Congregation in Flap Over Activist

By Daniel Treiman

Published May 09, 2003, issue of May 09, 2003.
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A New York synagogue known for its throngs of young congregants and liberal politics is scrambling to distance itself from an event it had been scheduled to host next month, honoring pro-Palestinian activist Adam Shapiro, following the appearance of a critical article in a right-leaning newspaper.

Congregation B’nai Jeshurun posted a statement on its Web site May 2 announcing that the June 4 event, sponsored by a left-wing activist group, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, would be relocated. The announcement came two days after a report on the upcoming event in The New York Sun, titled “Synagogue Honoring PLO Supporter.” B’nai Jeshurun’s statement said the newspaper article had “erroneously” said the synagogue was honoring Shapiro, a leader of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement, when in fact he was being honored by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, “an organization wholly independent of B’nai Jeshurun.”

“B.J. has nothing to do with the selection of their honorees…. Nor does their choice to honor Shapiro reflect the views of B.J.,” the executive director of the 4,000-member synagogue, Deborah Pinsky, told the Forward.

Shapiro’s group recruits volunteers from various countries to go to the West Bank and Gaza to engage in nonviolent confrontations with the Israeli military. The Brooklyn-born Shapiro gained international prominence when he gained entry to Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah compound in March 2002, while it was besieged by Israeli forces.

Shapiro’s critics have seized on an article he co-authored arguing that “Palestinian resistance must take on a variety of characteristics — both nonviolent and violent.” Shapiro said in a statement relayed to the Forward by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice that the International Solidarity Movement “condemns the use of violence against all civilian and non-combatants.”

According to a statement issued May 2 by the president of B’nai Jeshurun’s board of trustees, Ted Becker, the synagogue’s rabbis believe that the synagogue “cannot and will not support any person or organization that does not unequivocally reject the use of violence as a legitimate part of the Palestinian struggle.” The statement added that B’nai Jeshurun will no longer allow outside organizations to hold events there unless the congregation is an event co-sponsor, “to prevent situations like this from arising in the future.”

Pinsky said the synagogue’s lay and spiritual leaders and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice decided to relocate the event to make it “really clear” that the synagogue was not honoring Shapiro. She said she did not believe synagogue leaders had given much thought to the event — and its potentially controversial nature — prior to the Sun’s article. “I don’t think anybody put two and two together,” she said.

Shapiro and his family, who have received death threats as a result of Adam’s work, were to be honored with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s annual Marshall T. Meyer Risk-Taker Award, along with local advocacy groups for domestic workers and South Asian immigrants. The awards are named after B’nai Jeshurun’s late spiritual leader, who revitalized the congregation during his tenure from 1985 to 1993 and was a founder of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. The award ceremony has been held at the synagogue for the last several years.

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice’s executive director, Marla Brettschneider, stood by her organization’s decision to honor Shapiro and his family. The purpose, she said, was to “stand up to the crackdown on dissent in the Jewish community.” She said the event had been moved to a local church.

Shapiro told the Forward that he appreciates the award, and attributed criticism to “mischaracterizations” of his work and views. He objected to the Sun’s characterization of him as a “PLO supporter” and said he condemns suicide bombings, which he contrasted with “the right to take up arms legitimately to protect yourself.”

Pinsky acknowledged that the confusion over the event’s sponsorship may have been due partly to the fact that the invitations sent out by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice listed the synagogue’s two head rabbis, Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein, as hosts of the event. Pinsky said she could not comment on the inclusion of the rabbis’ names on the invitation, “because it wasn’t my name.”

Brettschneider said her organization had obtained the rabbis’ permission before including them on the invitation and informed the synagogue of the honorees. Matalon and Bronstein did not return calls seeking comment.

The International Solidarity Movement has been a fixture in recent news from the territories. In March, movement activist Rachel Corrie, 23, an American, died after being run over by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza, in what Israel has maintained was an accident. In April, Israeli army gunfire hit an American activist in the face in Jenin and a British volunteer in the head in Gaza, leaving him comatose. More recently, a movement member acknowledged that the two British Muslims identified as perpetrators of a Tel Aviv suicide bombing had tea in Gaza with International Solidarity Movement members several days before the attack, although he said that the movement had no other connection with them.

Two New York City Council members who were listed on the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice invitations as members of the host committee for the event told The New York Sun that they had disassociated themselves from the event.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan, a member of the synagogue’s board of trustees, said that she did not believe that the controversy surrounding the event had caused any serious strife among members of the synagogue. She said that it does not say “anything about how B.J. feels about Israel.”

“I don’t think many synagogues do more for Israel than B.J.,” she said.

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