September 26, 2002
The Silencing of the Left?
How the quest for a united front may quash the debate on Israel.
No one -- neither Rabbi Paula Reimers nor board members who voted not to renew her contract -- believes that she was let go just because of the Israeli flag incident. After all, the decision about the woman who had led Temple Emanu El in Burbank for seven years was surely more complex, more multifaceted. But no one will deny that the episode in the sukkah last year loomed large in the minds of many congregants.
Last fall, after Sept. 11, Reimers, who had never been shy with her congregants about her pacifist Middle East politics, invited some local Muslims to join congregants in the sukkah for dinner, to put a personal face to the Muslim community that filled the media.
At the same time, amid the flag-waving following Sept. 11, Rachel Robbins, the temple's president, had asked her husband, Gil, to hang large American and Israeli flags on the sukkah walls, much as her family had done in her childhood sukkahs.
When Reimers entered the sukkah a few hours before the event and saw the large Israeli flag pinned on the wall, she asked that it be taken down.
"I'm not opposed to the Israeli flag ... but in this context it was a direct slap in the face [to the Muslim guests]," Reimers said. "That flag in this context is saying to people, 'You are not welcome; we don't want you here.'"
Robbins resisted Reimers' orders, saying the Muslim guests would understand that they were coming to a Jewish place of worship, where Jewish symbols are displayed.
"I felt this was a matter of principle." Robbins said. "We are synagogue in America, and I don't see anything wrong with flying our flag in our synagogue."
Finally, a compromise was reached: they took the flags off the wall, and instead brought in the Israeli and American flag stands from the social hall and placed them in the corner of the sukkah.
Still, the damage was done. The incident, set in the broader context of Reimers' extremely dovish politics, was the subject of several meetings. In January, three of the four executive board members voted not to renew her contract.
"The philosophical breach had become too wide and we decided it was time to make a change," Robbins said, emphasizing that she was speaking as an individual, not on behalf of the congregation.
Just how much Reimer's Israel politics had to do with her termination is hard to quantify. But some in Los Angeles's broader Jewish peace camp point to it as an extreme example of a dangerous attitude that has taken hold and grown, along with the crisis in Israel: the community's unwillingness to entertain perspectives on Israel that are perceived to be too far to the left of the mainstream's position.
There is a reluctant acceptance in the mainstream Jewish community of the idea that for the sake of security and survival of Israel, some personal views and opinions should be limited, in order to present a united front in support of the Jewish state.
At the center of the argument for a unified voice lies the mainstream belief that Israel's very existence is at stake -- a premise much of the left, while as horrified as everyone else at the suicide bombings, believes to be unsound. Without this key element, the argument that wartime calls for different standards of freedom of expression doesn't hold much sway for those on the left.
"It's a painful moment in Jewish life, because there isn't a place for honest and open discourse," said Gerald Bubis, founding head of the Irwin Daniels School of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a longtime dove. "People can have very strong differences of opinion about where to go and how to resolve things, but that discourse does not have a place right now. Rather there is vituperative argumentation and excoriation."
Others say there is no hush campaign, intentional or not, but that the diminution in the left's ranks and the undercutting of many long-held beliefs have left it considerably weaker and ineffective in getting its voice heard.
"There are a lot fewer people who feel that the peace camp has a legitimate position, and I think that some people find it such an incomprehensible or so grossly naÃÂ¯ve point of view that it's hardly worth speaking that viewpoint," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, western regional director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). "It's still an open marketplace of ideas, and they have their right to their point of view, but how come they are not getting it across"?
To those on the left -- a multilayered group with a variety of opinions, approaches and values -- the answer of why that message isn't getting out is clear. They offer a host of occurrences and utterances, both blatant and subtle, that they say demonstrate that free speech in the Jewish community, at this time and place, has some serious limits.
At the top of everyone's local list is an event at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills last spring, at which hecklers tried to drown out a presentation by two Israeli army reserve officers who refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. But even worse than the hecklers, some say, was the pressure placed on Temple Emanuel, which hosted but did not sponsor the event, by influential synagogue members to distribute a disclaimer saying the temple believes the community should be exposed to all responsible views on the Mideast situation. The reservists' appearance at a Sacramento synagogue the following week was canceled, according to Women in Black, which sponsored the event.
