Along with other iconic institutions such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the Palace of Versailles and the Guggenheim Museum in New York, the Florida JCC Jewish Book Fest has gone online.
Proving that there is strength in numbers, this year the Fest partnered with its neighboring Jewish Communty Centers (The Adolph & Rose Levis JCC Sandler Center, Miami’s Alper JCC, North Miami Beach’s Michael-Ann Russell JCC, Davie’s David Posnack JCC, Miami Beach JCC and The Roth Family JCC of Greater Orlando) to attract top-level speakers and moderators in an event replacing the Levi’s JCC 26-year-running annual Book & Author Luncheon.
In deference to the pandemic and COVID-19, this year’s festival, which is running now through Oct. 25, the virtual festival will celebrate more than 25 events featuring accomplished Jewish authors, books and topics of interest.
“The Levis JCC Sandler Center is excited to partner with our fellow JCCs to bring our community this enriching and engaging virtual program,” said Stephanie Owitz, director of arts, culture and learning.
“While nothing replaces in-person, live events, virtual programming is a great substitute,” says Owitz. “Virtual events have enabled us to stay connected to our community and have provided a sense of connection as well, offering engaging, stimulating events.
“We hope that our audience enjoys this opportunity to hear from 25 notable authors and moderators from the comfort and safety of their living rooms,” Owitz says.
One highlight of the festival includes an appearance Sunday night (7 p.m. Oct. 11) by MSNBC legal analyst and Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks.
Wine-Banks will discuss her recently published book The Watergate Girl: My Fight for Truth and Justice Against a Criminal President. At the start of her career, she was the only female prosecutor during the Watergate scandal and the first woman to serve as U.S. General Counsel of the Army under President Jimmy Carter.
Wine-Banks, who started college studying occupational therapy, switched to journalism after realizing she’d have to cut up a cadaver. She earned her law degree so she wouldn’t be relegated to the Society pages, and says she has found her dream job as an analyst for MSNBC, combining all her talents.
Early on, she was inspired by Nancy Haunchman Dickerson, the first female reporter for CBS, who reported from John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration Ball in January 1961, and by two strong career women in her life – her aunt Ethyle, who worked for B’nai B’rith, and a client of her father’s, an occupational therapist.
As “The Watergate Girl,” Wine-Banks was no stranger to sex discrimination, and like the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg, cracked many a glass ceiling.
“It was a time of enormous sexism,” she remembers. “I’m glad I was able to jump the hurdles that presented and to open doors to future generations of women.”
But there is more work to be done, she says.
“I would like to see a woman as vice president now and eventually, president,” she says. “I also want half the members of the Supreme Court and Congress to be women.”
She quotes Ginsburg’s answer to the question, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?” Her answer: “When there are nine.”
“No one asks why there are nine men on the Court,” says Wine-Banks, “So why not nine women?”
Living through the past four years, Wine-Banks can’t help but draw parallels between the Nixon presidency and the Trump presidency.
“Nixon’s crimes included tax fraud, obstruction of justice, and more,” she says, noting that Nixon was held accountable, not only by Democrats, but by Republicans as well.
“Trump has stonewalled more than criminal investigations, so his crimes include obstruction of justice, but also of congressional oversight and of our constitutional framework,” Wine-Banks notes.
“It was Republicans who went to see Nixon in the Oval Office and tell him they had seen the evidence and that if he didn’t resign, he would be convicted by the Senate on articles of impeachment,” she says.
“Where are those Republicans today?” she wonders.
However, she believes that if Fox News had existed in 1973 and Republicans had ignored facts as they do now, Nixon would have survived – not a good omen for our time.
The day Nixon resigned, Wine-Banks was not out celebrating, but strategizing about the legality and political value of indicting him as a former president.
“This question looms again should President Trump lose reelection,” she says.
In addition to adventure travel to the likes of Borneo and New Guinea, for the next phase of her career, Wine-Banks is considering her second book – possibly about what #JillsPins (her habit of wearing witty lapel pins as a symbolic commentary) say about the Trump presidency or more about her post-Watergate career and life.
The festival opened Thursday night with law professor Thane Rosenbaum, author of Saving Free Speech … From Itself, being interviewed by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Rosenbaum asserts that certain limits on free speech are not only constitutional and in line with previous case law but are essential for the maintenance of civil society.
“Speech is never free,” says Rosenbaum by email. “It should come with a cost. Nothing of any value is free. One loses the privilege granted under the First Amendment if his/her purpose in speaking is to incite violence, intimidate and degrade another’s citizenship, etc.”
He says, “The Founding Fathers and drafters of the Constitution were interested in citizens participating in civic and civil debate to improve our democracy and to help the government arrive at better decision-making.
“They never intended for neo-Nazis and the KKK to benefit from the First Amendment,” he says, in contrast to legal scholars such as NYU Law School professor Richard Epstein and the ACLU, which defended the neo-Nazis march in Skokie, Ill., in 1978, who disagree with that tenet.
He believes that speech that causes actual harm — not merely offends and insults — but harm, speech that is intended to strip citizens of their dignity, whether it be called hate speech or something else, should not be protected under the First Amendment.
This is more in line with the European model, where there is no guarantee of free speech; speech is balanced against human dignity and hate speech is criminalized.
Rosenbaum says he was motivated to write the book to clear up what he terms “confusion” around free speech.
He cites the culture wars on campus, involving trigger warnings, microaggressions and safe spaces, as well as the Muhammad cartoons in Denmark and France, which sparked violence, and which he said “seem like gross violations of the principle of freedom of speech.”
“For a nation that prides itself on free speech, there seems to be hypocrisy surrounding it,” Rosenbaum says. “Comedians are afraid to perform on college campuses, teachers are afraid of saying the wrong thing around students and [the musical] ‘The Book of Mormon can be performed but the Muhammad cartoons are considered hate speech.”
Rosenbaum argues that free speech limitations go too far when they prevent the discussion of actual ideas on grounds that they might be insulting.
“Differing ideas and ideologies should all be subject to robust debate,” he says. “Ideas should always be protected under the principle of free speech.”
“By contrast,” Rosenbaum says, “Speech that incites, erodes citizenship and diminishes human dignity should be regulated.”
This year’s festival also includes a Florida Author Spotlight presented by the Miami Book Fair; an addiction panel with Cameron Douglas, son of actor Michael Douglas; a fiction forum; multi-generational Jewish stories from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jonathan Kaufman; candid perspectives from authors on manhood, women in a changing world, resilience in the face of adversity and transgender stories told through a mother’s eyes.
The Fest closes Sunday, Oct. 25, with New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer and illustrator Christopher Eliopoulos, who share insights from their I Am biography series.
The Book Fest Fast Pass is $75 and includes access to all special events and virtual author meet-and-greets. Individual tickets are $10 per program. The full program of events and a link to purchase tickets may be found on each community’s respective JCC website.
Editor’s note: The posting of this article was delayed by technical difficulties. It should have appeared Oct. 7.