May 26, 2013
Why I Recommend Peter Beinart as a Synagogue and Jewish Community Speaker
A column appeared in the May 20, 2013 Jerusalem Post by Rabbi Eric Yoffie entitled “Synagogues, Red Lines and Free Speech” that he wrote in response to the recent decisions of two synagogues in New York and outside Toronto to cancel appearances by Pamela Geller, an inflammatory anti-Islam activist, who Rabbi Yoffie characterized as a “a bigot and purveyor of hate.”
He used the incidents to revisit the theme of free speech in synagogue settings, and drew helpful “red lines” for rabbis and synagogue leadership when considering who to invite to speak.
Rabbi Yoffie writes first of the consequences of shutting down legitimate debate:
“A synagogue that shuts down discussion whenever a wealthy donor is offended may appease the donor but will ultimately drive away its own members and lose its standing in the community...”
He says, however, that some speech is inappropriate in synagogues:
“Synagogues must have red lines. A synagogue bima is not an open forum; it is a platform used by a Jewish religious institution to promote Jewish values and strengthen the Jewish people and the Jewish state. There are people who should never be invited to speak there and things that should not be said there.”
And he drew clear “red lines”:
“Invite those with a firm commitment to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; who, when criticisms are offered, will offer them with love and respect; and who are sensitive to Israel’s security needs and oppose terrorism against Israelis and Jews—indeed, who oppose terrorism in all forms and at all times.”
Rabbi Yoffie noted that Peter Beinart has that “firm commitment” to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Truth to tell, Peter is among the most important speakers on Israel and the state of the American Jewish community that I have invited to my congregation in recent years.
Peter is the author of “Crisis of Zionism,” the senior political writer for The Daily Beast, editor of its blog "Open Zion," and Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York.
Yes, his views are controversial. Nevertheless, as a modern orthodox Jew, his writings on Jewish values, the American Jewish community, Zionism, the State of Israel, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict comport with surveys that show that most American Jews agree with most of the positions he articulates.
I invited Peter a year ago to debate David Suissa, the President of The Los Angeles Jewish Journal, because despite the wide gap in their positions I wanted my community to hear two intelligent people argue respectfully the great issues facing Israel and the Jewish people, and they did not disappoint. (See here.)
Given that Rabbi Yoffie mentioned Peter prominently this past week, I was curious to know what impact Peter’s writings have had and whether he had been invited to speak before congregations and communities despite the controversy his writings have stimulated.
I called Peter and learned that, indeed, he has spoken on a number of occasions to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogue communities including my own at Temple Israel of Hollywood in Los Angeles (Reform), as well as at Temple Israel of Boston (Reform), the Washington Hebrew Congregation in D.C. (Reform), Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan (Conservative), the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale (Orthodox), Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan (Orthodox), Manhattan Jewish Center (Orthodox), and to other Jewish organizations including the 92nd Street Y, the American Jewish Committee, the Union for Reform Judaism’s Board of Trustees, the Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco JCCs, the Jewish Funders Network, and the Israeli Presidents’ Conference.
I know that there are those who remain uneasy about Peter’s views while many others who are unfamiliar with them. Both groups would find interest not only in his book, but in three articles he penned in The Daily Beast.
The first explains why he does not support BDS against Israel proper.
The second explains why he believes Israel is not an apartheid state.
And the third is harshly critical of the American political left for ignoring Hamas’ abuse and brutality against Palestinians living in Gaza.
In short, I encourage my colleagues, congregations and Jewish organizations to invite Peter Beinart to their communities to address the great issues confronting American Jews and Israel. His thinking is often different from what we hear from others. His approach, however, is a welcome alternative especially given that so many American Jews feel alienated from Israeli politics and policies, and uncomfortable with positions taken by much of the organized American Jewish community.