Commentary Magazine


Topic: Reform Judaism

The Future of Liberal Jewry in a Nutshell

Last year, a study on the American Jewish population published by the Pew Research Center made it plain that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country was in crisis. The devastating statistics about rising rates of intermarriage, assimilation and declining rates of affiliation painted a Portrait of Jewish Americans that left little doubt that liberal Jewry was in crisis. Since then, many in the Reform and Conservatives denominations, especially their leaders, seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the problem, but a story in today’s New York Times illustrates their dilemma nicely.

Read More

Last year, a study on the American Jewish population published by the Pew Research Center made it plain that non-Orthodox Jewry in this country was in crisis. The devastating statistics about rising rates of intermarriage, assimilation and declining rates of affiliation painted a Portrait of Jewish Americans that left little doubt that liberal Jewry was in crisis. Since then, many in the Reform and Conservatives denominations, especially their leaders, seem to be in denial about the seriousness of the problem, but a story in today’s New York Times illustrates their dilemma nicely.

The article concerns the decision of Rabbi Andrew Bachman of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn to leave the rabbinate and pursue a new career in poverty work. On the surface, there’s nothing particularly significant about this. Rabbis, like lots of other professionals, often change their professions in mid life. As the rabbi says, the shift is neither a crisis of faith nor a contradiction of his life’s work as there is no inherent contradiction between being a Reform rabbi and being a poverty activist.

But the Times was not wrong to highlight this story as being something of a metaphor for liberal Jewry. Bachmann was widely seen as being among the best and the brightest in the Reform rabbinate and a man who had transformed his synagogue into a vibrant center attracting congregants eager to be a part of his vision of social activism. His decision to leave doesn’t mean that Beth Elohim will collapse. But it does show that when you start treating Judaism as merely a vehicle for liberal social activism, it’s difficult to resist the impulse to eliminate the middleman. Bachmann may not be renouncing his faith or even his calling as a rabbi but, as we learn in the Times account of his decision making process that he has discovered that he’s a lot more interested in spending his life advancing the anti-poverty agenda than in teaching Judaism to a generation of Jews who are desperately in need of leaders able to reach them.

One needs to be careful about going too far with this line of reasoning, but, it’s difficult to criticize the Times for assuming that there is a connection between the rapid decline in affiliation and synagogue attendance and the way many non-Orthodox Jews believe their faith is synonymous with liberal activism rather than a civilization and a people that transcends the particular political fashion of our own time.

Those who wrote about the Pew Survey rightly focused on statistics that showed the overwhelming majority of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarrying and the secondary results that show that the children of such marriages are exponentially less likely to be Jewishly educated, affiliate with the Jewish community or regard themselves as “Jews by religion.” Those numbers point in only one direction and it is one that means that within a few generations most of the descendants of those who currently call themselves Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist Jews will have left the Jewish community and have only the most meager and vestigial ties to their origins.

But just as telling as the intermarriage numbers were those that explored what it means to be a Jew to those who still do consider themselves Jewish. Relatively few see it as having anything to do with religious faith or being part of the Jewish people. More think it is a function of having a sense of humor than being connected to the State of Israel. When asked what defines Judaism and Jewish identity, most eschew all those elements that are the defining characteristics of Judaism and, instead, focus on those that apply equally to all faiths, such as a desire to promote social justice.

Jewish identity and faith has always contained within it a lively mix of the universal and the particular. But in the universe of liberal American Jewry, the balance is skewed toward the former. As Cynthia Ozick memorably said, “universalism is the particularism of the Jews.”

As such, liberal Jews are far less likely to resist the blandishments of assimilation since there is very little difference between their view of their faith and the secular political version of liberalism. However, as many in these denominations have discovered, it is a lot easier to devote yourself to a liberal cause without tugging along your Jewish baggage. In a movement that treats anti-poverty work as synonymous with faith, who can blame Rabbi Bachmann for deciding to stop trying to feed the hungry in a Jewish context and instead just cut straight to the chase?

