Pamela Geller's Intolerance Crosses Red Line on Bimah

Synagogues Shouldn't Apologize for Silencing Hatred

Hatemongers Not Welcome: Pamela Geller has spawned headlines by winning invitations — then cancellations — from synagogues. No one should apologize for refusing a platform to her brand of anti-Islam hatred, writes Eric Yoffie.
getty images
Hatemongers Not Welcome: Pamela Geller has spawned headlines by winning invitations — then cancellations — from synagogues. No one should apologize for refusing a platform to her brand of anti-Islam hatred, writes Eric Yoffie.

By Eric Yoffie

Published July 29, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The recent decisions by a synagogue in Great Neck and another outside of Toronto to cancel appearances by anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller — both were rescheduled at other venues — have made headlines in the Jewish press and raised interesting questions for the Jewish community.

There are important issues at stake here. They are not new, but they are not going away. So let’s think through, yet again, who it is that we want speaking at our synagogues — and Federations and JCCs.

My first observation: Diversity of views should be welcome. Debate should be promoted and controversy encouraged. 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. Synagogues are expected to challenge accepted thinking and to shake things up, at least a bit.

My second observation: 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.

With that in mind, it is important to note that refusing to host a speaker at a synagogue does not raise freedom of speech issues of any kind. Americans have an absolute right, guaranteed by the constitution, to express themselves openly and freely, from any street corner or soapbox. But they are not entitled to demand that a voluntary religious organization provide them with an audience; synagogues—and churches and mosques—have no obligation to host a speaker who expresses ideas that they find abhorrent and that contradict their most fundamental religious principles.

(A synagogue, in this respect, is very different from a university. Universities have red lines too, but they are far more expansive. Americans expect universities to be a place where the broadest possible spectrum of views is expressed, and—as we saw recently at Brooklyn College—it is almost always counterproductive for Jewish communal groups to oppose university speakers or one-time programs, no matter how offensive.)

Each synagogue, of course, must define its own red lines and decide how they will apply in any given case. This is never easy, and different synagogues will come to different conclusions.

When asked for my counsel, I suggest the following broad guidelines:

Remember that the task of the synagogue is to promote Jewish religious tradition and Jewish well-being. At the same time, as noted above, don’t be afraid of strong views and of those who dissent from what may appear to be the communal consensus.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.