The episode at Emanuel is one of a few places nationally where public events have turned ugly. At a pro-Israel rally in Seattle, two Jewish peace activists were arrested when they refused to move to a counter-rally across the street or take down their signs supporting Palestinian rights and the people -- but not the government -- of Israel.
At the pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C., last April, many community members were appalled by the booing of Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz when he mentioned Palestinian suffering.
In May, commentator Avi Davis, in an Internet article on StandWithUs.com, attacked Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA, for his views, impugning his loyalty and motives and bringing in Nazi-era references. Davis later apologized for his excesses.
At a Los Angeles rally at The Federation building in July 2001, members of Americans for Peace Now, a co-sponsor of the event, had to be escorted away by police after they were physically threatened.
There have been financial threats as well. Communal leaders, who are normally quite outspoken about their political views, refused to go on record for this article. They feared that donors would follow others who had already pulled funding from projects unrelated to Israel because of political views held by the organizations' leaders.
Outright threats are still rarer than more subtle, but perhaps more damaging, developments: the narrowing of the definition of who is included under the umbrella of Zionism, and a redrawing of the line where legitimate criticism ends and Israel bashing begins.
"The organized Jewish community has essentially identified itself hook, line and sinker with the Sharon government, and that organized community has formally or informally labeled us as being outside the pale, and they don't make much of a differentiation between the Zionist and the anti-Zionist opposition," said Arthur Stern, co-chair of the western region of Americans for Peace Now, vice chairman of the Jewish Community Relations Council and chair of the Israel and World Jewry Commission of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
That has placed many Zionists on the left defending their loyalty to Israel.
Rabbi Sanford Ragins of Leo Baeck Temple said that in his sermons, he "never felt a smidgen of pressure to say anything" other than his true thoughts, but he does make sure to show "total solidarity with Israel in this time of horrible suffering."
Rabbi John Rosove of Temple Israel in Hollywood echoed that idea. "As long as my listeners know how passionately in love with Israel I am, and how supportive I am of it, then they can hear whatever criticism I have of specific actions or policies."
But while about a dozen rabbis interviewed for this article said they felt free to be open with their congregants, many seemed to know some colleagues who did not feel as open. Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said that before the High Holidays, he had about 10 phone calls from rabbis concerned about how best to present what might be unpopular opinions.
That tension in synagogues exists among congregants as well. When Elaine Hoffman, co-chair of the western region of Americans for Peace Now and a member of its national board, told a friend that she would be switching to a synagogue that held more progressive views on Israel, the friend said she preferred "a pro-Israel synagogue."
"Just because you look at things differently doesn't mean you're not pro-Israel," Hoffman said.
But in the view of the peace camp, that is the message the mainstream community presents when all the speakers at communitywide rallies are supportive of Ariel Sharon's policies, or when far-right politicians are headliners at events meant for the entire community. Peace activists assert that organizations like StandWithUs, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations produce written materials that do not reflect the views of those on the left end of the spectrum.
The United Jewish Communities' recent decision to send philanthropic dollars over the Green Line cemented this perception for many on the left.
"There has been sort of 'our way or the highway' type mentality that the organized Jewish community has promulgated through its intensified PR efforts," said Doug Mirell, president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
However, Elliot Brandt, western states director of AIPAC, said his organization, as well as the Conference of Presidents, has done well at representing all points of view. "Unless we truly are a big tent we are dead in the water, because if we hitch our wagons to one side or the other and the government in Israel or the United States changes, our ability to connect to the process would shut down," he said.
AIPAC has tripled its new member enrollment since the beginning of the second intifada, Brandt said.
The AJC's Greenebaum said the mainstream hasn't bought into right-wing ideas, such as the Greater Land of Israel, but they have, for now, abandoned left-wing ideas like land for peace when peace partners are not to be found.
"I think that mainstream is wider than at any time in my memory," Greenebaum said. "I think the left tends to depict the great center as being more to the right than it is. People I talk to are just as much ohavei shalom [lovers of peace] as they've always been, they just don't know where to find shalom," Greenebaum said.