As I wrote in the November 2013 issue of COMMENTARY, this exodus of non-Orthodox Jews is largely the function of free society in which Americans have a choice as to whether they will retain their faith and the breakdown in barriers between faiths that has caused non-Jews to be willing to marry Jews. But it is exacerbated by a societal trend in which the overwhelming majority of American Jews have lost all sense of what it means to hold onto a viable Jewish identity that can be handed down to subsequent generations. If you believe, as most do, that Judaism can be summed up in the phrase “tikkun olam” — a concept about repairing the world that has become a tired cliché and been stripped of its particular Jewish meaning or, as the old quip goes, the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, why be a Jew at all?

The answer from all too many liberal Jews is that there is no real reason to stick with Judaism and the result are the numbers that the Pew Center published. Sadly, both the leaders of the Conservative movement and Bachmann’s Reform movement, have taken a blasé attitude toward the Pew statistics, claiming that their impact is either being exaggerated or misinterpreted rather than raising an alarm. That sort of complacence is on display in the quotes in the Times article from both Bachmann and Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs. They urge Jews not to “build a wall around their Judaism in an effort to preserve it. But it’s difficult to view the catastrophic numbers in a context other than one in which the consequences of not preserving distinctions or viewing Judaism as religious liberalism are becoming apparent. As scholars Jack Wertheimer, Steven Cohen and Steven Bayme have pointed out, the only way to preserve non-Orthodox Jewry is to emphasize both Jewish particularity as well as seek to promote endogamy.

Rabbi Bachmann isn’t leaving Judaism but that is exactly what most non-Orthodox Jews are doing. If even he sees a life devoted to Jewish teachings as somehow not fulfilling enough to suit his needs, how can anyone else argue that it is reasonable to expect his congregants not to shuck off Jewish particularism just as easily?

Read Less

The Wall Between Israel and the Diaspora

Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

Read More

Perhaps there are some in Israel’s government that thought they were being clever this past weekend when Religious Services Minister Naftali Bennett announced what he hailed as an interim solution for the conflict at Jerusalem’s Western Wall over the right of non-Orthodox women to hold prayer services at the site. Earlier this year Jewish Agency chair Natan Sharansky proposed a far-reaching compromise that would vastly expand the plaza in order to provide a third and theoretically equal space at the Kotel for non-Orthodox services. That would reinforce the idea that the place is a national shrine for all Jews and not, as it has been in practice since it was liberated in 1967, an open-air Orthodox synagogue whose norms reflect the sensibilities of the Haredi world in which a group like the Women of the Wall protest group is seen as provocateurs rather than merely practicing another variant of Judaism. But it is highly unlikely that Sharansky’s ambitious plan will be realized anytime soon, if ever. Which means that those wishing to have egalitarian services will have to be satisfied with Bennett’s idea in which they will be shunted to a temporary platform that doesn’t even touch the Wall away from the main Plaza at the Robinson’s Arch archeological site.

Bennett says his plan is intended as a goodwill gesture toward the non-Orthodox (who make up approximately 90 percent of American Jewry, though an infinitesimal percentage of Israelis) on the eve of the High Holidays next week. Perhaps he’s sincere about that, but this latest chapter in the long-running battle over prayer at the Kotel illustrates once again that the Wall is more than a metaphor when it comes to Diaspora-Israel relations. Many, if not most Israelis, see the Women of the Wall in the way our Evelyn Gordon does in her September 2013 COMMENTARY article on the subject: as part of a splinter group that is attempting to make a left-wing political point undermining Israel’s image rather than seeking redress for a genuine grievance. Non-Orthodox Jews see the issue as one that highlights Israel’s lack of Jewish religious pluralism. Neither seems to understand the other side, let alone listen to each other. That’s why, contrary to Bennett’s expectations, and coming as it does on the eve of the one time of the year when the bulk of the non-Orthodox will be gathered in synagogues, what he has done will only deepen the long-simmering resentment among Reform and Conservative Jews about the non-recognition of their rabbis as well as the way the Women of the Wall are routinely treated. At a moment when the Netanyahu government needs to rally the support of these Jews on the peace process with the Palestinians and the looming conflict with Iran, this was an unforced error.

