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For the second time this year, the D.C. Jewish Community Center’s role as an arts programmer is chafing against its Jewish identity.
For months, the Shondes, the Brooklyn-based “klezmer-punk” band, were set to headline the center’s Washington Jewish Music Festival this June with a show at the Black Cat. But the band got a surprise phone call from DCJCC CEO Carole Zawatsky last week: Because of lead singer Louisa Solomon’s support of Palestine, Zawatsky said, the Shondes were being kicked from the festival.
According to Solomon, Zawatsky cited the DCJCC’s policy of withholding platforms from those advocating a boycott of Israel (Solomon has previously voiced her support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement). Solomon clarified that the Shondes intended their performance to be a concert, not a rally, and offered her word that they wouldn’t mention the boycott onstage. That wasn’t enough for Zawatsky, according to Solomon, who said that some of the Shondes’ songs, like “I Watched the Temple Fall,” which brings up “blood all over our hands” and “colonial hate,” could be inflammatory. Solomon told her that the song refers to Abraham Joshua Heschel‘s writings on Jewish ritual as architecture of time. Zawatsky wouldn’t budge. (WAMU reported the news last night.)
“We were aware of the JCC’s position on Israel…and we took the invitation as a sign that they understood their community includes people with lots of different views on Israel,” Solomon said in an email. “We were heartened at their gesture toward inclusivity and were really sad that they then reneged on it.”
Zawatsky, in a statement, said the band simply went too far for her organization: “This band, which embraces boycotting Israel, exceeds the redline limits of the DCJCC’s open policy.”
The June 2 show at the Black Cat will still go on, but without the DCJCC’s imprimatur.
The Shondes aren’t shy about their politics. (Disclosure: I once appeared as an extra in one of the Shondes’ music videos.) The band’s name—the Yiddish word for shame—is a nod to its members’ outsider status in mainstream Jewish culture as queer, anti-Zionist Jews, and some of its songs tackle Israeli-Palestinian issues from that perspective. Even so, Solomon says this is the first time a venue has backed out on a booking for political reasons.
“The Shondes have played campus Hillels and countless other Jewish events, where audiences had widely divergent opinions on this issue,” Solomon said. “When we have performed for groups that don’t share our views we have tended to have really positive dialogue about it.”
This isn’t the first time recently that Middle East politics have intruded on the DCJCC’s arts programming: The center’s theater company demoted its current show, The Admission, from a full production to a workshop after a group of local right-wing Jews took issue with the play’s depiction of Israelis. (Zawatsky claims the switch had nothing to do with the protest.)
Catering to ardent harder-line Zionists at the expense of Jews who hold a more nuanced view of Middle Eastern politics could make the DCJCC look like it’s afraid of political controversies, which isn’t good for any arts organization’s image. (Though Ari Roth, Theater J’s artistic director, hasn’t shied from political blowback in the past with button-pushing works about Israeli/Palestinian relations.)
“This cancellation is part of a pattern of institutions trying to control Jewish discussion on Israel,” Solomon said. “The mainstream Zionist line totally dominates, and the fact that there are tons of us out here, loving Judaism and criticizing Israel seems to be their nightmare, so they just ignore us, kick us out, censor us. Hopefully sooner or later they will realize that we are the Jewish future they’re supposedly so invested in.”
Photo courtesy the Shondes