Pete Seeger never stopped singing — or fighting for justice. Just last month, he turned up at the Beacon Hebrew Alliance to explain why it was important to join the town’s Martin Luther King Day celebrations.
If you move to Beacon, or even think about moving to Beacon, someone will tell you that this is where Pete Seeger lived.
When I moved to Beacon, a town of 15,000 on the banks of the Hudson River, I knew where Pete’s house was before I knew where the hardware store was. But before I knew him as a neighbor, I knew him as most people did, as as the icon, the figure that Bruce Springsteen called “a living archive of America’s music and conscience.”
It was shocking to realize that the icon Pete (who was known to everyone as Pete), was also the old man on line at the post office, on Main Street, at the riverfront.
Ellen Gersh, the cantor at Beacon Hebrew Alliance, grew up in Beacon and has known Pete for her entire life. She met him as a child because her grandfather was friends with Pete’s father-in-law and then later, she got to know him through music.
“When I was eight or 10 years old, we were on a class trip to the Clearwater (Revival) and he heard me sing and invited me to sing at the Sloop Club,” she said. “The meetings were on Friday nights and that was a conflict [with Shabbat], but my father said I could go to the first half and then needed to go to services.”
Rabbi David Ingber is the spiritual leader (and main draw) for Romemu, a fast-growing congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Its quest for spiritual meaning can hardly be disassociated from Ingber’s personal journey.
Born and raised in a Modern Orthodox family, Ingber, 44, was drawn to ultra-Orthodoxy while on a gap-year program in Israel in the late 1980s. He described the next five years as “flipping out.”
“I was completely God intoxicated,” he said.
But after years of study at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn, Ingber decided he’d had enough. “I felt that Orthodoxy with all of its beauty [had made me swallow] all of the bathwater, and it was making me sick,” he explained.
The next 10 years marked a period of soul-searching. After turning his back on Judaism, Ingber looked to Eastern spiritual practices as a way to fill the void. Working nights as a waiter at Carmine’s, a restaurant on the Upper West Side, he would fill his days with yoga and meditation.
True to his openness to other religions, Ingber described his struggle as “the prodigal son myth.”
“I was trying to find a way back to Judaism, but I wasn’t sure I had figured it out,” he said.
The tradition of English liberty which runs through the political culture is a deep one, traceable back to John Milton’s Areopagitica, published in 1644, through Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. The nub of it was best put by Mill when he wrote, “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
It is with this in mind that the recent decision by the British government to pre-emptively exclude Pamela Geller from travelling the United Kingdom should be considered. Geller, it must recalled as often as possible, is a spiteful and malicious person. Founder of Stop Islamisation of America and proprietor of the Atlas Shrugs blog, she has used her public platform to minimise the Bosnian genocide, label secular, democratic Kosovo a “militant Islamic state in the heart of Europe,” and perpetuate the myth that President Obama is the secret love child of Malcolm X.
And then there’s Islam, about which she has said so much it’s hard to filter. “There are no moderates. There are no extremists. Only Muslims,” she said. “Devout Muslims should be prohibited from military service. Would Patton have recruited Nazis into his army?” she enquired on another occasion.
Geller has expressed support for Geert Wilders and the thuggish English Defence League, with whom she shares concerns about the so-called Islamisation of Europe, even nefariously calling upon Jews to stand up with them in this struggle.
But even considering the foregoing, or especially considering it, withdrawing Geller’s right to speak and address a rally organised by the EDL in the London neighborhood of Woolwich violated English liberal tradition. It is precisely this sort of application of state power to silence another that Mill deemed ‘noxious’ in any circumstance, whether “exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in or opposition to it.” The state, rather, must protect against “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”
Geller’s case would be especially troubling because the government not only proscribed her based on what she had said but what she might say. If she were to repeat her slurs against Muslims of the type previously exhibited, she would be “committing unacceptable behaviours”, the Home Secretary deemed. This type of prior restraint goes against the grain of English liberty. Mill questioned rightly what authority has the right to decide what words are appropriate or inappropriate, what behaviour is acceptable or unacceptable. “They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging.”
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.