Commentary Magazine


Topic: Congregation B’nai Jeshurun

Free Speech and the Left’s War on AIPAC

The failure of the Senate to pass a bill authorizing additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail has emboldened some critics of the pro-Israel community. The inability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ensure the bill’s passage despite the support of a bipartisan coalition of 59 members of the U.S. Senate has some of the lobby’s detractors smelling blood even though it was unfair to expect it to prevail in the face of President Obama’s veto threats. Author and columnist Peter Beinart called last month for the administration to boycott the group’s annual conference next month and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offended his liberal fan base by endorsing the group, the writer was among a host of left-wing celebrities who signed a joint letter warning the mayor that he risked their ire by aligning himself with AIPAC. That letter set off a controversy since two of those who joined with Beinart to denounce AIPAC were prominent Manhattan Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol. When some of their congregants at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun expressed their outrage at having their house of worship implicated in a scurrilous attack on AIPAC, Beinart, who mocked their support of Israeli democracy, in turn denounced them. Now Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former leader of the American Reform movement, has weighed in on the issue in an honorable attempt to try and put this matter in perspective in a Haaretz column and I believe his thoughtful article deserves a response.

According to Yoffie, both sides are well within their rights in this dispute. The rabbis were expressing a legitimate point of view and so were their congregants. While he sides with those who defend AIPAC, he took issue with my assertion that the claim that rabbis who wish to criticize Israel live in fear for their livelihoods is something of a myth. Yoffie believes such pressures exist and should be resisted. He wants all sides of the debate about Israel and AIPAC to speak up candidly for the sake of building a vibrant community where no one should fear to speak up. To a large extent I agree with that formulation. But the problem with the anti-AIPAC campaign as well as much of the efforts on the left to pressure or boycott Israel is that it is, at its heart, an attempt not to promote democratic discussion but to essentially disenfranchise Israeli voters and silence their American friends. That is why I must dispute Rabbi Yoffie’s effort to assign equal virtue to the positions of Beinart and the rabbis as well as to their critics.

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The failure of the Senate to pass a bill authorizing additional sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail has emboldened some critics of the pro-Israel community. The inability of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to ensure the bill’s passage despite the support of a bipartisan coalition of 59 members of the U.S. Senate has some of the lobby’s detractors smelling blood even though it was unfair to expect it to prevail in the face of President Obama’s veto threats. Author and columnist Peter Beinart called last month for the administration to boycott the group’s annual conference next month and when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offended his liberal fan base by endorsing the group, the writer was among a host of left-wing celebrities who signed a joint letter warning the mayor that he risked their ire by aligning himself with AIPAC. That letter set off a controversy since two of those who joined with Beinart to denounce AIPAC were prominent Manhattan Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol. When some of their congregants at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun expressed their outrage at having their house of worship implicated in a scurrilous attack on AIPAC, Beinart, who mocked their support of Israeli democracy, in turn denounced them. Now Rabbi Eric Yoffie, former leader of the American Reform movement, has weighed in on the issue in an honorable attempt to try and put this matter in perspective in a Haaretz column and I believe his thoughtful article deserves a response.

According to Yoffie, both sides are well within their rights in this dispute. The rabbis were expressing a legitimate point of view and so were their congregants. While he sides with those who defend AIPAC, he took issue with my assertion that the claim that rabbis who wish to criticize Israel live in fear for their livelihoods is something of a myth. Yoffie believes such pressures exist and should be resisted. He wants all sides of the debate about Israel and AIPAC to speak up candidly for the sake of building a vibrant community where no one should fear to speak up. To a large extent I agree with that formulation. But the problem with the anti-AIPAC campaign as well as much of the efforts on the left to pressure or boycott Israel is that it is, at its heart, an attempt not to promote democratic discussion but to essentially disenfranchise Israeli voters and silence their American friends. That is why I must dispute Rabbi Yoffie’s effort to assign equal virtue to the positions of Beinart and the rabbis as well as to their critics.

Rabbi Yoffie is right that some liberal rabbis who criticize Israel may worry about offending some of their congregants as do others who are, as he notes, pressured from the left to disassociate themselves from the Jewish state. But my point was not to deny that such rabbis have their critics but to point out that efforts to restrain them are almost universally ineffective, as the continued tenure of the B’nai Jeshurun rabbis illustrates. Moreover, my point was not merely about the way rabbis use their pulpits to undermine Israel but to highlight the fact that, contrary to the myth promoted by the left, such figures, be they clerics or not, are generally richly rewarded by the praise of the secular mainstream media. For a Jew to speak out against Israel and/or AIPAC is to invite praise from a liberal media that is always eager to lionize such critics and to falsely portray them as courageous.