It cannot be emphasized enough that most American Jews who are angry about this situation haven’t the slightest idea why most Israelis are so indifferent to their complaints about pluralism. It bears repeating that in a country in which there is no formal division between religion and state and rabbis are paid by the government, the question of who is a rabbi is a political issue. As such, so long as supporters of the various religious parties (of which Bennett’s Habayit Hayehudi represents the views of the modern Orthodox and is least hostile to the sensibilities of most American Jews) are a major force in Israeli politics and hold the balance of power in their hands while those affiliated with non-Orthodox denominations are a fraction of a percent (it used to be said that they were outnumbered by Scientologists), the influence of the latter will be minimal. The majority of Israeli Jews have plenty of complaints about the Orthodox rabbinate and their monopoly on life cycle events, but what they want is civil marriage and divorce. Securing equal rights for the Conservative and Reform movements—which are both seen as foreign implants—is rather low on their priority list.

But Israelis are just as obtuse about the hard feelings of American Jews about pluralism and Women of the Wall. It may strike them as unreasonable for Americans to demand equality for movements that are marginal in Israeli society or to give the Women of the Wall the right to pray in the manner of Conservative and Reform Jews in the women’s section at the Kotel with Torah scrolls, prayer shawls, and singing out loud. But if they are serious about strengthening ties with the Diaspora, especially with the non-Orthodox, then they must treat these complaints seriously. Conservative and Reform Jews believe their denomination is no less valid and deserving of equal treatment under the law in the State of Israel as the Orthodox. When the Jerusalem police ignore the rulings of Israeli courts mandating the right of the Women of the Wall to pray as they like at the Kotel (while sometimes arresting or roughing up the women) or allow mobs orchestrated by the Haredim to keep them away from it at the time of their monthly services, they take it as a personal affront rather than viewing the incidents as the work of marginal troublemakers.

No matter where you come down on the justice of this dispute, there’s no doubt that what Bennett has done is a blunder as far as Israel-Diaspora relations are concerned, though it must be conceded that he has probably helped himself with religious Israeli voters, which is his main interest. Instead of throwing them a bone, as Bennett says he intended to do with this proposal, his idea that will shunt Conservative and Reform Jews out of sight of the main plaza will be viewed as tangible proof of the Israeli government’s disdain for the non-Orthodox. It would have been far better for the government to do nothing while they pondered how to implement Sharansky’s idea than to give Conservative and Reform rabbis an opening to blast the government in High Holiday services. Given that their own interests are at stake with the necessity to mobilize American Jewry against pressure on Jerusalem on the peace process and the nuclear threat from Iran, it shouldn’t have been too much to ask Israel’s Cabinet to avoid giving such offense in the week before Rosh Hashanah.

Read Less

Religious Venues as Partisan Outposts?

Back in May, I wrote about the controversy that ensued when a Miami synagogue invited Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to speak at a Friday evening Sabbath service. When members protested about the hijacking of a religious observance for partisan purposes, Miami’s Temple Israel disinvited her, leading to some spurious charges that local Republicans had “bullied” the shul. As Bryan Schwartzman of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent reports, DWS is back in the news this week for another synagogue appearance, this time at Reform Congregation Knesseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and again, Republicans are complaining.

While this event is far more defensible than the Miami appearance, it still raises some important questions about the way religious institutions get dragged into partisan politics. With polls showing President Obama losing popularity among Jewish voters, Democrats are going all out to try to prevent a precipitous drop in support in this otherwise solidly liberal community. Which means synagogues are on the front lines of a nasty partisan argument that they would do well to avoid.

