It was after 11 p.m. yesterday that I first heard the news that my synagogue, the Great Neck Synagogue, had announced the cancellation of a speaking engagement by Pamela Geller, founder of Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), described as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I breathed a great sigh of relief. I quickly stopped writing the piece I was working on about how my heart was broken by the intransigence of the synagogue and its leadership in confronting a moral challenge.
Despite the cancellation, I am still filled with pain. When the synagogue announced its decision to cancel Geller’s talk, originally set for April 14, it cited “security concerns,” particularly for member families and their children. This indeed may be the reason that the executive board of the synagogue cancelled the event.
In my heart, I hope it was not the only reason. I hope the leadership was (at least unconsciously) influenced by the virtual flood of phone calls, emails, and private conversations in which Great Neck Synagogue members, as well as others, made the point that even though Geller has the right to speak, the synagogue does not have an obligation to offer her its pulpit.
I wish my synagogue had spoken of the moral question. I wish the leaders had stood up and said, “We didn’t initially realize what Geller represents. Now that we do know, we will stand proudly against hate speech.” I wish that they had noticed that Geller’s concerns about radical Islam often morph into a vilification of all Muslims and the Islamic faith. Her language encourages denigration and dehumanization, rather than constructive discussion and cooperation.
What is even more distressing to me is the reaction that the cancellation has engendered. The commentary on the blogosphere, including a statement posted on Geller’s website, now denigrates the synagogue and its leaders. The vitriol and hatred in these postings are frightening. Both sides in this conflict feel that they are right, that they own the moral high ground, and that an evil is being perpetrated. But a quick survey of these postings will find that the supporters of Geller have totally lost the capacity for civil discourse.
I had planned to use two quotes from Elie Wiesel in my original post about the Geller invitation. His most famous one is: “Indifference to evil is evil.” And then, just days ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a young friend posted this, also from Wiesel: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”
I feel that these quotes give me added strength to do what I think is right. And then I read scores of quotes online from supporters of Geller,also using the example of the Holocaust as a reason that she should be permitted to speak. Most used the phrase, “Never again.” Who knew that even the Holocaust can be used to justify such disparate viewpoints?
In one of his final acts as a lawmaker, Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) will reportedly file a proposed amendment to provide Federal Emergency Management Administration aid to houses of worship that were damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The American Jewish Committee, which has long opposed federal aid to religious institutions, consistent with the separation of church and state, supported the amendment in a written statement provided to the Forward.
The statement, signed by Richard T. Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs at the AJC Office of Government and International Affairs, and Marc Stern, AJC general counsel said that, “we believe that aid distributed under a neutral program of storm relief may constitutionally be made broadly available to a wide range of organizations where eligibility is determined on the basis of an objective and unusual factor — hurricane damage — and not under the standardless discretion of government officials, posing a risk of religious favoritism.”
Rabbi David Bauman of Temple Israel of Long Beach, which incurred an estimated $5 million worth of damages from the storm, said that if Lieberman proposes the amendment and it is approved, it would be “a wonderful thing.”
“That would allow not only my synagogue, but all faith institutions to get the help they need,” Bauman said. “They deserve it, they’re the backbone of this country.”
Calling on the federation system to join synagogues in a fight against religious discrimination in Israel, Reform leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs aimed to engage the broader Jewish community in the struggle for equality of non-Orthodox Jewish denominations in Israel.
Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, described Israel as “the only democracy that legally discriminates against the majority of Jews who are in the non-Orthodox streams.”
He also spoke out against Israel’s decision not to allow women full access to the Western Wall, its refusal to recognize marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis and the discrimination against religious institutions affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements.
“It is time to end this discrimination once and for all,” Jacobs declared.
While this call for arms is not new in the Reform discourse with Israel, his effort to enlist the federation system in the struggle does represent a new phase in the battle against the Orthodox denomination’s hold on Israel Jewish institutions.
You've successfully signed up!
Thank you for subscribing.
Please provide the following optional information to enable us to serve you better.
The Forward will not sell or share your personal information with any other party.
Thank you for signing up.Close