It should also be pointed out that the anti-AIPAC letter signed by Matalon, Sol, and Beinart was not about promoting diversity of views or a debate about the peace process so much as it was an attempt to shun and delegitimize AIPAC and its supporters. Though Rabbi Yoffie believes the signers crossed no “red lines” of offensive conduct, I would insist that by seeking to demonize AIPAC, those letter-writers were reinforcing the offensive and bigoted stereotype about the pro-Israel lobby promoted by those who see it as a conspiratorial group that doesn’t really speak for Jews and manipulates U.S. policy against American interests. No one is saying that AIPAC’s critics don’t have a right to voice their differences with the group, but what they want is not so much to debate it as to destroy it. Much as one would wish to bridge such differences, this is one argument where both sides are not right. One must either defend the right of the pro-Israel community to speak out on behalf of the democratically-elected government of the Jewish state as the BJ congregants have done or one joins with those who wish to isolate and pressure it, whether to save it from itself as Beinart thinks or to destroy it as the open anti-Zionists who signed the anti-AIPAC letter seem to want.

What is at stake here is not a right to speak up against Israel and AIPAC but the ability of the pro-Israel community to survive an all-out attack designed to silence it. As Rabbi Yoffie eloquently states:

I don’t agree with AIPAC on everything, but I agree with them most of the time; and the harsh dismissal of AIPAC by the signatories to the letter troubles me greatly. A Washington without AIPAC would not mean an Israel at peace; it would mean an Israel isolated and vulnerable, lacking the anchor that AIPAC has long provided and without which peace would be impossible.

Freedom of speech is not an issue in a community where dissent against Israel is widespread and generally rewarded with praise while supporters are often dismissed as stooges or hypocrites. Those who would destroy what Yoffie rightly called “Israel’s safety net” are not going to be silenced, but they should be held accountable.

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The Attack on Israeli Democracy and AIPAC

One of the most disgraceful conceits of American Jewish life is the pose of martyrdom adopted by critics of Israel. American Jews who publicly berate Israel’s government and those Americans who support the Jewish state never stop telling us that what they are doing is courageous. They claim the Jewish establishment seeks to silence them all the while freely shouting their message from the rooftops to the applause of the mainstream media. To disassociate oneself from Israel is a guarantee of a platform for your views on the op-ed pages of major newspapers like the New York Times if not a lucrative book contract. But if you dare to call out such persons, watch out. You stand a fair chance of being demonized or shunned by the chattering classes.

That’s the lesson to be learned from an exchange centering on the conduct of the rabbis at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. As I wrote on Monday, Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol joined with other fashionable New York liberals last week to denounce New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The prominent letter writers were outraged at the ultra-liberal mayor’s willingness to embrace the umbrella pro-Israel group that they maliciously and falsely denounced as a right-wing group that does not speak for American Jews. This was too much for a group of BJ congregants who wrote a letter to their rabbis to express their pain at the spectacle of their synagogue’s spiritual leaders aligning themselves against an organization whose sole mission is to support the democratically-elected government of Israel. For their pains, the group was subjected to a scathing denunciation in today’s Haaretz by writer Peter Beinart, who was himself one of the signatories along with Matalon and Sol, of the letter to de Blasio.

Beinart’s diatribe against the BJ congregants is interesting for two reasons. One, it shows again that while blasting Israel and AIPAC wins you praise in the media, speaking up against such slanders can earn you the sort of opprobrium that can make you very unpopular, especially on New York’s Upper West Side. But just as important was the argument Beinart made. He claimed the congregants were employing Orwellian language when they said it was appropriate for American Jews to back the verdict of Israeli voters. As far as Beinart is concerned the fact that the West Bank is not a democracy renders that argument false. To speak of support for Israeli democracy is therefore in Beinart’s view emblematic of a culture of dishonesty and “euphemism” on which the pro-Israel lobby is built.

But in this case it is Beinart who is playing Orwellian tricks with language. In doing so, this self-proclaimed Zionist is not only seeking to delegitimize the majority of Israelis who have ignored his advice about what to do about the West Bank but also willfully misrepresents the nature of the conflict.

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One of the most disgraceful conceits of American Jewish life is the pose of martyrdom adopted by critics of Israel. American Jews who publicly berate Israel’s government and those Americans who support the Jewish state never stop telling us that what they are doing is courageous. They claim the Jewish establishment seeks to silence them all the while freely shouting their message from the rooftops to the applause of the mainstream media. To disassociate oneself from Israel is a guarantee of a platform for your views on the op-ed pages of major newspapers like the New York Times if not a lucrative book contract. But if you dare to call out such persons, watch out. You stand a fair chance of being demonized or shunned by the chattering classes.