Read More

Back in May, I wrote about the controversy that ensued when a Miami synagogue invited Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz to speak at a Friday evening Sabbath service. When members protested about the hijacking of a religious observance for partisan purposes, Miami’s Temple Israel disinvited her, leading to some spurious charges that local Republicans had “bullied” the shul. As Bryan Schwartzman of Philadelphia’s Jewish Exponent reports, DWS is back in the news this week for another synagogue appearance, this time at Reform Congregation Knesseth Israel (KI) in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, and again, Republicans are complaining.

While this event is far more defensible than the Miami appearance, it still raises some important questions about the way religious institutions get dragged into partisan politics. With polls showing President Obama losing popularity among Jewish voters, Democrats are going all out to try to prevent a precipitous drop in support in this otherwise solidly liberal community. Which means synagogues are on the front lines of a nasty partisan argument that they would do well to avoid.

We should specify first that there is a big difference between the Miami dustup and the one that is stirring in Pennsylvania. The Elkins Park event is scheduled for a Monday evening and is not part of a synagogue religious observance, meaning that Wasserman Schultz won’t be speaking from the pulpit. The synagogue’s religious leader, Rabbi Lance Sussman, is doing his best to represent the event, which will also feature local Jewish Democratic politicians, as informational. (Full disclosure: I am a member of a Conservative synagogue that shares space at the Knesseth Israel building but is not a co-host of this event.) Sussman, a respected historian, also says he thinks it’s better to hold two separate events in which the major parties will conduct outreach to the community rather than hosting a debate at which the two sides can have at each other.

There is something to be said for that point of view, but the problem is that very little if any effort seems to have been made to schedule a Republican event at the synagogue and, as of this writing, there is nothing in the works. So while the synagogue’s intention may not have been to create the impression of a partisan endorsement, at least for the moment, that is exactly what has happened.

Appearances aside, some question whether the synagogue providing a venue for what is, for all intents and purposes, a partisan political rally, is appropriate or a violation of their tax exempt status. While witch hunts aimed at punishing non-profits for perceived partisanship should be avoided, part of the specific problem here is that, as Adam Kredo reports in the Washington Free Beacon (who obtained an invitation to the event), rather than the Wasserman Schultz appearance being part of a program organized by the synagogue, it appears to be directly staffed by President Obama’s campaign. Theoretically, a Republican event, should one ever occur, could be similarly run by the Romney campaign or its Jewish surrogates. But even if that is true, the spectacle of a political party taking over a religious institution — as opposed to renting its catering hall or public area—is unsettling.

In its defense, Knesseth Israel, which is the largest synagogue in the region, believes it has an obligation to provide programming for its members about important issues where they can hear directly from newsmakers rather than hearing it through the filter of the media. They are right about that. But this is not just one event in a lecture series in which a number of different points of view or issues will be heard. It is a one-off political rally.

It has become all too commonplace for religious venues to become partisan outposts during election years. Sunday services at inner city African-American churches are regular campaign stops for Democrats. Republicans have used evangelical churches in other areas for similar purposes. That is wrong no matter who is the offender. While religious institutions should not be aloof from politics and issues, they should be careful about crossing the line into partisanship. Unlike the Miami dustup, this event falls into a gray area rather than an expression of open partisanship. But given the close identification of Reform Judaism with liberal stands on most of the political issues of the day, all Reform synagogues need to be doubly careful not to reinforce the movement’s proverbial image as a group whose definition of Judaism is the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in. That is not a fair characterization of Reform Judaism, but when synagogues blunder into partisan thickets, they can’t be surprised when they wind up in the middle of disputes in which they have no proper place.

Read Less

Paying for Religious Pluralism

A milestone of sorts was crossed yesterday when the Israeli government agreed to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis currently serving on local religious councils. Acting on the advice of the Supreme Court, the country’s attorney general ruled that a Reform rabbi who is serving on a council should be paid just as Orthodox rabbis who serve in the same capacity are currently financed by the state. The decision was the result of delicate negotiations and hair-splitting in which the state didn’t actually recognize the Reform rabbi in question — Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer — as a rabbi per se, but as a “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.” Nor will she or any other such official be given any authority over religious matters but just given the right to serve their specific communities. Nonetheless, the decision was still criticized by Orthodox politicians and organizations that begrudge the least whiff of state approval or funds for the Reform or Conservative rabbinate.