Greenebaum and Brandt, along with other communal leaders, hail the great unity the crisis in Israel has produced among American Jews. But many in the progressive camp say the unity that has so energized the community has also stifled the debate.
"A desire to have a coherent sense of mission has gone hand in hand with legitimate fears of an impending doomsday to produce a new conformism that I think, as a general matter, is understandable in historical and sociological terms, but is unfortunate," said David Myers, a history professor at UCLA and a peace activist.
Myers said some of the conformism in the Jewish community can be attributed to President Bush's rhetoric after the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Here in the United States, you are either 'with us or against us,' either 100 percent in the battle, or you are aiding and abetting the enemy," Myers said.
Ironically, in Israel, and to an increasing degree here, observers said, there is a growing acknowledgment among the mainstream that the eventual outcome of the conflict, whether in 10 months or in 10 years, will be a two-state solution -- the very thing the left has been fighting for for years. Even with that, the left is still trying to regain the footing it lost when the intifada erupted and shattered long-held values, hopes and strategies.
"People are terribly dispirited and disillusioned. A lot of us had to wake up to the fact that the right was right about Yasser Arafat," Sokatch said. "But when you are confronted with the train wreck of the peace process, will you throw your hands up and walk away, or fight until thousands more are dead and you're back in the same place, or will you roll up your sleeves and do the unglamorous work of doing what you can to lift the train back onto the tracks."
Others acknowledged that a holding pattern may be necessary until both Sharon and Arafat are out of the picture. David Pine, executive director of Americans for Peace Now western region, said that the left is not nearly as weakened as has been portrayed.
"We are stronger than people think we are," he contended. He said there has been evidence of broad support, such as more hits on the Web site.
Observers noted that peace demonstrations in Israel have been growing larger and more frequent, and recently in Los Angeles there has been more activity among the left, with more ads and events, and even new groups springing up.
"I think what we are seeing is the left having gotten over our shock over what happened with the breakout of the intifada, where we ended up seeing that a lot of horrible mistakes were made, but that our basic assumptions are still correct," said Luis Lanier, a West Los Angeles attorney who is national co-chair of Americans for Peace Now.
Some of those basic assumptions have been reshuffled on the priority list. While Peace Now has always espoused peace for security, that pragmatism has overtaken the other driving force: the human rights argument, the ethics and values arguments, which many on the left say have all been trampled during this intifada.
Nevertheless, stalwarts on the left -- like those on the right, the center and elsewhere -- believe that they have Torah and Jewish values supporting their views, and that their way is the only way to ensure a safe and secure Israeli future. And that is why this battle, perhaps more than any other in the Jewish community, is as impassioned as it is.
"I think the right flies off the handle, and I think the left flies off the handle," Greenebaum said. "And I think the large center is mostly giving forth with a very big sigh."
The Reform movement is organizing a nationwide teach-in on Sunday to debate the Israeli-Arab conflict, mobilize support for Israel and provide a forum for open discussion and debate about the difficult issues surrounding the peace process.
"In Search of Peace and Security: A National Teach-In on Israel," the event will launch a Reform campaign to strengthen ties between American and Israeli Reform Jews. The Sept. 29 date is meant to commemorate the second anniversary of the intifada. So far, nearly 300 congregations across North America have signed up to participate.
The synagogues in the Los Angeles area hosting the teach-in are:
Contact: Rabbi Paul Kipnes
Contact: Rabbi Laura Geller
Contact: Michael Lotker
Contact: Rabbi Jonathan Biatch
Contact: Rabbi Zachary Shapiro
Contact: Rabbi Jerry Brown
Contact: Rabbi David Lieb
Also on Sunday, Americans for Peace Now will sponsor a joint dialogue between Sari Nusseibeh, senior Palestinian representative in East Jerusalem and Al-Quds University president, and Israeli Knesset member Avshalom Vilan of the Meretz Party at the Beverly Hills Hilton at 7:30 p.m. The two will hold a joint discuss the Middle East peace process and regional politics For more information contact David Pine at (323) 934-3480.