That’s the lesson to be learned from an exchange centering on the conduct of the rabbis at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. As I wrote on Monday, Rabbis Rolondo Matalon and Felicia Sol joined with other fashionable New York liberals last week to denounce New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for his support for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The prominent letter writers were outraged at the ultra-liberal mayor’s willingness to embrace the umbrella pro-Israel group that they maliciously and falsely denounced as a right-wing group that does not speak for American Jews. This was too much for a group of BJ congregants who wrote a letter to their rabbis to express their pain at the spectacle of their synagogue’s spiritual leaders aligning themselves against an organization whose sole mission is to support the democratically-elected government of Israel. For their pains, the group was subjected to a scathing denunciation in today’s Haaretz by writer Peter Beinart, who was himself one of the signatories along with Matalon and Sol, of the letter to de Blasio.

Beinart’s diatribe against the BJ congregants is interesting for two reasons. One, it shows again that while blasting Israel and AIPAC wins you praise in the media, speaking up against such slanders can earn you the sort of opprobrium that can make you very unpopular, especially on New York’s Upper West Side. But just as important was the argument Beinart made. He claimed the congregants were employing Orwellian language when they said it was appropriate for American Jews to back the verdict of Israeli voters. As far as Beinart is concerned the fact that the West Bank is not a democracy renders that argument false. To speak of support for Israeli democracy is therefore in Beinart’s view emblematic of a culture of dishonesty and “euphemism” on which the pro-Israel lobby is built.

But in this case it is Beinart who is playing Orwellian tricks with language. In doing so, this self-proclaimed Zionist is not only seeking to delegitimize the majority of Israelis who have ignored his advice about what to do about the West Bank but also willfully misrepresents the nature of the conflict.

AIPAC’s position and that of the overwhelming majority of the American people is that Israel’s people have the right to govern themselves and not have solutions to the conflict with the Palestinians imposed on them from the outside. But in Beinart’s twisted reasoning, backing the verdict of the overwhelming majority of Israeli voters who elected the current government led by Prime Minister Netanyahu—and gave parties that share Beinart’s views only a small percentage of their votes—is somehow anti-democratic. Since Israelis believe they have no choice but to stay in the West Bank until the Palestinians are ready to make peace, Beinart has adopted the ludicrous and hypocritical position that they have no claim on the word democracy.

Attempts to create a Palestinian democracy faltered in the last decade. Gaza fell under the despotic rule of Hamas. In the West Bank, Israel’s supposed peace partner Fatah has as little interest in liberty as their Islamic rivals. Current Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is serving the 10th year of the four-year term to which he was elected. None of this is Israel’s fault. Israel would welcome the creation of a real democracy as opposed to an Islamist dictatorship or a Fatah kleptocracy posing as one. But, as Beinart knows, that isn’t in the cards, whether or not Israel withdraws from the West Bank.

More to the point, three times in the last generation Israel has offered to withdraw from almost all of the West Bank and even a share of Jerusalem in order to create a Palestinian state. Three times they were turned down because Yasir Arafat and his successor Abbas could not bring themselves to sign a treaty that recognized the legitimacy of a Jewish state no matter where its borders are drawn or to renounce the “right of return” for the descendants of the 1948 refugees. Even the supposed “right-wing government” that Beinart and his fellow letter-writers so despise is now negotiating with the PA and has reportedly expressed its willingness to withdraw from 90 percent of the West Bank and make territorial swaps to create a Palestinian state. No one, except perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry, expects the Palestinian response to be positive. If Israeli voters have rejected Beinart’s pleas to withdraw from the West Bank regardless of the dangers, it is because they have been paying attention to the events of the last 20 years during which the Jewish state has continually sought to trade land for peace and received only terror in return.

The point here is not so much that Beinart is out of touch with both Israeli opinion and the reality of Palestinian intransigence, but that in order to justify his stand he is willing to trash the idea that Israeli democracy matters. The position of AIPAC is not that it seeks to justify perpetual Israeli rule in all of the West Bank. It is one of support for the right of Israel’s democratic government to wait until the Palestinians are ready to make a genuine peace before risking a repeat of what happened in Gaza when the Jewish state withdrew every settlement and soldier.

Rather than Israel’s defenders engaging in dishonesty, it is Beinart and his colleagues who have twisted the truth in this debate. The question in the Middle East is not whether Israel will let the West Bank become a democracy but whether the one true democracy in the region—Israel—will continue to exist. AIPAC and its supporters stand with the people of Israel in their efforts to defend their country. Those like Beinart, the BJ rabbis, and the assorted anti-Zionists who joined with them to denounce de Blasio have placed themselves in opposition not so much to AIPAC but the people of Israel and echoed the arguments of those in the BDS movement that wage economic war on the Jewish state. If they wish to truly renew and cleanse Jewish life as they claim, they should look in the mirror before casting aspersions on either Israel or its defenders.

