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!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • 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.