Mike Huckabee will not be the keynote speaker at the Jewish National Fund (JNF) of Ottawa’s Negev Dinner this coming October.
Although Huckabee – the former governor of Arkansas and former Fox News commentator who is one in a crowded field vying for the Republican nomination for the 2016 U.S. presidential election – is a strongly committed evangelical Christian Zionist, he was a controversial choice to speak at the dinner, given his far-right positions on virtually every social issue that are widely out-of-step with the vast majority of American Jews – and, dare I say, in the absence of polling data, most Canadian Jews as well.
Huckabee’s views on Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians are also much further to the right than such strong supporters of Israel as Prime Minister Stephen Harper or the last Republican U.S. president, George W. Bush. Or, for that matter, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Those leaders, and most mainstream Jewish organizations – for example the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs here in Canada or the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in the U.S. – are all on record as supporting some sort of two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Huckabee, however, dismisses the very idea of Palestinian peoplehood.
“The idea that they [Palestinians] have a long history, dating back hundreds or thousands of years, is not true,” Huckabee said in an interview with the Washington Post conducted in Israel in February of this year.
Given Huckabee’s positions, it was entirely predictable that his booking as the Negev Dinner keynote speaker would not sit well with many – including many who would ordinarily support JNF. And that includes many who might be attracted to the most worthy project – supporting autism research and services – chosen by honourees Barry and Allan Baker as the beneficiary of the dinner.
And, indeed, there were many in the community who saw the choice of Huckabee as objectionable, and who objected.
When Values, Ethics, Community columnist Mira Sucharov proposed a column critical of Huckabee and his engagement to speak at the Negev Dinner, we told her that JNF would be given the opportunity to respond. The column and the response by Lynda Taller-Wakter, executive director of JNF Ottawa can be read by clicking on the links.
In her response, Taller-Wakter explained that Huckabee was chosen to speak at the Negev Dinner because he represents the strong support Israel receives from evangelical Christians in the United States. But, at the end of the article, it was announced that Huckabee would not speak after all.
While the article does not explain why the Huckabee speech was cancelled, my guess is that JNF listened to the objections and decided the controversy provoked by such a polarizing figure might well have been harmful to the event.
But the episode does raise some interesting questions about how speakers for community events are vetted and chosen – particularly speakers who do not represent mainstream opinion or whose political or religious positions may be very different from our own.
I don’t pretend to have answers to those questions. But I do know that I like the “big tent” approach that welcomes a broad spectrum of opinion. As someone who listens to a lot of speakers – and reads a lot of writers – I know how inspired I can be listening to or reading someone whose opinions are similar to my own. I also know that I am most challenged when listening to or reading someone with well-reasoned arguments I might strongly disagree with.
I want to be inspired and I want to be challenged. But, any tent flap only reaches so far – to the right, or to the left.