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The Rabbis Who Attacked AIPAC and the Congregants Who Hit Back

It has become a commonplace observation in some portions of the organized Jewish community to complain that American rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel with their congregations. The assumption underlying this claim is that to criticize the State of Israel is the kiss of death for Jewish clergy who live in fear of offending wealthy donors. It’s all very sad but, in fact, completely untrue. Critics of Israel aren’t shunned in American Jewish life. If anything, they have a much better chance of being heard in the secular media—and given space on the opinion pages of major newspapers such as the New York Times—than those who attempt to defend the Jewish state against the slanders that are hurled at it by both its Arab foes and Jews who adopt a “more in sorrow than in anger” pose.

Consider the rabbis at a prominent synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, B’nai Jeshurun. Two of them, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, signed a letter (as this story in New York’s Jewish Week reported) attacking New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for speaking at an AIPAC event where he said, “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC. When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I’ll answer it happily ’cause that’s my job.” The letter they signed said the following: “The needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”

As it happens, B’nai Jeshurun’s congregants include a number of people who are deeply involved with AIPAC. They are predominantly liberal themselves, as well as predominantly Democratic Party voters, and as such, they give the lie to the idea that AIPAC is a right-wing cabal. They have issued a public letter of their own, expressing their profound distress at their rabbinical leaders for their spurious attack:

Please understand that your words, besides being factually incorrect, are offensive to many of your congregants. As our rabbis, your public comments reflect on our synagogue and on us. We are proud supporters of AIPAC, and we object to the way you mischaracterize the work that AIPAC does and the diverse political affiliation of its many members. Your letter is divisive and contains false and unsubstantiated statements. By attempting to paint AIPAC into an ideological corner, you have injured AIPAC’s ability to continue its bipartisan efforts, and in so doing have hurt the State of Israel as well.

You can read the rest of the letter here.

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It has become a commonplace observation in some portions of the organized Jewish community to complain that American rabbis are afraid to discuss Israel with their congregations. The assumption underlying this claim is that to criticize the State of Israel is the kiss of death for Jewish clergy who live in fear of offending wealthy donors. It’s all very sad but, in fact, completely untrue. Critics of Israel aren’t shunned in American Jewish life. If anything, they have a much better chance of being heard in the secular media—and given space on the opinion pages of major newspapers such as the New York Times—than those who attempt to defend the Jewish state against the slanders that are hurled at it by both its Arab foes and Jews who adopt a “more in sorrow than in anger” pose.

Consider the rabbis at a prominent synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, B’nai Jeshurun. Two of them, Rolando Matalon and Felicia Sol, signed a letter (as this story in New York’s Jewish Week reported) attacking New York City mayor Bill de Blasio for speaking at an AIPAC event where he said, “City Hall will always be open to AIPAC. When you need me to stand by you in Washington or anywhere, I will answer the call and I’ll answer it happily ’cause that’s my job.” The letter they signed said the following: “The needs and concerns of many of your constituents–U.S. Jews like us among them–are not aligned with those of AIPAC, and no, your job is not to do AIPAC’s bidding when they call you to do so. AIPAC speaks for Israel’s hard-line government and its right-wing supporters, and for them alone; it does not speak for us.”

As it happens, B’nai Jeshurun’s congregants include a number of people who are deeply involved with AIPAC. They are predominantly liberal themselves, as well as predominantly Democratic Party voters, and as such, they give the lie to the idea that AIPAC is a right-wing cabal. They have issued a public letter of their own, expressing their profound distress at their rabbinical leaders for their spurious attack:

Please understand that your words, besides being factually incorrect, are offensive to many of your congregants. As our rabbis, your public comments reflect on our synagogue and on us. We are proud supporters of AIPAC, and we object to the way you mischaracterize the work that AIPAC does and the diverse political affiliation of its many members. Your letter is divisive and contains false and unsubstantiated statements. By attempting to paint AIPAC into an ideological corner, you have injured AIPAC’s ability to continue its bipartisan efforts, and in so doing have hurt the State of Israel as well.

You can read the rest of the letter here.

This letter reveals a sobering truth: the most pressing problem for American Jews is not the failure of spiritual leaders to disassociate themselves from Israel and its backers but the scandalous impunity with which some prominent rabbis and Jewish organizational leaders use their pulpits to undermine the pro-Israel community and lend aid and comfort to those seeking to wage economic war on the Jewish state. It takes little courage these days to denounce the pro-Israel cause; the rewards of doing so are actually quite substantial. Rather than needing more tolerance for those who seek to support their disgraceful campaign of delegitimization, perhaps what is required is for more American Jews like the signatories of the letter opposing their rabbis’ statement to find the guts to start speaking out against those who seek to shout down the Jewish state’s defenders.

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