The decision, while welcome by Diaspora Jewry, will also serve to highlight the ongoing inequality between Jewish denominations in Israel wherein Orthodoxy is considered the official, subsidized authority on Judaism and Reform and Conservative Judaism are wrongly treated as illegitimate knock-offs. This is bitterly resented by the majority of American Jews who identify with non-Orthodox religious streams and is the cause of no small amount of tension with Israel. But the deal that produced this advance for their denominations also ought to make it clear to Americans that the problem is not so much Israeli prejudice against their beliefs but a system in which any rabbi is paid by the state.

Read More

A milestone of sorts was crossed yesterday when the Israeli government agreed to pay the wages of non-Orthodox rabbis currently serving on local religious councils. Acting on the advice of the Supreme Court, the country’s attorney general ruled that a Reform rabbi who is serving on a council should be paid just as Orthodox rabbis who serve in the same capacity are currently financed by the state. The decision was the result of delicate negotiations and hair-splitting in which the state didn’t actually recognize the Reform rabbi in question — Rabbi Miri Gold of Kibbutz Gezer — as a rabbi per se, but as a “rabbi of a non-Orthodox community.” Nor will she or any other such official be given any authority over religious matters but just given the right to serve their specific communities. Nonetheless, the decision was still criticized by Orthodox politicians and organizations that begrudge the least whiff of state approval or funds for the Reform or Conservative rabbinate.

The decision, while welcome by Diaspora Jewry, will also serve to highlight the ongoing inequality between Jewish denominations in Israel wherein Orthodoxy is considered the official, subsidized authority on Judaism and Reform and Conservative Judaism are wrongly treated as illegitimate knock-offs. This is bitterly resented by the majority of American Jews who identify with non-Orthodox religious streams and is the cause of no small amount of tension with Israel. But the deal that produced this advance for their denominations also ought to make it clear to Americans that the problem is not so much Israeli prejudice against their beliefs but a system in which any rabbi is paid by the state.

For all of the ongoing controversy about defining Jewish identity in Israel, the real source of friction there is not so much one of “who is a Jew” but who is a rabbi. And any country where rabbis are in effect employees of the state, as priests or imams are in other nations, is one in which the assignment of rabbinical status is inherently political. That means the debate about recognition of Reform and Conservative Judaism in Israel is not really one of competing doctrines as it is a scramble for government patronage.

Seen in that light, it is no mystery that the Orthodox political parties, who can count on the support of a large share of the Israeli electorate and whose influence is magnified by a system of proportional representation in the country’s parliament, have zealously defended their stranglehold on the state-financed religious bureaucracy. Nor is it imaginable, even with the best of wills on the part of Israel’s political leadership, that this monopoly will ever be broken up until the distant and perhaps unattainable day when Reform and Conservative Judaism commands the support of a sizeable electoral constituency of its own.

It is possible that a scheme of electoral reform that will make it harder for niche parties to win seats in the Knesset — something Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current grand coalition could pass if it wanted to — will diminish the influence of the Orthodox. But so long as the synagogue that even most secular and non-religious Israelis choose not to go to is Orthodox, there will be no groundswell there for equal rights for the rabbis of religious streams with little popular backing.

A far more urgent issue for most Israelis than the discrimination against Reform and Conservative rabbis is the oppressive nature of the taxpayer-financed official religious authority that is the bailiwick of ultra-Orthodox officials who have the ability to make an application for a marriage license the equivalent of a visit from the Spanish Inquisition. Like much of the structure of the Israeli bureaucracy, the whole idea of state-subsidized religion (and it should be specified that all faiths including Christianity and Islam are also given government support in Israel — the only reason non-Orthodox Jews are left out is because they refuse to register as being separate faiths that are distinct from traditional Orthodox Judaism) is the core of the problem. Until Israel fixes that, Diaspora Jews will continue to complain about the lack of religious pluralism and to largely misunderstand the source of the problem.

