting to include. We would also say that disinviting Leah on this occasion does not signal that Greenbelt will no longer invite “alternative” Jewish speakers. We will.

For this panel conversation, this year, we are fortunate that Rabbi Debbie Young Somers – who is with us all weekend as a programme contributor and camping at the festival with her family – has kindly agreed to sit in on the conversation to contribute her Jewish perspective.


Comments (22)

  • Rica Bird says:

    Excellent post, Leah! Thank you! Does this mean the “Inter-Faith Panel” will have NO Jewish presence? If not, then who, or which organisation, is taking a place on it?

  • Alice Bondi says:

    Thank you for writing such a cogent and thoroughly Jewish response to what has happened. The way in which certain perfectly reasonable views have become prohibited through threats and general unpleasantness is shocking and it saddens me greatly that the JVL approach has been expunged from Greenbelt.

  • As a member of JVL I think we should return the accusation of a/s to its perpetrator. Who are they to decide who is and is not recognisable as a jew. Outrageous. Take them to court.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    A terrific statement Leah. Perfectly judged. But how depressing – and rather scary. Perhaps the Greenbelt organisers could do with remembering Pastor Neimoller – first they came for the Jews. . . . and then they came for me.

  • Miriam Yagud says:

    An excelkent letter. Thankyou.
    How depressing they’ve done this, but from my experience of Greenbelt, not unexpected either.

  • Hilary Wise says:

    I wonder if a JLM Member or supporter has been invited to speak? Any chance a JVL leaflet could be distributed at the festival, encouraging people simply to look at the website?

  • Hilary Wise says:

    Campaigning Christians are supposed to have more guts than this! They used to be okay with having strong pro-Palestinian present at the festival. Maybe the organisers could be asked to state clearly exactly what pressure they have been under.

  • Richard Hayward says:

    Of course (but admittedly of little comfort), this incident and the general campaign of pressure to ignore JVL and the intellectual/historical coherence of its arguments is proof positive that the Israel Lobby cannot sustain objective examination of the issues. To such a regime, censorship becomes the only way of stifling the truth.

  • Catherine Anne Tanner says:

    Excellent but sadly depressing article!
    The right to disagree is fundamental in a democracy as in:-
    ” I disagree with what you say but will defend with my life your right to say it”
    Unless both sides of the argument agree with the above statement democracy dies!

  • Simon Wolfers says:

    Thank you for speaking out Leah. The desperation to silence us by those who dwell in the shadows is affirmation enough that ‘alternative perspectives’ are what they fear.

  • Margaret E. Johnson. says:

    Disappointment and regret are not words that I would have chosen to use in any reply to this withdrawal of invitation. I would have chosen alarm and alarming though I admit this is somewhat repetative. Alarm is what I feel at the news of cancellations of invitations and booked venues when it is obvious to all that this is due to pressure applied to those in charge of organising events. These are Fascist tactics of the kind we might expect of those in pursuit of dictatorship status. Recent intimidation and threats to staff at various venues show that some people feel they are immune to the normal sanctions that apply to individuals involved in this sort of behaviour. We cannot allow this to go on and anyone who feels threatened must make a formal complaint to the police. At the very least these incidents need to be formally recorded and where possible the full force of the law which is designed to protect everyone should be applied. Naming and shaming where identity is known could be a counter measure. A policy of no cancellation without formal complaint and enquiry should be requested for any future bookings. I am sure that someone could put together a response letter and a form for objectors to supply to organisers.

  • M Brown says:

    This seems to be doing so much damage to UK politics and many in the middle east.

  • Andy Tillbrook says:

    Useful to know which groups and organisations to avoid. Greenbelt is clearly another one for the list.

  • Linda Edmondson says:

    I was appalled by the ‘disinvitation’ itself, but Greenbelt’s justification of their action is simply insulting. If they were afraid of intimidation from the usual suspects, I might have some sympathy with their decision, but they are trying to suggest that Leah’s presence would be disruptive in itself and they were afraid of offending other Jewish participants in the festival. Doesn’t seem to me that this festival has much to contribute to inter-faith discussion, if speakers (who have been invited, and haven’t just turned up at the event) are asked not attend after all. If I were Rabbi Debbie Young Summers, I would refuse to take Leah’s place on the panel.

  • Diane Miles says:

    Sad that many organisations are succumbing to pressure and even threats. This is not democracy!

  • Caroline Raine says:

    Very depressing. How is it OK for the Greenbelt organisers to decide what Jewish views are and aren’t acceptable and I find their suggestion that the attention her presence would create would be unfair “to Leah herself” extremely patronising. Clearly the organisers think it is quite acceptable to replace a JVL speaker with a non-controversial “good Jew”. We are being silenced yet again.

  • Carmen Malarée says:

    Very sad and worrying to read Leah’s account of the ‘disinvitation’ to the Interfaith panel at Greenbelt. One prevailing view of any issue sounds very alien to the Jewish cultural tradition. The explanation from Greenbelt about their decision is quite polite but one can see that they want to avoid any conflict with other members of the panel, but what is a discussion for if voices of the same religious tradition are silenced?

  • Richard Comaish says:

    My feeling, as a JVL member, is not to go to Interfaith meetings anyway, as they exclude humanists. An inclusive meeting would require a different name.

  • John Webster says:

    I attended the festival in the past as art of the local PSC group. What kind of pressure was brought to bear to stop this? If it was the usual mixture of whinges and threats from pro-Israel elements, then Greenbelt should have had the dignity and courage to tell them that they are the problem – not JVL.

  • Teresa Steele says:

    This clearly is silencing people’s voices. Sad and sinister at the same time.

  • carl pilgrim says:

    Appalling greenbelt appalling. Why what type of bullying meant that this perspective couldn’t be heard. Is it the anti corbyn lobby exercising it power over the Christian faith in all its form.

  • ColinL says:

    I do think that a request should be made to the Festival organisers to publish exactly what statements were made to them, who made them. What discussions were held that led to the disinvitation. Only when these issues are out in the open can methods of response to the sources of the attack, for that is what it it be gauged. This is frightening

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