Read Less

Keep Politicians Out of the Sanctuary

A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

Read More

A Miami synagogue is the center of controversy this week for canceling an appearance by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chair of the Democratic National Committee. The president of Temple Israel there said the invitation for her to speak after Friday night services was cancelled due to “security concerns.” But, as the Miami Herald reports, it’s no secret the real reason is that a prominent member of the synagogue had resigned because he was told there would be no equal time on the program for a Republican.

Wasserman Schultz and the Democrats are representing this as an attempt to prevent her voice from being heard and an instance of Republicans injecting politics into the situation. But the truth is just the opposite. As the congresswoman says, constituents should be able to hear their representative, but the Reform synagogue is not in her district. Even if it was, inviting an intensely partisan figure such as the DNC chair to speak at a religious service during an election year is inappropriate. Sabbath services should not be turned into rallies for the Democratic Party or President Obama or occasions for trashing the GOP, because we all know all too well that is what happens every time DWS opens her mouth. The same principle would apply were it House Majority Leader Eric Cantor being imposed on the congregation.

Religious institutions with tax-exempt status are forbidden from conducting partisan activities, but this is a rule that is often observed in the breach in some communities, especially where one party predominates. The use of inner city African-American churches as platforms for Democratic politicians seeking to mobilize voters is a tradition that few question. The same is true in some evangelical churches for conservatives. That predominantly liberal American Jewish institutions would be tempted to play the same game is hardly surprising. But though Republicans are a minority in most Jewish communities, they still exist. In the case of Temple Israel, 85-year-old philanthropist Stanley Tate, the co-chair of the Romney campaign in Miami-Dade county is, or was, a member and asked to be able to respond to Wasserman Schultz’s remarks. When he was told that he couldn’t, he quite understandably resigned from the synagogue. Faced with the choice of losing a cherished and generous member, or an appearance by DWS, the temple discovered a “security problem” that forced their cancellation of the congresswoman’s visit.

Tate will be criticized for throwing his weight around and so will the temple leadership (the president is a prominent Democrat) for caving in to him. But Tate should never have been put in that position to begin with. Synagogues and churches should stay away from allowing their services to be commandeered by partisans, especially during a presidential election in which the considerable Jewish vote in Florida may be up for grabs.

The problem here though is not just poor judgment on the part of Temple Israel but the assumption on the part of many liberal Jews that there is no difference between their faith and their political party. Though the old joke persists that Reform Jews define Judaism as the Democratic Party platform with holidays thrown in, Republican and independent members of Reform synagogues are rightly under the impression that they are there to practice their faith, not cheer for the Democrats. While we don’t blame Wasserman Schultz for seeking any opportunity to address an audience, Temple Israel owes Tate an apology. Other religious institutions similarly tempted to play politics in this manner should take a lesson from their embarrassment and resolve to keep partisanship out of the sanctuary at least until November.

Read Less

Why the Truth Constitutes “Incitement”

As Noah noted, the New Israel Fund controversy is laying bare just how warped the “human rights” community’s definition of human rights is. But it has also showcased two particularly Israeli variants of this disease: that freedom of information constitutes “incitement,” and that freedom of speech requires financing speech you oppose. The NIF’s Israeli president, former Meretz MK Naomi Chazan, demonstrated both in response to the Im Tirtzu organization’s report that 92 percent of the anti-Israel information in the Goldstone Report came from Israeli groups funded by the NIF.

Neither Chazan nor her American parent organization has disputed Im Tirtzu’s findings: they do not deny that the NIF grantees supplied the material in question to a UN inquiry into last year’s war in Gaza, nor do they deny the Goldstone Commission’s use of it. On the contrary, Chazan said she was “ever so proud to be a symbol of Israeli democracy,” while the NIF’s American CEO, Daniel Sokatch, told the Forward that the grantees bolstered “Israel’s moral fiber and its values” by “tell[ing] the truth.”

If so, why was Chazan so upset over the revelation of the NIF’s contribution to this achievement that when the Knesset announced it wanted more information on the subject — a Knesset committee said it would establish a subcommittee to examine foreign funding of Israeli nonprofits, and one MK even advocated a parliamentary inquiry commission — she responded by accusing the Knesset of trying to “fan incitement”? Since when has the search for, and dissemination of, truthful information constituted incitement?

The answer relates to her other fallacy: “We really don’t support every single thing these organizations [the grantees] say, but we support their right to say it.” Actually, so would most Israelis — but they wouldn’t give money to help them say it. And that is a crucial distinction. Freedom of speech means letting people or groups say what they please without fear of prosecution. It does not require anyone to help them do so by giving them money. The minute you donate to a group, you are not just “supporting its right” to speak; you are supporting the content of its speech. After all, the NIF doesn’t fund Im Tirtzu; does that mean it doesn’t support Im Tirtzu’s right to speak?

The problem for the NIF is that many donors might not support this particular content. Indeed, the Forward reported that when the NIF sought statements of support from other major Jewish groups, only three had complied as of February 3: Americans for Peace Now, J Street, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Thus it is critical for the NIF and other groups with similar views to promote these twin canards: that freedom of information — i.e., shedding light on what they actually do — constitutes “incitement,” which is legally suppressible, and that freedom of speech requires funding even speech you oppose. For unless they can either suppress knowledge of just what speech they are enabling or convince donors that liberal values require funding such speech even if they oppose it, their own funding is liable to be endangered.

As Noah noted, the New Israel Fund controversy is laying bare just how warped the “human rights” community’s definition of human rights is. But it has also showcased two particularly Israeli variants of this disease: that freedom of information constitutes “incitement,” and that freedom of speech requires financing speech you oppose. The NIF’s Israeli president, former Meretz MK Naomi Chazan, demonstrated both in response to the Im Tirtzu organization’s report that 92 percent of the anti-Israel information in the Goldstone Report came from Israeli groups funded by the NIF.

Neither Chazan nor her American parent organization has disputed Im Tirtzu’s findings: they do not deny that the NIF grantees supplied the material in question to a UN inquiry into last year’s war in Gaza, nor do they deny the Goldstone Commission’s use of it. On the contrary, Chazan said she was “ever so proud to be a symbol of Israeli democracy,” while the NIF’s American CEO, Daniel Sokatch, told the Forward that the grantees bolstered “Israel’s moral fiber and its values” by “tell[ing] the truth.”

If so, why was Chazan so upset over the revelation of the NIF’s contribution to this achievement that when the Knesset announced it wanted more information on the subject — a Knesset committee said it would establish a subcommittee to examine foreign funding of Israeli nonprofits, and one MK even advocated a parliamentary inquiry commission — she responded by accusing the Knesset of trying to “fan incitement”? Since when has the search for, and dissemination of, truthful information constituted incitement?

The answer relates to her other fallacy: “We really don’t support every single thing these organizations [the grantees] say, but we support their right to say it.” Actually, so would most Israelis — but they wouldn’t give money to help them say it. And that is a crucial distinction. Freedom of speech means letting people or groups say what they please without fear of prosecution. It does not require anyone to help them do so by giving them money. The minute you donate to a group, you are not just “supporting its right” to speak; you are supporting the content of its speech. After all, the NIF doesn’t fund Im Tirtzu; does that mean it doesn’t support Im Tirtzu’s right to speak?

The problem for the NIF is that many donors might not support this particular content. Indeed, the Forward reported that when the NIF sought statements of support from other major Jewish groups, only three had complied as of February 3: Americans for Peace Now, J Street, and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Thus it is critical for the NIF and other groups with similar views to promote these twin canards: that freedom of information — i.e., shedding light on what they actually do — constitutes “incitement,” which is legally suppressible, and that freedom of speech requires funding even speech you oppose. For unless they can either suppress knowledge of just what speech they are enabling or convince donors that liberal values require funding such speech even if they oppose it, their own funding is liable to be endangered.

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.